Some Florida Keys schools to open Monday. For others hit by Irma, it could be much longer

Schools in the Florida Keys will begin reopening Monday, just over two weeks after Hurricane Irma devastated the island chain.

Five traditional public and charter schools in the Upper Keys will be the first to reopen on Sept. 25, followed by nine schools in Key West and Marathon on Wednesday, Sept. 27., the Monroe County school district said in a statement. Schools in the areas most impacted by the storm — Big Pine Academy on Big Pine Key and Sugarloaf School on Sugarloaf Key — will remain closed until Monday, Oct. 2.

“Reopening schools is a significant step toward returning to a sense of normalcy for all of our communities,” said Superintendent Mark Porter. “These expectations will be implemented with compassion and flexibility for students and employees.”

Porter announced on Saturday that he was aiming to reopen all 16 Keys schools on Sept. 25, but changed his mind after talking to school officials and Keys residents, the district said in a statement. The decision to stagger the opening dates was based on school assessments, “the continued improvement of necessary infrastructure and the readiness of various communities to support school reopening,” the district said. Monroe County Schools noted that the opening dates could change as the Keys continue to rebuild.

Rebekah Susa, an English and journalism teacher at Coral Shores High School in Tavernier, said she thinks it’s still too soon to reopen.

“I totally understand that the superintendent wants the kids to get back to a regular routine and some sense of normalcy,” she said. “My personal opinion is that it’s too early because even the kids are helping their parents with the yard clean-up. Some of the houses suffered a lot of damage.”

Coral Shores High is among the schools reopening on Monday, which means that Susa will have to report to work on Thursday. Although her house was mostly spared during the hurricane, she’s still trying to clear fallen trees out of her yard.

“I’m totally not going to be ready to go back this Thursday,” she said. “My mind is not in it.”

Four teachers at Coral Shores High have been unable to move back into their homes, Susa said. Porter asked school staff to let the district know if they have a place for the displaced teachers to stay, so Susa offered up two spare bedrooms in her home.

Some of her students are in a similar predicament. Susa was able to check on students after the storm through a school messaging app she normally uses to remind them about homework. A few of Susa’s students told her they’ve had to leave the Keys because their homes were destroyed. “I don’t expect to see a full classroom for a couple weeks,” she said.

But overall, the school was lucky. Coral Shores High was used as a shelter during the storm and doesn’t appear to have suffered any major damage, Susa said. If anything, she joked, she thinks her students will use the hurricane to get out of assignments. “I think they’re going to use it as a homework excuse. It’s kind of like my dog ate my homework.”

In the lower half of the Keys, where the worst of the storm hit, it’s a different story. Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key about 20 miles above Key West, destroying houses and littering roads with debris. Some Lower Keys residents weren’t allowed home until Sunday morning.

Students who return to the Keys before their school reopens will be allowed to attend another Monroe County School, the district said in a statement. The Miami-Dade school district had initially offered to take in Keys students, but Monroe County said it is committed to reopening all of its schools, which serve roughly 8,600 students.

Carie Jarnot, a sixth grade teacher at Horace O’Bryant School in Key West, said she looked forward to welcoming students from Big Pine Academy and Sugarloaf School into her classroom as they wait for their schools to reopen. “These kiddos need a routine. They need to get back to normalcy,” she said. “They need to feel safe.”

Jarnot was worried that Horace O’Bryant had been damaged by Irma, so she went to the school on Monday to check on her classroom. “Everything looks great,” she said. “When I walked in I was smiling.”

Jarnot has to report back to work on Sept. 25, two days before her students return. “It gives us enough prep time to get our classrooms and lesson plans in order and try to figure out, ‘Where the heck did we leave off?’”