The Sugarloaf Key housing project is proceeding and is expected to break ground in 2021, and the Monroe County School District COVID-19 dashboard is being updated more frequently.

Meeting in person at Marathon High School on Tuesday, the Monroe County School Board discussed its five-year capital improvement plan and school safety plans as well as Sugarloaf workforce housing plans and more.

Amy Flaherty will update the COVID dashboard at http://www.keysschools.com as COVID cases are confirmed, said Schools Superintendent Theresa Axford. Currently, it showed nine students have or had COVID-19 as of Oct. 14, and one teacher at Sigsbee Charter and two staff members have tested positive since school resumed in-person.

The school board reviewed and approved the proposed 20-unit Sugarloaf Key project located beside Sugarloaf School. The project offers housing to tenants whose incomes are at or below the area median income and aims to provide housing for teachers and administrators. The district agreed to buy time by paying actual costs incurred up to $107,000 in the next few months in order to retain the option of canceling the construction contract in December. It had sought confirmation of the housing need and available funding, which it heard on Tuesday.

Gorman and Company, LLC gave a presentation on its survey of district personnel. With 890 respondents mostly from the Key West and Lower Keys, 32% said they would consider living on Sugarloaf Key. The vast majority were interested in two-bedroom, two-bathroom units at an estimated monthly rent of $1,800, and the next favorite option was three-bedroom, two-bathroom units.

Axford said she attended a Key West affordable housing meeting that morning, and shared numbers and locations of proposed and in-progress affordable housing developments in the Lower Keys.

Board Chair Mindy Conn questioned the concurrent building of a new Sugarloaf School and housing at the same time. Gorman representative Joel Grant said the construction would not start until 2021, and there would always be demand for affordable housing in the Keys. Although concerned about physical constraints in that area, Conn opined there could be economies of scale in simultaneous construction.

Once the unanimous approval was given, Grant said the next step is requesting a conditional use permit from the county, which he planned to do the next day given the long timeframe needed to get through that process.

A school safety report reviewed district programs on violence prevention, physical security, fire and casualty safety, and law enforcement and security measures. Students are educated about “text tips” and anonymous reporting to help ensure student and school safety. The appropriate safety drills are to be conducted this school year.

“School resource officers, teachers and staff are trained to respond to emergencies, and Monroe County is ahead of the rest of the state in having these safety protocols in place,” said Jason Brown, the county’s safety and security coordinator. While the data in the report is private, it will be submitted to the state Department of Education per the law.

Dr. Fran Herrin, executive director of teaching and learning, shared updated districtwide school attendance data. Sixteen students selected Florida Virtual School and 360 chose Monroe County Virtual School this school year. There are 3,786 students in elementary school, 2,012 in middle school and 2,503 in high school. Both kindergarten and pre-kindergarten enrollment dropped by 37 and 79 students, respectively.

Numerous callers during public comment alternatively supported and panned the district’s return to school plan. One said Miami-Dade news consistently has shown Monroe’s plan to be a model for others, and another said because of the task force and district’s careful planning, no Monroe schools have had to close since re-opening mid-September.

However, there is a parent of a Key West sophomore threatening to sue the district over mask-wearing at school, saying six hours of mask-wearing is causing breathing difficulties.

Axford said the district is “staying the course.” She speaks regularly with Monroe County Health Department Director Bob Eadie, who believes the practices in place are effective. Eadie says social distancing, mask-wearing, hand washing and avoidance of crowds are recommended.

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