Keys Schools Veteran Steps Into Superintendent Role As Kids Head Back To (Virtual) School

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WLRN | Nancy Klingener | August 5, 2020

Monroe County schools have a brand new superintendent — but she’s not new to the Keys or to the district.

Theresa Axford has been with the school system for more than 30 years, as a teacher, principal and administrator.

Like the other school districts in South Florida, kids in the Keys will not be reporting to classrooms when classes start Aug. 19. Axford recently spoke with WLRN’s Nancy Klingener about that decision and her plans for her first year as head of the southernmost school system.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

AXFORD: I’ve been reading all the Facebook posts from parents. Of course many of them know that we can’t put our children on the front line in fighting the coronavirus. That we need to keep our children safe. But they also are desperate for assistance with instruction and they need to work.

So what we plan to do is just make virtual instruction so much better than it was in the spring. We’ve learned a lot. And now we are going to have children engaged in synchronous instruction. Which means the teachers are going to use Google Meets and other platforms and they’re going to have face-to face instruction with kids, over a large period of the day.

WLRN: So before it wasn’t like that — they would just get an assignment and upload the assignment?

Yes, largely that was going on in 6-12. Hopefully we can open schools as soon as possible. But if we have this excellent synchronous instruction going on, it’s going to relieve the parents to some extent. Because the students are going to be talking to their teacher throughout the day. And there has to be at least 210 minutes of live instruction.

How confident are you that all the students can have both the computer equipment and the internet access they need to do that kind of synchronous instruction?

In the spring, in a household, you might have had only one Chromebook and two students. But we have a Chromebook for every student. And then we’ve been working with business partners, [like] Comcast, to provide hotspots. People like the Rotary Clubs have stepped up to provide resources for us to have hotspots in neighborhoods where they don’t have good Internet service.

Going into this year are you most concerned about kids who are just starting school and maybe aren’t getting the social contact and other programs and services they normally would, or kids in high school who could be missing out on major milestones and opportunities.

Both. I just can’t even begin to tell you how disturbing it is to me. For our littles — just how excited they are about being in the school building for the first time and all the hugs and the excited expressions on their faces. I mean, everything is of concern.

So the district had a lot of people — students, teachers and staff — who were dealing with trauma after Hurricane Irma and we know some people still are. Are you worried about those folks dealing with the stress of the pandemic and economic uncertainty on top of everything else?

We’re definitely worried about that and our families — we know they’ve been in food lines for hours. One of the things that we did for families is we set up support groups. So we had support groups for both parents and teachers. You know how you connect in a support group — just to hear that someone else is having a similar problem? And then also you know resources can be shared and talked about, you know, in those situations as well.

Recruiting and hiring teachers is always a huge challenge down here because of the cost of living. Has the pandemic affected that all?

We aren’t sure what our enrollment is going to be. So we don’t know if people have left the Keys. We’ve hired about 55 new teachers this year. And that is considerably less than usual. Our retention rate has been better than it has in the past. So we’re doing pretty well.