STATE EDUCATION CHIEF ORDERS KEYS TO FULLY OPEN SCHOOLS

By Sara Matthis, Jim McCarthy and Mandy Miles

The state’s top education official last week ordered Florida Keys schools to offer full-time, face-to-face instruction for all students by the end of the month, despite the school district’s and the health department’s continuing concerns about community spread of the COVID virus.

In his directive, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran indicated that the Monroe County School District will face “significant financial penalties if we do not comply with his order,” Superintendent Theresa Axford told the county’s teachers in an internal email on Saturday.

In her email, Axford apologizes to teachers.

“It is with a heavy heart that I write to you this afternoon,” Axford writes. “I received a letter from the Commissioner of Education on Friday (March 5) at 5:09 p.m., which requires us to offer five days of in-person instruction to all students who want it. 

“We have been aware of a group of parents who have been pursuing this five-day, in-person option, but we believed that we were working with them to resolve their concerns. They apparently have been calling the commissioner on a regular basis to complain.   

“We were using an A/B day based on our health department’s recommendation that our community spread of the virus was too high to bring all of our students in. Apparently the commissioner does not believe that the level of community spread of the virus is an acceptable reason to not offer five days of face to face instruction. He has sent a clear directive that indicates there will be significant financial penalties if we do not comply with his order.”

School board members respond

The mandate confounded Monroe County school board members Sue Woltanski, John Dick and Bobby Highsmith, 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,” board chair 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.”

The entire board said if all the students elect to come back to school for five days a week of instruction, it will be impossible to maintain social distance in the classroom or on buses. 

“I am pleased for those students and families that are in need of our schools five days a week. I also understand that this mandate is not necessarily what is best for everyone in the district,” board member Mindy Conn said. She also said the full reopening of school will help improve the “high number of absenteeism … and improve student grades and prepare for testing season.”

Board member Andy Griffiths, however, said the Keys’ rate of attendance is better than the state average. He called the state’s mandate, and a corresponding reduction in funding if the district doesn’t comply, a threat. “They can legally withhold funding. We could go it alone; we wouldn’t have to listen to them. But we are going to do what they say because they have what we want,” Griffiths said. At a March 9 school board meeting, Griffiths asked the board attorney to explore the possibility of the school district withdrawing from the Florida Education Finance Program, as the state’s school funding formula punishes Monroe County, whose high property values and corresponding property taxes fund the lion’s share of its schools, not state money.

“Our students have been suffering and failing at unprecedented levels,” said board member Bobby Highsmith. “Perhaps if we found a more effective way to implement the A/B schedule, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Teachers respond

The Keys Weekly spoke to two teachers in the Middle Keys, both of whom declined to be identified. A high school teacher said the implications of the state mandate for Keys schools change minute to minute. Mostly, though, the teacher said, it will affect middle school students. “They have the smaller classrooms and more parents are eager to send their middle school students back to school. I don’t think we will see as many high schoolers return to five days a week in the classroom.”

A middle school teacher said colleagues have legitimate concerns, especially due to the vaccination rollout. The teacher added that she is traveling to the mainland this week for her first shot. 

If Keys students return to fully open schools after spring break on March 29, that only means five or six remaining weeks of school for seniors, who typically end the school year first in mid-May. 

Coral Shores High School teacher Jennifer Webb recently received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the CVS in Homestead last weekend. 

“I am so excited that vaccines finally became available for all teachers. I will feel so much more comfortable being at school every day after I get my second shot and it takes full effect,” Webb said. 

Parents, students respond

Mandy Rodriguez has two kids in the school system. He’s delighted they are being invited back full time. 

“I wasn’t a super A student,” said the Dolphin Research Center leader. “For those like me, going to school every day is a challenge.” And while the kids are doing their work on the virtual days, many are cutting corners. “Are you going to spend eight hours on it, or are you going to do it as fast as possible?” 

The district is conducting a three-question survey right now. Parents are asked to input their school; 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. 

Although Rodriguez is able to bring his children to the Dolphin Research Center, not every parent can do that. “So, do the kids stay home alone? It’s a difficult thing to balance.”

Jordan Rodriguez is a senior at Marathon High School. He’s not enthused about a five-day schedule, but sees the advantage. 

“Honestly, I wouldn’t like going to school every day. But it will help me with my academics. Mostly likely I will go every day, but I am not looking forward to it,” he said. 

Upper Keys parent Stephanie Ganim, who’s also a teacher, started a petition a few weeks ago that urges officials to get students back to school five days a week. While she’s received messages of thanks in her support for getting students back to school full time, she said she’s also received some messages from those who didn’t approve of her efforts. 

“The amount of upsetting and negative posts and comments is nothing compared to those showing their support,” she said. “I’ve received at least 30 private messages or phone calls thanking me for having the courage to speak up about such a controversial subject, especially in a small town like ours.”

How many have been infected at schools?

Since August 2020, when the Monroe County School District started keeping track, 197 students have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, as well as 33 teachers and 39 staff members. School officials have said there has been a recent outbreak among bus drivers in the Middle and Upper Keys, further complicating matters, as officials have to revise the bus routes to enable every child to come to school five days a week. Since Feb. 25, 28 new infections have been reported among students, staff and teachers.

Axford added that even if staff members haven’t tested positive, they often have to quarantine if they are found to have been in close contact with someone who tests positive. 

Teachers and vaccines

Superintendent Axford told the Keys Weekly that as of Tuesday, March 9, she believed “between 80 and 100 school teachers in the Keys have been vaccinated,” but she added that the number increases exponentially each day as teachers pursue shots wherever they can get them. 

Florida is following federal guidelines by allowing vaccinations among teachers, day care and preschool workers of all ages. Several pharmacies are participating in the federal guidelines, including 67 CVS pharmacies in Miami-Dade. No CVS pharmacies in Monroe County are administering vaccines just yet. The nearest CVS pharmacy administering shots is in Homestead. (Learn more at https://www.cvs.com/immunizations/covid-19-vaccine).  

Publix officials said their stores are following guidelines laid forth by the president’s administration, meaning stores in Islamorada and at the Key Plaza Shopping Center in Key West are opening vaccination appointments to teachers and childcare workers. Booking opportunities for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine begin on Wednesdays at 7 a.m. for appointments on Saturdays and Sundays. Registrations for the Moderna vaccine can be made on Mondays and Fridays beginning at 7 a.m. (Register at https://www.publix.com/covid-vaccine/florida).Winn Dixie announced it would be following guidelines to vaccinate K-12 school employees and childcare workers. Stores on North Roosevelt Boulevard in Key West and at MM 92, bayside, in Tavernier are taking appointments. (Visit https://www.winndixie.com/pharmacy/covid-vaccine).

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