After three weeks of distance learning, Monroe County Public Schools reopened Monday, welcoming thousands of students back to their classrooms.
In some areas of the Florida Keys, schools are now open five days a week for every child. In other sections, where COVID-19 infection rates are higher, students are on hybrid schedules.
“It’s really good to see the kids back in here," said Blake Fry, principal of Coral Shores High School in Tavernier. "You know they’re pretty good so far in terms of the social distancing and following procedures, so it’s a learning curve for all of us, but we’re really excited about having the kids back in the building,”
In normal times, more than 700 students attend Coral Shores High. These days, the hybrid schedule has cut the amount of kids on campus on any given day in half. That’s the only way they can create enough space for social distancing. Students alternate coming to school and staying home for remote learning, but every child gets at least some face-to-face instruction.
“When it’s in person, you get more help,” said Dominic Batista, a freshman.
The students were visibly giddy to be back on campus after so many months away.
“Well I play sports, too, so it’s my senior year, so it’s my last time playing high school sports so I’m really excited to get back to that,” said Riley Dobson, who plays on the girls basketball and volleyball teams.
“I think it’s better to be in the social environment and see my teachers face-to-face, see all my friends again, really be motivated,” said junior Stella Court. “It’s a relief to be back here, I love it.”
Some classes just don’t translate well to online learning. An example is the marine outboard mechanics course. During the year, the students will take apart and rebuild boat engines, which just can’t be done on Zoom.
“There is no comparison and if we’ve learned anything from this we know that there are some benefits to virtual instruction,” Fry said. “But there’s no replacement for an actual teacher in front of you.”
So what happens if someone on campus test positive for COVID-19?
“Each classroom is set up with seating so if we have an individual that does test positive, we’ll be able to contact trace in that classroom," Fry explained. "We theoretically could shut it down by classroom, by building."
Fry says everyone at his school and across the district is aware of the safety imperatives. Social distancing is rigorously enforced, surfaces and hands are constantly sanitized, masks are mandatory, lunch tables have been moved outside and seats separated, and anyone with any symptoms whatsoever is told to stay home and get tested.
“Like everybody else, we’ve been away from the classroom since last March, it’s a vital part of every single community but here in the Keys, it’s really important,” Fry said.
The school district is hoping to eventually bring all the kids back five days a week in every school as soon as it’s safe enough to do so.