On July 28, Marathon High School’s billboard was flashing a message that read “Back to school face mask required.” Later that day, the school board decided to start the school year with virtual instruction at least until Sept. 11. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

By Sara Matthis and Mandy Miles

Monroe County students will not return to physical classrooms for at least the first four weeks of school, and the start of the school year may be delayed by a week or so, perhaps until Aug. 17. An announcement of the official start date will be made this week, officials said during Tuesday’s virtual School Board meeting. A decision about fall athletics will be made the first week of August, retiring Superintendent Mark Porter said Tuesday evening.

“We will initiate virtual instruction for the first four weeks through Sept. 11,” incoming Superintendent Terri Axford announced during the meeting. Officials will re-evaluate the community’s COVID situation the week of Sept. 7-11, Axford said, adding that “virtual instruction will be much more rigorous this fall,” and will include more interactive platforms, which was somewhat missing this spring, she said.

Axford said she spoke with all principals on Tuesday and found that each school “has fewer than five teachers who are uncomfortable returning to a school building to teach virtually from the building.”

“Those teachers are working with our human resources department,” Axford said. “We may have small groups of students scheduled by appointment to meet with teachers for academic assistance, but it will all be done by appointment and in very small groups.”

Further details about virtual teaching from school buildings and small-group instruction by appointment will be finalized this week during discussions with the teachers union, Axford said.

Prior to the announcement, the board heard from more than a dozen parents and teachers who implored officials not to return to physical classrooms for the start of school and thereby potentially endanger students, teachers and staff during the unprecedented pandemic.

“Too many adults are not following or taking health guidelines seriously, but we expect all students to all of a sudden follow all these new expectations?” Key Largo School teacher Nicole Blanche told the School Board before the announcement was made. “Some teachers, like me, are considering leave and resigning as their options.”

An Upper Keys pediatrician also warned against bringing students back to physical classrooms, and criticized the Secretary of Education for misstating the threat to children. The doctor told the board that Florida has seen a 34% increase in new cases among children in the past eight days.

School Board member John Dick thanked everyone for their comments, but said he found it “troubling that people would think this board and this school district would consider sending students back to physical schools given the community’s current COVID situation. 

“It’s unfortunate that some people are making this political,” Dick said.

Prior to Tuesday’s board meeting, the Monroe County School District had devised a three-pronged plan for starting the 2020-21 school year. The first scenario envisioned face-to-face instruction in brick-and-mortar classrooms and the second involved a split schedule that split the student body and had students attending only half the day. Due to the amount of COVID-19 community spread, the district elected to adopt the third scenario — virtual schooling administered by local teachers.

(Keys students do have two other options, however. They may withdraw from the Monroe County School District and attend Florida Virtual School, which functions as its own school district. Or they can enroll in the Monroe County Virtual School, which last year had about 300 students enrolled either full or part time. Monroe County Virtual School is mainly taught by teachers dedicated to Key students, however some may live out-of-county, and students may continue to participate in sports and clubs in the district.

Keys parents consider options

Meghan Richardson’s sons, Owen and Jonathan Pitchford, are seniors at Marathon High School. Richardson said she’s unsure whether or not to enroll the kids in Monroe Virtual School or keep them in MHS’ version of online schooling.

“If they go into Monroe Virtual School, I don’t think they will graduate with the rest of the class from Marathon High School. The boys are fine at online schooling, but they will be missing all the pomp and circumstance of their senior year. They’re almost 18, though, so they will be making their own decisions.”

Mac Childress is the head football coach at MHS and a teacher. He and his wife are concerned by a number of issues, among them the health of their elementary-age daughter who was hospitalized with a serious illness a few years ago. 

“I don’t know. Will we have to homeschool her? My wife works, too. Maybe she will go to grandma some days,” Childress said. “All I know is that we have to be sensitive to each other’s needs; it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach.”

He also added that he hopes the school is able to have “some kind of” a football season. “I’m trying to keep a positive outlook. Any season is better than no season,” he said. “We need to get kids off their playstations and out of the house for their own mental health, even if they’re not playing football.”

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