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Southernmost Catholic school welcomes students to campus

The Basilica School in Key West offers in-person, online or hybrid option for families

First grade students at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea work in their classroom. The students take short breaks from time to time from wearing their mask, but then put the mask back on. Their teacher, Kyle Farrell, explained that the 6-year-old boys and girls "are very good" about wearing their facial coverings as part of the new normal.

Photographer: COURTESY

First grade students at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea work in their classroom. The students take short breaks from time to time from wearing their mask, but then put the mask back on. Their teacher, Kyle Farrell, explained that the 6-year-old boys and girls "are very good" about wearing their facial coverings as part of the new normal.

KEY WEST | The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea was the first archdiocesan grade school to reopen and invite students back on campus, but all the excitement of the first days shifted when unexpected tropical storms knocked at their doors.   

The Basilica School, a pre-K-8 located in Monroe County, welcomed 350 students and over 55 faculty and staff back to campus this month. Preschool children returned Aug. 18, 2020. Older students were welcomed the next day.

“Opening day was a success,” said principal Robert Wright, relieved that everything went smoothly the first days. “Although I am certain there is no foolproof plan, we are as ready as we can be to return students to campus.”

Abigail Kyer, in Kindergarten, settles into her new desk on the first day of the 2020 academic year at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, wearing her colorful face mask.

Photographer: COURTESY

Abigail Kyer, in Kindergarten, settles into her new desk on the first day of the 2020 academic year at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, wearing her colorful face mask.

By the end of the first week, Wright was closely monitoring two tropical disturbances and thoughts shifted to weather safety. Storms Marco and Laura slowly moved across the Atlantic, with Laura brushing the Florida Keys with tropical storm winds and eventually entering the Gulf of Mexico. School closed Aug. 24 but reopened when all was clear.

“Better safe than sorry,” said Kyle Farrell, a teacher anxious to get back to business teaching her first graders without any more interruptions.

Safety is on the minds of many these days, in the midst of hurricane season and as the pandemic continues.

On Aug. 5, 2020, the archdiocese gave the green light for an in-person re-opening of all parish and school pre-K programs with distance learning options as well. All other grades were to resume classes online through Sept. 18, when the archdiocese will be reviewing the situation.

Broward County public schools went all-virtual when they opened Aug. 19, and Miami-Dade schools opened Aug. 31 with online instruction only.

The Basilica School was the only Catholic school in the archdiocese that opened all grades with in-person instruction. Parents also have the options of distance learning and hybrid instruction, which means two days on campus and three days off.

The Basilica School was able to reopen because Monroe County had moved to phase two of Florida's coronavirus reopening plan, while the spiking number of COVID-19 cases in Miami-Dade and Broward kept those counties at phase one.

On Aug. 31, 2020, Monroe County reported a little more than 1,700 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began compared to Miami-Dade County with nearly 160,000 cases, and Broward County with just over 71,000.

When the lockdown was declared in mid-March, the Florida Keys, which draw five million visitors a year, were closed to non-residents. Lockdown measures including face masks were ordered. In Key West, the mask ordinance carries a criminal penalty of up to 60 days in jail or a $500 fine.

 

HEALTH AND SAFETY

“There are many factors to consider when making the decision to return students and staff to campus,” said Wright, who sits on the Monroe County School District Task Force and continues to network with local agencies and experts closely monitoring the pandemic. 

Students in preschool at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West receive blessings as they return back to school in August 2020.

Photographer: COURTESY

Students in preschool at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West receive blessings as they return back to school in August 2020.

“Health and safety are of foremost importance,” he explained. “This must also be balanced with the business and economic impacts on the operation of the school as well as providing for the spiritual and temporal needs of our families.” 

A directive from the Department of Education regarding federal scholarship funding to help families was also key in the decision-making process. “We faced losing as much as $870,000 if we chose not to provide an in-person option,” he said. “You have to think about the well-being of the families.”   

Parents' input was also a factor. Surveys were distributed to get a better understanding of how parents felt about their children going back on campus.

“We had 80 percent of our parents say they want in-person classes,” said Wright, adding that 20 percent of the parents were uncertain or had mixed feelings. Some parents are returning to work or seeking new jobs.

“The closings hurt a lot of our families, who work in the service industry,” said Wright.

