Marco Island Academy: School year unlike any other begins

Lance Shearer

Amid questions and controversy, with coronavirus infection rates in Florida among the highest in the country, area students are returning to the classroom. Marco Island Academy, the island’s charter high school, became the first area school to reopen, with students reporting to class on Wednesday, Aug. 12.

That was the original date for all Collier County public schools to resume classes, but the non-charter public schools and also Marco Island Charter Middle School, pushed the date back to Aug. 31. Public schools are opening with a hybrid model, with parents and students having the choice of showing up in the physical classroom or taking virtual classes online.

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At Marco Island Academy, or MIA, all classes are being conducted in person, in the school’s modular classrooms. On Tuesday, Principal Melissa Scott and Dean of Students Kevin Ray showed a visitor the steps they have taken to keep students and staff safe.

The first thing you notice is the face shields. Face masks are not required, but each student must wear a transparent plastic face shield, which the school supplies. Some wear a paper or cloth mask in addition.

“We’re trying to give kids the opportunity to feel normal, the best they can under these circumstances,” said Scott. “You can look past the PPE (personal protective equipment), and they’re just kids.”

Being just kids, the students tend to congregate and talk in groups when they can, for instance when they are dismissed from school at the end of the day. Ray released the students in three groups, starting with bus riders, continuing with student drivers, and finally those being picked up by car.

Ray made the point that masks are effective only if worn appropriately, and uncomfortable to wear for hours at a time. “Can you imagine 30 kids in masks all day?” he said. “The guidelines say, if you have difficulties, remove your mask. We chose the shields.”

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With their central pavilion, and various shaded areas, MIA is working to maximize opportunities for learning to take place outdoors, but that is only viable as long as the participants can deal with the heat of a south Florida summer. They have installed 30 touchless hand sanitizing stations and partnered with a company that performs periodic chemical fogging of the classrooms.

The school has instituted traffic lanes for those walking in the hallways, and designated entry and exit doors to the classrooms which have two access doors. Each classroom has a HEPA-rated purification filter with UV lighting to kill microbes, which Ray said are oversized for the size of the classrooms.

When students arrive in the morning, each is given a temperature check via a touchless thermometer and sent to a designated area to avoid overcrowding. The last two minutes of each class period, students are provided with wipes and encouraged to sanitize their seat and desk area. But those desks are far from the recommended six feet, which is typical of most schools with crowded classrooms.

Visitors have been strictly limited, with even parents picking up a child for, say, a dental appointment being signed out without the parent entering the school, and no outsiders allowed in classrooms or administrative offices.

Several teachers gave upbeat assessments of the situation, and the potential for learning taking place under the new normal – or what Scott called “normal, with some new.”

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Veteran teacher Lori Howard came to MIA from Estero High School, specifically because she preferred the coronavirus preventative measures MIA was using.

“I didn’t want to go back there – I was nervous,” said Howard, whose husband also teaches at MIA. “I’m safe here. I have the HEPA filter and my own A/C system.”

Eighth year social studies teacher Lori Galliana said she had concerns at first.

“Until we had our first face to face, I wasn’t sure. Then after that, I felt much more comfortable. I think it’s going very smooth.”

Teachers elsewhere in the county have been more concerned about returning to physical classroom instruction, and more vocal about it. On July 27 and 28, hundreds of teachers participated in a “car parade” protest, circling the Collier District Schools administrative center in autos festooned with signs urging the district to adopt a virtual-only model until the pandemic is brought more under control.

Approximately 40 percent of Collier public schools will be attending school virtually when school reopens for them, versus about 60 percent physically in the classroom. In school districts elsewhere, notably Georgia, also a state with rampant COVID-19 infections, schools have opened and quickly compelled to shut down again.

There are 234 students enrolled at MIA, a full complement, said Scott, and as the students went about their classes on Tuesday, workers at the construction site next door prepared to add the third story to the new permanent school taking shape. If all goes according to plan, said Scott – who studiously avoided using the “h” word – this will be the last school year for the modular classrooms.