Under an order from the state, the Monroe County School District will offer all students the option of returning to face-to-face instruction five days a week starting this month, a schools spokeswoman said.
A start date was not announced.
In a letter Friday, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said a state emergency order requires that school districts continue to open school buildings at least five days a week for students who choose in-person instruction.
Corcoran said Monroe should do so by March 15.
“Time is of the essence,” Corcoran wrote.
Superintendent Theresa Axford asked for a March 29 start date.
After closing school buildings and starting remote learning in mid-March, Monroe schools fully reopened Sept. 14 to students in pre-K through grade 5 who wanted to return to the classroom. But students in grades 6 through 12 returned to school buildings on a part-time basis, attending virtual school on days they are not in the classroom in what the district calls an “A/B” schedule.
“Parents will still have the option of keeping their older students who are currently on an A/B schedule on that schedule if they wish to do so,” said schools spokeswoman Becky Herrin.
Unlike Monroe, public schools in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties don’t offer an alternating schedule. Students are either in school five days a week or learning remotely.
Monroe schools contest that they were not complying with the executive order because decisions were made in consultation with the local health department, Axford wrote in response to Corcoran. The executive order states that opening “bricks and mortar” schools to students five days a week is “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health, and subsequent executive orders.,” Axford cited.
“As a result, MCSD maintains one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 transmission among the Florida school districts,” Axford wrote.
In a statement, Axford said the school district is working out the details on “how to do this as safely and quickly as we can.”
“Distancing will definitely be the most difficult issue we will deal with,” she said. “Masks, hand washing, sanitizing, and all the other safety measures currently in place will, of course, remain as crucial parts of our safe return to school.”
In an internal email sent at Saturday afternoon, Axford told teachers the change was not her idea and it could be the result of a group of parents complaining to Corcoran.
“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,” she wrote to teachers. “They apparently have been calling the commissioner on a regular basis to complain. Please forgive me for having to share this news,” Axford wrote.
Monroe schools were using a part-time schedule, “A/B days,” based on the Keys health department’s recommendation that community spread of COVID-19 was too high to bring all students back to the classroom, according to Axford. As of March 4, 193 students and 39 total staff members — including 33 teachers — have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the school district’s dashboard.
“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,” Axford wrote in the email. “He has sent a clear directive that indicates there will be significant financial penalties if we do not comply with his order.”
Axford wrote, “We are literally being ordered to do this and have no recourse at this time.”
The district is putting together a survey to send to parents but it is not available yet. Parents will be able to complete the survey online or on paper.
“Superintendent Axford encourages parents to fill it out as quickly as possible once it is available so the district will know how many kids intend to remain on alternating days and how many will be in the classroom,” Herrin said.