Many work more than one job in the restaurants, hotels, transportation services and recreation businesses and can’t afford child care. Other families feel uneasy about risking the health of their children and members of their household if the virus infection is caught or brought home. They opted for keeping their children home.

Obviously, all eyes are on The Basilica School, the only Catholic school in the Florida Keys, as it opens, setting a path for other archdiocesan schools. Wright and his team have worked all summer preparing the campus, and his teachers are all onboard and happy to be back.

“I am thrilled to be back with my students, in person,” said Heather Jangraw, a math and science teacher, mother of three and former U.S. Army captain. “The students are absolutely happy to be back. They missed their friends.” 

 

ADDED SAFEGUARDS

In total, the school has spent $34,000 for added safeguards. Features include hygiene stations, water bottle devices and special lighting designed to kill germs, bacteria, mold and viruses.

A main feature is an outdoor pavilion constructed on the eight-acre grounds. The large open-air space is designed for physical education and other activities.

Inside, the school has designated entry points, one-way traffic-flow patterns and desks and seating are spaced to keep students at a distance. Classrooms, bathrooms and door handles are being cleaned several times a day.  

Wright’s plan calls for students to eat lunch in their classrooms, wear face masks and social distance at all times. Temperature checks are taking place and of course, parents are asked to keep their children at home if they are feeling sick or if they have been around a person who has tested positive for COVID.

Farrell confessed that the face masks are presenting an obstacle for her. “I miss looking out and being able to read their faces. The smiles when they understand, the tight lips when they are deep in concentration,” she said.

Mila Cabrera, dressed in uniform and with her hair decorated in ribbons, holds up a sign and poses for a photo on her first day back to classes at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West.

Photographer: COURTESY

Mila Cabrera, dressed in uniform and with her hair decorated in ribbons, holds up a sign and poses for a photo on her first day back to classes at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West.

She said that the highlight of her year so far was the first day of school. “We always begin our day with prayer. It was wonderful to hear the children thanking God for being able to return to class and asking him to protect us all and heal those who are sick,” she said.

Wright continues to reach out to organizations, benefactors and donors and apply for various pandemic relief, grants and tuition assistance for his families. He shared that the school budget “is out the window” with all the pandemic expenses including additional substitutes, instructional aides, after school care workers and custodians.

 

PARISH, DONOR SUPPORT

Among the assistance that the school has received is $125,000 in support from the parish. A generous donor gave $60,000 to support after school childcare.  

The annual summer camp survived the pandemic. It opened to the community at large, but with smaller numbers. “We worked with the city to open our summer program to all children on June 8,” said Wright. “Our summer camp, the largest in the county, concluded on July 31. Fourteen weeks of operation and by the grace of God, no illness.”

The school ground was a hive of activity all summer, but with safety rules in place. The school hosted a food distribution for needy families in the community, and more than 280,000 tons of food was given to people need.

Preschool also continued providing limited services throughout the shutdown for those who worked directly in the medical sector. Limited on-campus instruction for students with disabilities was also available to the community.

“The hard work we invest in serving the needs of our families and local community is always rewarding,” said Wright. “I have always believed that God is never outdone in generosity. We have seen that proven time and time again here at The Basilica School.”

Members of the parish and school family continue to pray to Mary, Star of the Sea, the school’s patron during this unsettled time. Traditionally, Mary under this title is beloved by people living and working by the ocean and seafarers who face storms that come up suddenly at sea.

“COVID is certainly a storm in our life,” said Wright. “Our Lady continues to guide us through the rough waters that surround us all.”

Sophie Reyes, a first-grader at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, works on an assignment with a new pencil in hand and wearing a facemask. Her personal water bottle sits nearby along with her personal school box with various items. The students are given short breaks from wearing masks but understand that facial coverings are part of the new normal school day.

Photographer: COURTESY

Sophie Reyes, a first-grader at The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, works on an assignment with a new pencil in hand and wearing a facemask. Her personal water bottle sits nearby along with her personal school box with various items. The students are given short breaks from wearing masks but understand that facial coverings are part of the new normal school day.


Comments from readers

Megan Granados - 09/02/2020 11:34 AM
If young children who have a hard time even whispering can be trusted to stay clean and wash their hands properly can go back to school then why can't High School kids?

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