Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of units in the design for the Sugarloaf Key affordable housing project.

Compared to previous school years, there have been measurable losses in student learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. But other updates, such as on the Sugarloaf Key affordable housing project, student achievement and annual financial reports were positive at the in-person and live broadcast of the Monroe County School Board meeting Dec. 15 at Coral Shores High School.

Staff presented information about a new student progress monitoring test that is proving to be very adaptive. While some parents are inclined to view standardized testing negatively, the teachers are finding it helpful, according to Theresa Axford, Schools Superintendent Theresa Axford. The various schools’ planning teams decide whether to use the testing, and results show teachers said they like the test’s ability to progressively pinpoint where students need help by focusing on specific learning challenges. School Board Chair John Dick said, “It’s another tool in teachers’ toolbox. We can choose to use it or not. We know we’re not going to have as much learning gains this year. Some students thrive on virtual learning; others not so much. At least, [our students] are in school. I’m satisfied with the work the district is doing [during this pandemic.]”

Dick pointed out that year after year, the district has students attending top colleges in the nation. Two seniors, Alison Woltanski and Emma Kost of Coral Shores High School, were recognized at the meeting as National Merit Semifinalists due to high achievement on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Christina Tong of Key West High School and Katerina Nikiforova of Marathon High School also achieved this award.

According to the National Parent Teacher Association and National Education Association, a recent nationwide poll of more than 1,300 students aged 13 to 18 showed while this generation of students faces unprecedented challenges, students have proven resilient. Findings revealed students believe their teachers are doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances, and they trust their educators to help them grow this year.

The poll showed 58% of students say they were doing well academically before the virus, but only 32% believe they are doing well currently. The self-reported academic decline remains consistent along different racial subgroups, and there is relatively little difference between students learning in-person, in the hybrid model or fully online. Younger students and students whose parents did not attend college, as well as students in hybrid situations, were the most likely to report an academic decline.

The board also heard a report on the district’s finances. The board accepted the district’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year ending June 30. Dick recalled about a decade ago that numerous negative financial findings against the district occurred and were of great concern. “To have top-notch quality control is fantastic and shows how far the district has come.”

The board then approved a new district position, the coordinator of professional growth and community relations. This position combines several areas of responsibility but primarily serves to grow staff’s capabilities to enhance hiring from within. For example, Dick said, the district hired its finance director from outside of the district this year, but the goal would be to grow staff’s capabilities to hire from within whenever possible. Creating a pipeline for staffing is the goal, he said.

Lastly, while the completion of the affordable housing at Sugarloaf School is more than two years away, Gorman Associates asked for design feedback on the project, which requires conditional use approval from the county. Comprised of 16 units geared toward rental units for school staff in one- to three-bedroom configurations, as well as four three-bedroom, single-family homes, the school board suggested design tweaks.

In the 12 two-bedroom units, Board Vice Chair Andy Griffiths proposed better access to bathrooms, so guests would not have to walk through one of two master-bedroom suites to access a restroom. Balconies with a privacy component between the attached units and which direction they face to incorporate views of the wetlands also were discussed. A community pool and barbecue area are in the plan, but keeping the project affordable is among the district’s goals.