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Florida Keys schools welcome students back. Here’s how they’re keeping them safe.

KEY LARGO, Fla. – In addition to a cheerful greeting from Key Largo School principal Laura Lietaert, the school day now starts with a splash of hand sanitizer, a reminder about standing six feet apart, and face masks that don’t conceal the smiling eyes of students as they return to onsite instruction for the first time since March.

After starting the school year virtually, Monroe County welcomed back kindergarten through fifth-grade students full-time Monday. Grades 6-12 are in a hybrid model.

It’s also a window into what reopened schools could look like in Miami-Dade and Broward as those districts consider their next steps.

With signage, sanitization and smaller classrooms with separated desks, Lietaert says those Keys students will spend all day with their classmates in what they call a cohort.

“When the kids come for recess, we have four or five classes per grade level, and they spread out — one [class] per area,” she said. “So the kids are not mixed. They stay in a cohort all day long, with the same group of kids and the same teacher.”

They will have art and music classes, but those instructors will come to the classroom. Lunch will be “grab and go” and eaten in that same classroom.

A deep cleaning of the schools will be done each night.

Key Largo second-grade teacher Shelby Price says that virtual instruction “has been really tough” so she’s encouraged by the return to school.

“Prior to what we’re doing now, I probably would have been really nervous,” she said. “But knowing what my administration is doing, what our district is doing, I feel safe coming back.”

Considering Monroe County’s economy is underpinned by the tourism, Lietaert said many of the parents are essential workers in the travel and hospitality industry and don’t have the ability to stay home with their young kids to supervise distance learning.

A district spokesperson said having K-5 back full time was important because it’s more difficult for them to navigate computers and they really need in-person instruction. The older students have an easier time navigating the computer platforms, plus parents feel more comfortable leaving them at home alone.

Those students in grades 6-12 are in an “A/B” schedule, returning to the classroom part-time and attending school online on other days. That will keep the school population down to help with social distancing.

Lietaert said parents get two weeks to decide if want to keep their students at school full time or want to stay virtual. They have to decide by Sept. 29 and stick with that commitment until January.

For a full outline of all the safety protocols, click here.


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