July 4, 2020

Uncertain times call for a nimble and flexible response, and that is what the Monroe County School District is planning for area students returning to classes this fall.

A survey of the community by the Monroe County School District in early June showed most parents want their children back in school, learning in the classroom, if not full-time, at least on a part-time basis. The survey also showed a majority of parents work outside the home, either full-time or part-time.

“We know our population has had a tough time this past spring with kids participating in virtual school,” incoming Schools Superintendent Theresa Axford said. “With the cost of living here in the Keys, most parents work at least one job. Managing work and having kids at home is definitely a challenge.”

Monroe County students are scheduled to return to classes on Thursday, Aug. 13.

Outgoing Schools Superintendent Mark Porter told U.S. 1 Radio this week that plan remains in place, although other options are available, if necessary.

“At this point, there is no conversation about a different start date other than potentially just slightly later,” Porter said. “Right now, Thursday, Aug. 13 is the scheduled start of the school year that’s our target. We are talking about a little bit [later] depending on what stage we are at and how our reopening will look. We may need some extra days of training and preparation for employees that might push it until Monday, Aug. 17, but people should be planning an opening of the school year on Thursday, Aug. 13.

“And we will absolutely communicate if there is any change to that,” Porter said.

Plans for the coming year will have to be flexible, Axford said. “We must take into consideration a number of factors, including guidance from the Florida Department of Health, local and state recommendations and regulations and the safety and health of students and staff,” Axford said. “With the addition of this survey, we now know that keeping kids in school as much as possible is a definite priority for our community.”

The school district has been in the process of planning for the next school year, working on its “Guide for Safely Reopening Schools.” Officials sought input from many different community partners so they could best serve students and families. This survey helped give those working on the plan a better idea of what parents and othcommunity members saw as their priorities going forward.

The survey was conducted in English, Spanish and Creole; it was available on the district website, was circulated through social media and it was given to school principals so they could reach out to the populations of their individual schools. The district received 3,276 responses in all; 2,800 in English, 395 Spanish and 81 Creole.

The survey addressed a number of topics, including technology, student and family demographics, how parents feel about their children returning to school, transportation preferences and needs, and overall concerns regarding the virus.

In the draft plan, Axford said a broad group with representatives from the school district, the local office of the Florida Health Department and members of the community came up with a plan to serve Keys students in three different scenarios: minimal exposure in the community, moderate exposure and substantial exposure.

“None of us can accurately predict what will happen with the COVID-19 virus between now and the opening of school in August,” she said. “But we have to be ready to go anyway. So, we convened a large group to look at how we will respond to each possible iteration. And by doing this as early as possible, we are able to communicate this to the rest of those affected so they can, in turn, make appropriate plans.” said Axford, who will become superintendent in July and has served as the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning for the past eight years. She joined the district in 1986 as a classroom teacher.

“I know how disruptive it is for families, particularly those with small children, when schools are closed for extensive time periods,” Axford said. “During times of substantial community exposure, however, closures may be necessary.”

Axford said her other main concern is making sure all kids, regardless of their individual circumstances, receive the best education possible to prepare them for their future.

“What we did was look at all of the ways we can safely keep as many kids in school for as many days as possible under all of the different phases of exposure. This is the best way we can serve the community and the kids,” Axford said. After that, the planning group looked at how the district can best provide a virtual education to all grade levels of students and still be able to deliver the same level of instruction that district families are accustomed to receiving.

Going into the school year, the level at which schools can reopen will be determined by both the school superintendent and the local health department office. The decision will take into consideration Centers for Disease Control guidelines as well as state and local regulations, laws and recommendations.

Regardless of the level of exposure in the community, the district will be doing a number of things to reinforce safety and health. And no matter what phase of exposure the community is in, virtual learning will be available to all families and students who need or want to remain at home due to health concerns.

Axford said schools will remain focused on doing what is best for students and their families. Each school will pay close attention to making sure all students have the necessary equipment to remain connected to their virtual classrooms. And staff will also focus on providing other mental and physical health and wellness assistance that may be required.

“This is new for all of us,” said Axford. “We will all have to be as flexible as possible while keeping in mind our main goals: keeping our kids safe, and providing them with the best education under difficult circumstances. With that in mind, we are also putting in place a communications plan so we can keep everyone informed. We need everyone concerned to stay informed for all of this to work and we will do our best to provide up to date information in as many formats and locations as possible.”

Porter said school buses are a big topic of conversation as they relate to maintaining social distancing.

Porter said school buses present unique challenges, whether it’s students sitting in close proximity to one another, or students passing by a bus driver while getting on and off the school bus. Options are in the discussion phase, such as more parents driving their children to school or the buses themselves making multiple trips in order to keep down the numbers in groups of students,

As the start of a new school year nears, information will be available on the school district website, http://www.keysschools.com and on all school social media pages.

There are social media links on the district website, on Facebook @mymcsd, on Twitter @keysschools and on Instagram at mymcsd. Also, a phone number will be set up before the start of the school year for updates and questions.

Staff writers Daniel Kelly and Timothy O’Hara contributed to this report.