The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Back to school

When to open in-person schools? You don’t want to make that decision

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Somewhere in the next 30 days, two Keys residents will collaborate to make covid-19’s toughest decision: Do our kids go back to school — in their buildings, five days a week — on Aug. 13?

That decision will almost certainly fall to Monroe County Superintendent of Schools Theresa Axford and Bob Eadie, the administrator of the Florida Health Department in Monroe County. At the end of June, Axford and the school district’s reopening task force submitted its draft plan to the school board, laying out steps the district would take at each of three levels of coronavirus transmission. It’s a substantive plan that meets or exceeds the CDC guidelines, does its best to address the mind-boggling “devil in the details” minutiae and keeps students, teachers, staff and parents top of mind.

“None of us can accurately predict what will happen with the covid-19 virus between now and the opening of school in August,” Axford wrote in her school district blog on July 1. “But we have to be ready to go anyway.”

Indeed, they do. Florida schools, which set their own schedules, decided pre-covid shutdown to open in August; state law only says they can’t open before Aug. 10. But last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made it clear he expected schools to be ready to open in August — and he meant full occupancy, not remote learning. His directions mirror those at the federal political level: Open schools. In person. No remote learning as the first step out the door.

And, a lot of us went nuts. Open schools? Are we out of our minds?

Easy for me to say. I don’t have school-age kids. I don’t have to juggle two jobs that don’t do work-at-home, a partner out of work, kids spending too much time with television and screens, bills piling up, no day care, no play dates. Is it any wonder parents want their kids back IN school — just as much as they are terrified that being IN school could make them sick and kill grandma? Is there any doubt that teachers who know the flat out impossibility of keeping seven-year-olds from sharing boogers wonder how in the name of all that’s holy they are going to teach in socially distanced classrooms when someone yells “she touched me” and starts crying? Or pulls off the mask saying “Dad won’t wear this thing. He told me I didn’t have to. You can’t make me.”

But despite the conflict headlines and the genuine impossibility of everything running smoothly, there is significant room for local interpretation in the CDC guidelines, which is why Axford and the health department eventually will be the ones to make the decision.

This is clear: School buildings must be ready to open in August. It does not mean students must go back to their assigned buildings. Districts must have a layered plan, which takes into consideration three levels of coronavirus infection throughout the community. If, on Aug. 13, Monroe County’s transmission rate is considered “minimal,” everyone goes back to the classroom. If “moderate,” we begin to see a combination of in-person and remote learning. At “substantial,” remote learning is the solution.

Therein lies the challenge for Axford and Eadie. Even with the best plans that dovetail with the CDC guidelines, the definitions for those three transmission levels are interpretive and our ability to flatten the curve transitory. The district’s draft plan specifically states it will “(c)oordinate with local health officials. This should be a first step in making decisions about responses to the presence of COVID-19 in the community. Health officials can help a school determine which set of strategies might be most appropriate for their specific community’s situation.”

The next few weeks of coronavirus data will determine which of three school opening scenarios Monroe County follows — and what will happen if that data shifts after Aug. 13. We all think we know best when it comes to our schools. After all, we attended school and we pay school taxes, so we’re experts at what schools ought be doing. Right? Not so much. I can have an opinion, but when the news release gets written, there’s likely to be two people quoted: Axford and Eadie. No matter which way they go, they’re going to catch hell. But not from me. I’m going to do my best to remember last spring.

God bless those teachers, administrators, bus drivers and school staff. All of them. Last spring, that’s what we were all saying, as schools closed down and our kids and grandkids came home. Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, did we get a taste of home schooling. We shuddered every time we thought about the nightmare of multiplying our kid times 20 and our respect for them grew. We called them heroes. Remember? No more so then than now.


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