Back to school: Marco’s school year begins amid resurgent COVID

Lance Shearer

Things are a little different on Marco Island schools this school year.

Students flooded into classrooms for the first day of the 2021-22 year on Tuesday, with eager faces, box lunches, and a world of learning to explore. They also had transparent backpacks, the better to spot any weaponry or contraband they might be carrying. And in many of those backpacks, as well as over some but not by any means all those eager faces, they had masks to prevent against the resurgent coronavirus currently sweeping through Florida.

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Unlike in pre-COVID years, parents dropping their kids off at Tommie Barfield Elementary, even for kindergarten and their first experience of “big kids” school, were not allowed to accompany their children to their classrooms and had to say goodbye outside the front entrance. In the past, the school had a designated room for those who were tearful about the handoff – and it was for parents, not students.

But twin brothers DeClan and Finn Williams, both 5, were all smiles as they headed in to the first day of their formal education. Mom and dad smiled too, as they snapped camera-phone photos of the kids with school resource officer MIPD Officer George Guyer. Finn and Officer Guyer wore facemasks; Declan did not.

The two brothers were among “approximately” 467 students enrolled at TBE, said Elissa Ledbetter, also in her first school day as the new principal at Tommie Barfield. She didn’t want to say much more to a reporter without having it cleared by the school district’s communications office.

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Teachers including longtime Collier County musician and music teacher Craig Greusel met families in the car line, and helped direct the students inside, while crossing guards worked the intersections around the school to deal with the first-day traffic jam.

The 467 TBE students joined with about 375 at Marco Island Charter Middle School, and “just under 300” at Marco Island Academy, the island’s charter high school, for a total of 1,142 or so El-Hi kids being educated on the island. Naturally, it will likely take a few days to sort out exactly how many children are attending each school. Collier schools have yet to finalize numbers, but the district expects 47,000 students across its schools, including charter schools. 

While TBE is a regular school in the Collier County Public Schools, MICMS and MIA are charter schools, so they draw students from all over the county, although the majority tend to come from Marco Island or close by. All three Marco Island schools are ranked as “A” schools once again, a tribute to the work of the educators and the motivation of the students. Students attending middle or high school who do not find a slot in the charter schools or opt for the traditional public school are zoned for Manatee Middle School and Lely High School, respectively.

At MICMS, another “sign of the times” is the banks of lockers which are going unused, and students carrying all their gear in those transparent backpacks. Principal Michele Wheeler said that in the absence of a mask mandate, her school is “following the CCPS (Collier County Public Schools) protocols – “proper hygiene, hand washing, cover your sneeze. Any student feeling ill should stay home.” And they have to be fever-free – “without meds” – for 24 hours before returning.

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Students and teachers got right into the flow. Language arts teacher Christine Lang walked her sixth-grade class through the rotating class schedule, and Spanish teacher Laura Yanich led her first-period Spanish 1 class in a spirited “alphabet warmup,” which has a few extra letters en Español.

Only students living over two miles from school are provided bus service, so on Marco the majority are walkers or car riders. Tommie Barfield has only four school buses, and MICMS just two. The key thing to remember for those of us who drive on Marco Island is that there are hundreds of children walking the streets in the morning and afternoon.

Marco Island Academy has not just a new school year, but a brand-new school, but that’s another story.