Students who are returning to the Key Largo School campus in less than a week are going to notice some changes in the classroom, the hallways and the cafeteria.

They’re also in for a pleasant surprise when they enter newly-renovated Tornado territory.

A fresh paint scheme composed of various blue shades reinvigorates the Key Largo School gymnasium. At both ends of the court, the mats with the school logo and the words “Tornado” and “warning” give the facility a slick, professional look. 

The gym revamp started in early May after a project bid award to Burke Construction Group, out of Key West, was approved by the Monroe County School Board a month earlier for a total cost of $987,500. Installation of bleachers and sound panels are all that’s left before the project’s finished, principal Laura Lietaert said. 

“I think students are going to be overwhelmed,” she said. “With the work beginning in May, it was perfect because we didn’t have kids at the time, so construction crews could work on it without displacing us to renovate. We’re super excited at the way it came out and I know staff who’ve had the chance to see it are very excited.”

Renovating the gym has been many years in the making. The school board approved the project earlier this year. Holding out on the project allowed the school to add more components, Lietaert said. Depending on class and function, basketball hoops can be lower or raised, as well as folded up, electronically. 

The far side of the basketball court used to be 3 feet from the wall, which left teams and coaches sitting in front of spectators. With a court shift, players and coaches will now be stationed on the opposite side of the court from parents and fans.  

Extra volleyball courts were installed so the school can host volleyball tournaments when safe to do so. As for the sound system, Lietaert said it’s “amazing.”

Lietaert said she also likes the look of the new safety mats at the north and south ends of the court. Cheryl Conley, assistant principal, said Lietaert and she were able to provide input for their “Tornado warning” idea. 

“They gave us four designs to pick from, and the minute we saw this design, we said ‘that’s it,’” Conley said. 

Students are set to return to the classrooms on Monday, Sept. 14. Lietaert said the school sent a survey to parents to gauge how many kids are coming back. It appears a majority will be returning. Virtual orientations are underway between students and staff. 

The school started Aug. 19 with everybody working from screens at home, except some of the students whose parents were teaching classes from their rooms. And recently, the school started to bring more students back to campus. 

“Last week, we had about 130 kids here each day,” Lietaert said. “We’re very excited to have them here where they’re supervised by teachers or paraprofessionals. They’re still doing online learning that everyone at home is doing, but they get to be here and get some extra help.”

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Jim McCarthy believes in community reporting, giving back and life on the water. A workout fanatic, diver and a bogey-golfer, Jim loves chicken wings, Marvel movies and sports.