Superintendent Theresa Axford is a big believer in the importance of reading and writing to a child’s overall development and ability to succeed in life. The two skills are the building blocks needed to learn any other subject, and are woven into the fabric of our lives, whether we are working or enjoying leisure activities.

Expressing thoughts and feelings, or escaping isolation and boredom, have become even more important during the COVID pandemic. Reading and writing something other than school assignments can provide that release.

With that in mind, Axford created her “Superintendent’s Writing Challenge.” Each month, between January and the end of the school year, students throughout the Florida Keys in grades 3-12 are invited to express their feelings about a certain topic in writing. The winner receives a $50 cash prize and two runners-up receive $25 each.

January’s topic was:  “What can you do to prevent stress from COVID-19?” Kids wrote about how they’ve coped with the pandemic and the restrictions it has imposed on our society.

“We could all benefit from these words of wisdom. This is just a sampling of the students who took time to write about the ways they have found to alleviate stress,” said Axford. “Their thoughts are truly inspiring. We worry about how our kids are coping during this difficult time. These thoughts give me hope our kids are resilient and will be just fine.”

Here are the winner, runners-up and excerpts:

Winner: Neslo Atilla, 8th grade, Sigsbee School

Eighth grader Neslo Atilla of Sigsbee Charter School takes first place in the Superintendent’s Writing Challenge. CONTRIBUTED

There are a thousand hobbies that you can do from the comfort of your own home. Teach yourself to knit or crochet. Learn to bake. Start a book club. Take a yoga class. There is a reason everyone has been trying new things during the pandemic, and that is because learning something, even if you’re not immediately good at it, is an instant source of joy….And who knows: you might discover a hidden talent for baking, knitting or anything else you choose to try.

Runner-up: Jeremiah Ortiz, 6th grade, Plantation Key School

Sixth grader Jeremiah Ortiz of Plantation Key School is a runner-up in the writing challenge. CONTRIBUTED

There are many things to help prevent and relieve stress during Covid-19. You can take some time to work out and get some exercise, or grow a garden. … The best way to prevent stress is to go to your phone, computer, tablet and turn them off. … Social media only focuses on the negative things. … This will all be over soon. Remember to wear a mask and stay socially distant. We are all in this together!

Runner-up: Hanna Gilmartin, 5th Grade, Poinciana School

Poinciana fifth grader is a runner-up in the writing challenge. CONTRIBUTED

If the breaking news gets too overwhelming, take a break. You could do something as simple as walking your dog or reading a book. Being tranquil makes you feel relaxed and positive. … It is very important to keep your spirit up. If you don’t believe in light at the end of the tunnel, your thoughts will turn negative and find ways to go against you. … You can choose if you want to be positive or negative. It is entirely up to you. I would prefer to be positive because I have hope and positive belief in my future.

 Other notable submissions:

Jillian Schafstall, 7th Grade, Plantation Key School

“Covid-19 has caused many problems for people these days, but you just have to make the best of it. Do what you love.”

Alaric Rodriguez, 7th Grade, Plantation Key School

Excerpt from a limerick poem: “Spend quality time with those near and dear, in order to subdue the fear… in order to vanquish the stress, you could read, run, and give it a rest.”

Rachel Rusch (8th Grade) – Treasure Village Montessori

“One mentally hard thing was the fear from not knowing. One way I dealt with this mental questioning was learning something. I took up Spanish and the learning from that helped take my mind off the thought of the Pandemic and to something I could avidly pursue.”

Elizabeth Giordano (8th Grade) – Treasure Village Montessori

“During the pandemic, I started to discover how much I enjoy painting. It was a way for me to be inspired, imaginative, and in control in the midst of an unpredictable time…If we were all capable of making it through this past year, we can make it through pretty much anything!”

Julia Rusch (6th Grade) – Treasure Village Montessori

“The last thing that I’ve realized just now is that it helps to write it down. When you spill your heart out on paper, it just feels like a giant weight lifted off your shoulders.”

Zachary Antonelli, 8th grade  – Treasure Village Montessori

“I played some piano and felt inspired by some music I listened to. This inspiration developed into a new hobby. Soon enough, I had a new music production hobby. Now I love making music. What I am trying to get at is that we are all going through stressful times and that there are ways to cope with the enormous amount of stress. And it could be an opportunity to find something new you love doing.”

Annabella Cowan 6th Grade Sugarloaf School

“… it is important not to stress.  Stressing out does not do anyone good.  Just do the things that you like to do the best.  Exercise, video call with family and friends, do yoga, or even play with your pets.  Remember, this situation will not last forever. We will have brighter days ahead.”

Sutton Sayer, 3rd Grade, Stanley Switlik School

“Every morning at about 6:30 a.m. my mom, sister and I take my dog, Summer, for a walk. It takes my mind off of Covid-19 stress because not only do I get to spend time with my dog but I also get to see the beautiful sunrise. The purples, yellows, oranges and pinks in the sky make me excited to start the day. It’s a great way to start your day!”

Rebecca Merryman, 4th grade, Stanley Switlik School

“One way to prevent stress of Covid-19 is to enjoy the scenery. Go to a public park. Going to a park would help with relaxing because you don’t have to wear a mask and you’re enjoying the elements of nature. Another way to enjoy the scenery is to just sit on a bench outside and soak up the sun. Florida is a beautiful state, it’s nice to sit and enjoy it!”

Teresa Sewell, 9th Grade, Key West High School

“This is when I found my love for reading. During the pandemic I finished 7 chapter books….When I am reading a book, I am able to forget what is happening in the world at the time. I would be able to get this amazing breath of fresh air that many people couldn’t get.”

Ammar Bello-Assabati, 9th grade, Key West High School

“Another way that I personally have been dealing with the pandemis is by working on my creative writing. I let my mind wander into an imaginative world and I feel free. I could travel anywhere and do anything on a piece of paper.”

Angela Quiche-Ochoa, 7th Grade, Horace O’Bryant School

“I get bored REALLY easy so I found new hobbies…I learn to cook with special recipes, take photos of nature, play basketball often and make arts and crafts. I enjoy these things during my free time and feel like doing these activities make me happy and unique.”

Liam Fettis, 7th grade, Horace O’Bryant School

“The best way you can keep yourself from going insane in these trying times is to simply stay positive.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “this too, shall pass.”  The virus can’t and won’t last forever.”

Bailey Zepeda, 3rd grade, Key Largo School

“It is important to get a lot of sleep. Rest is important because you might notice it is harder to concentrate as easily without sleep. Doing fun activities and exercising is something you can do and you can look forward to things like family game night. I know I enjoy game night at my house. We play monopoly or trouble or trivial pursuit.”

Kiersten Tate, 4th grade, Sigsbee School

“If you’re stressed you can scream in a pillow. It will get your screams out…..Smile at someone who is passing by.”

Beyza Atilla, 4th grade, Sigsbee School

“Smile at people and they won’t be stressed and neither will you.”

Ashlyn Picco, 5th Grade, Sigsbee School

“Some things that have helped me are weekly board games with my family and zoom calls. And thinking about the future. Once we have all received the vaccine, that will be the greatest stress reliever of all!”

Valentina Williams, 5th grade, Sigsbee School

“Look around, the grass is cold, the birds chirp without a care in the world, the wind carries the leaves to a new adventure. When you look around, try to find the glow in everything and how the sun’s rays bounce off nature.”

Norah Bonskey, 7th Grade, Sigsbee School

“Boredom and stress pile up like neglected laundry and unfortunately the washing machine is locked inside a bank vault. Cleaning up the stress is easier when you have the keys to the vault: entertainment, socialization and exercise.”

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