Earlier this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the next section of the population prioritized for vaccines are teachers and law enforcement officers age 50 or older. 

According to DeSantis, teachers can be vaccinated at four FEMA-run locations around the state — Orlando, Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami — that will open soon. 

“I think we’re going to have the ability to do that between these federally supported sites and some of the new vaccine that may be coming online, very, very soon,” DeSantis said during a news conference. 

That’s good news, but it doesn’t mean the Monroe County School District intends to open schools fully by the end of the year. In fact, Keys schools will be offering a “fifth” quarter over the summer to help struggling students. 

“We must continue to follow CDC guidelines and put safety first,” said Superintendent Terri Axford. “We have been extremely careful in the Monroe County School District. All you have to do is look at our COVID-19 dashboard to see that. It’s an amazing tribute to our administration and teachers and all of our staff who have been vigilant in following the rules and adhering to them without fail.”

Across the country, COVID cases have fallen 44% over the past two weeks. Last week, the Keys Weekly reported that since Jan. 3, cases have fallen by 55% in Florida. The same holds true for Florida schools (one of only four states where schools have been ordered to reopen). According to data from the state Department of Health, and reported by floridaphoenix.com, cases in schools have been dropping consistently across the entire state in recent weeks. 

The Monroe County School District has been keeping a COVID-19 tally since Aug. 31, 2020. Since then, 172 students have been marked positive for the coronavirus, plus 29 teachers and 32 staff members. Since Feb. 8, MCSD reports 12 new student cases in the district. 

The Keys Weekly Newspaper posed a series of questions to Axford about coronavirus in the schools.

Superintendent Terri Axford

Question: Are there plans to return to full-time, in-person schooling before the end of the school year? 

Answer: We are reviewing the new CDC guidelines with the Health Department as we work toward bringing more students back to a full five days a week schedule. 

As you know all of our students are back on the A/B day in grades 6-12 except those who chose to stay completely virtual. All Pre-K – 5 students are attending full-time. In many buildings additional students have been attending five days a week based on need. Those needs have been analyzed by each individual school and usually stem from students needing additional support due to poor performance with grades or other issues such as inability to use technology successfully. 

One of the clear guidelines set by the CDC mandates that the number of cases per 100,000 in population must be between 20 and 49 new cases within two weeks to bring everyone back in the yellow (moderate transmission zone). Monroe County is well over 100. … We are, obviously, monitoring this closely. (Editor’s note: In the past 14 days, there have been 197 new cases for the Keys population of 76,325.)

We are examining all possibilities to bring additional students back by the end of the year. For instance, some high school classes may have available space in them because students are participating in other options for classes, such as dual enrollment. We are going to look for every space and fill those spaces when possible. 

It’s important to note even with the new guidance, the CDC still requires social distancing, mask wearing and the avoidance of crowds. We’ve been doing all of these things all along which is what has enabled us to be successful with our efforts to date.

Q: How many Keys students are in danger of failing their current grade? 

A: We don’t have that number yet, as we are still within the third nine weeks of school and students have the rest of this nine weeks and the last nine weeks to be evaluated. 

Q: How does that compare with prior, non-pandemic years? And what is the district’s plan to deal with it? 

A: We are planning an extensive summer program to support our students. We will have two four-week sessions for summer. Each of these four-week sessions will be designed to support students who have academic needs and as an enrichment program allowing students who want to add classes and activities to their schedules during the summer. 

We anticipate a lot of participation. It will be like an additional fifth quarter (we usually have four) to provide remediation and enrichment. 

One session will run from June 7-July 2 and the second four-week session will run from July 6-July 30.

Q: What are our attendance and absenteeism numbers like? We’ve been hearing nationally about significant absenteeism rates and about kids who are just absent or “missing” from online classes. Is that happening here as well, and what’s being done to prevent or manage it?

A: Our average daily attendance rate for 2019-20 was 94.52%; for 2020-21 it is 93.5%.

Q: Finally, how are things looking for in-person events, such as prom and graduation in the coming months?

A: We are planning all of our year-end events to be held in person with social distancing guidelines, mask wearing and handwashing in place.

Masked students leave Sugarloaf School on Feb. 23. LANCE HILL/Keys Weekly

Amber Archer Acevedo, former principal of Key West High School, will now serve the MCSD in the new role of coordinator of professional development and community relations, effective immediately. She will be responsible for the development and communication of information to keep the staff, public and media informed of programs, events, accomplishments and services of the MCSD. In addition, Acevedo will supervise professional growth in the district with an emphasis on non-instructional staff.

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