On Monday, March 29, Monroe County’s roster of in-person, full-time students swelled by about 2,200 kids in middle and high school.

That’s not a perfect number. An institution, like a cruise ship, can’t turn on a dime.

“Those numbers will probably fluctuate some,” said Becky Herrin, the COVID-19 spokesperson for the Monroe County School District, of the numbers collected on the first day of the new regime by school principals. Some students, she said, might return in the next few days.

Currently, there are 8,749 students in the district. Since September 2020, elementary students have been in school five days a week. As of March 29, middle and high school students in the Keys have the option of returning to full-time, in-person instruction or staying on the A/B schedule. 

Stephanie Ganim’s son is back in school full time.   

“My son is thrilled,” said Ganim, mother of a junior at Coral Shores High School. “He thanked me yesterday for everything I did to get him back into school.”

Marathon’s Eric Myrmel said his granddaughter, a seventh grader at Marathon Middle School, is also pleased.

“She’s excited to be back in school,” Myrmel said. “Though she said her ‘new’ class of 18 students seems to be weirdly crowded; she’s used to having five or six kids in each class.”

Myrmel said the social aspect of school is important to both students and parents.

Ganim has been credited with the grassroots petition that snagged the attention of Richard Corcoran, the state commissioner of education. In early March, he ordered the Monroe County School District to reopen in favor of full-time, in-person instruction to every family who wanted it. Ganim said it wasn’t an easy position to take.

“I did what I thought was best for our kids and our parents in the community,” she said. “I’ve had positive and negative feedback. Some of the negative feedback included mean, abrasive texts.”

Some of the district’s elected school board members were confounded by the state order on how to reopen schools. Chairman John Dick, Sue Woltanski and Bobby Highsmith said the order went against the district’s own pandemic plan, especially as it concerns advice from the state Department of Health in Monroe County. 

“(The state) acts like we did something wrong, but in their executive order it states that school districts should be open for every student five days a week … with the approval of the local health department,” Dick said. “We still have concerns from the local health department. How are they alleviated now? But to act like we did something wrong is incorrect. I will challenge them at any time.”

Woltanski said the state wanted schools open, “subject to the advice of local health departments. Now the commissioner of education wants us to ignore our health department’s advice.”

Students in Monroe County can continue to opt for all-virtual school. Currently, about 370 students have done so, and that number hasn’t shifted. Some of the middle and high school students are still attending on an A/B schedule — 782 on A day and 787 on B day. That is down from a mid-February spot check that revealed 1,932 on A day and 1,874 on B day.

School officials had some idea what to expect on the day all students could re-enter the classroom. The district reported that it received 3,000 surveys asking families four simple questions: whether the child will return to school, stay on the A/B schedule or stay completely virtual, and whether the student needs transportation to school. 

The transition to welcoming potentially every student back to in-person instruction wasn’t too hard, according to Amber Acevedo, the district’s coordinator of community relations and professional development.

“These kids already know the flow; there’s just more of them in it,” she said. “The principals said everything went smoothly.”

On March 19, the CDC made new recommendations for social distancing in schools educating students in kindergarten through high school, reducing the guideline from 6 feet to 3 feet.

In the Keys, teachers and the COVID-19 task force reassessed the schools prior to reopening. Acevedo said some adjustments in classrooms were necessary to make room for students by devoting every available space to student seating and getting rid of, for example, unnecessary book cases.  

Also, Keys high schools reinstated a rule allowing juniors and seniors (with prior authorization and permission) to leave campus for lunch to reduce pressure on the cafeterias. At some schools, students can eat lunch in places other than the cafeteria, such as courtyards and the gymnasium. Cafeteria staff continue to prepare meals that are handed over as one piece, rather than students moving down a serving line.

Acevedo said the district’s biggest worry — school bus crowding — was not a problem.

“At the moment we don’t think we will need to add routes,” she said. “Right now, most are opting for private transportation, but after the first few days they might start riding the bus. We can address that if needed.”

In the Keys, teachers and staff are self-reporting their vaccination status to the district. According to the district, approximately 600 teachers and staff of about 800 have been vaccinated. On March 13, 220 school employees ages 50 and over in the Keys were vaccinated at sites in the Lower, Middle and Upper Keys.

Pepe Gonzalez is dad to two younger children enrolled at Sigsbee Charter School at the Navy Base in Key West, in second and sixth grades. They’ve been full-time, in-person students for months.

“I think the only difference is they don’t have recess, so they get out of school a little earlier,” Gonzalez said. “Considering where we live and what goes on in Duval Street, I think it was a no-brainer to put our kids back in school.”

Gonzalez is a fishing guide and he said there is no way he can “hide” from exposure and still continue to provide for his family.

“We all need the vaccine. We need to get back to normal,” Gonzalez said.

According to an expert writing for Atlantic magazine, the best way to prepare your student for return to school buildings: “Start off by discussing with your child what the change will mean for his day-to-day rhythms. Safety measures such as social distancing, mask wearing, and COVID-19 testing will have significantly altered how his/her classroom operates compared with the last time he/she was in school. Make sure he/she understands that increasing vaccinations and declining case rates in your state and much of the country have made returning to the classroom safe for students. But as part of this conversation, emphasize that these other measures are nevertheless still necessary.”

Sara Matthis
Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.