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A Year After Irma, Keys Schools Still Feeling The Effects Of The Storm

Kevin Walden
Monroe County School District
Sugarloaf School in the Lower Keys, shown on the first day back after Hurricane Irma. Students missed 18 days of school there.

School had only been in session for a couple weeks last year when the Florida Keys went under a mandatory evacuation order — and then took the brunt of Hurricane Irma as a category 4 storm.

Some schools in the Keys were closed for almost a month after the storm. But the district still went from a B to an A in the state ratings over the course of the school year.

One year after hurricane Irma touched the islands, Monroe County superintendent Mark Porter talked with WLRN's Nancy Klingener about how the district is doing now.

WLRN: Do we have a teacher shortage now because the housing situation in the Keys is so difficult, especially after Irma?

PORTER: Every principal can tell you a story about individuals who they have recruited, interviewed, selected as a new teacher for Monroe County, only to have them back out of that offer or decline that offer and very openly stating that the lack of affordable housing was really their number one problem.

So what is the district doing to address that issue?

We’re kind of dipping a toe in the water, first of all, with potential employee housing effort.

Our property at Sugarloaf School, it happens to be a piece of property where we have perhaps more property than we actually need for the functioning of the school at its current capacity. So we’re trying to develop a relatively small employee housing proposal that we'll see if this is the kind of thing that employees are interested in.

Credit Monroe County School District
Monroe County School District
Monroe Superintendent Mark Porter

That’s always the other part about it. I don’t know that employees always want to live in the housing that’s provided by their employer.

We continue to emphasize programs where we can grow our own teachers. Because we know that bringing people here sometimes doesn't work as well as we might hope or think. As I always say to people, the reality of living in the Keys is very different from the dream.

What are the big lessons the school district learned from Irma and how will you prepare and respond differently next time?

Definitely, you can always get better. I think we did some things pretty well. I think the staggered start re-opening was really a good thing. We kind of had a finger on the pulse of our communities and we didn’t re-open our schools until they were ready.

Perhaps even more time for staff prior to re-engagement with students. I think we probably rushed some people back into the schools that really didn’t quite have their home circumstances as well resolved — but again that’s really a tough balance. How long are you going to keep kids out of school? We had communities like Marathon who were saying to us, "We want our kids back in school because that way we can attend to the other things that we need to do." It's kind of a delicate balance that way.

Probably one of the biggest lessons learned is just how difficult it is and challenging it is to use your schools as refuges. And again, these are different than shelters. Refuges are at the end – there's supposedly no supervisory personnel available – fortunately, our law enforcement agencies did have people on-site.

But also the clean-up after being used as a refuge is a real challenge. It’s something that we have to have a little better plan in place for saying, 'OK here’s who’s coming in and going to do it, and get it done as quickly as you possibly can.'

There was some confusion, apparently [over] who had the keys or who was going to be responsible for doing that. I think we have very clearly clarified that. It still is, though, a very difficult challenge as to who is going to be "assigned" to be there. Everybody’s very reluctant to say to anyone that you need to stay in a life-threatening situation, that everyone else is being told to leave.

"Don't exhaust yourself in a sprint, because it is definitely going to be a long haul" - Monroe Schools Superintendent Mark Porter's advice to his counterparts in the Carolinas

What would you tell somebody in your position in the Carolinas right now?

Only some of your people are going to be able to help you. It’s just a reality of life that certain people are going to just reach a threshold of what they can or can’t do. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people, it doesn’t mean you should get rid of them.

So you need to be ready for the fact that you’re going to operate with less than a full complement of your team.

And the other piece is: be ready for the long haul. Don’t exhaust yourself in a sprint because it is definitely going to be a long haul and you need to take care of yourself and others accordingly so everybody’s there for the long haul.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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