Back to school: After Irma, Florida classes begin resuming

(AP) — Windy Dees told her sport administration students at the University of Miami that they likely wouldn’t see each other for a few days after Hurricane Irma hit.

Their separation has lasted two weeks, and counting.

“Saying it’d be a few days,” Dees said. “That’s funny now.”

Slowly, Florida school vacations caused by Irma are ending. Public schools in Miami-Dade County and Broward County — the state’s two biggest school districts and two of the nation’s largest — reopened Monday for more than 600,000 students after a nearly two-week hiatus. Elementary, middle and high schools in the storm-ravaged Florida Keys and expected to resume next week, and Collier County officials say staff and school buildings are still struggling with power outages, sewage backups and repairs.

“We will all face significant challenges upon our return,” Monroe County Superintendent Mark Porter said. “Some will be more significant than others.”

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Colleges also are continuing to recover. Miami is starting some graduate classes this week, will resume undergraduate classes next week and has already called off its fall break to help make up for lost class time. In Fort Myers, students at Florida Gulf Coast who were planning to graduate in December will now have to wait until at least January. Florida International is adding a week to its semester.

Some schools have fewer headaches to deal with than others. Central Florida, with the state’s largest enrollment at 66,000, resumed classes Monday after more than a week off yet has found a way to keep its schedule for the semester largely unchanged. UCF is also making allowances for students who were called up to National Guard duty in response to the storm.

“Our policy is to extend flexible accommodations to these students to help them meet their educational goals once they return,” UCF Provost Dale Whittaker wrote in a letter to the campus community. “Other students may have extenuating circumstances due to the storm, and we encourage faculty members to work with their deans and chairs to discuss specific cases in question.”

The impacts will clearly be felt for weeks and months, if not longer.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam announced a plan Monday that would allow at least 48 county school districts — the vast majority of the state — to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students through a federal program that will run through Oct. 20. State officials say that could affect up to 2.5 million students at 3,000 schools, and those numbers may still rise.

“Students’ return to school today is a step toward normalcy,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tweeted Monday.

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It’s one of many steps.

There’s been no decision yet on whether the academic year will have to be changed in Miami-Dade; those discussions will start taking place in the coming days with state officials and the teachers’ union, among others. School bus routes in some South Florida districts on Monday were mildly affected by ongoing storm cleanup. And some homes in the Miami area are still without power.

One school in Broward County had a message scrawled on the sidewalk in chalk Monday: “We met Irma. She was strong but we are stronger.”

“Great message,” Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said.

Dees said there’s a rhythm to a semester, and Irma striking so early in the fall term could essentially reset whatever learning momentum was going on at the start of the year.

When the power came on at her home late last week, after she and her husband celebrated by enjoying a pizza in air conditioning, she was getting back to work within a couple of hours.

“I know I’m ready to be back and I think the students are going to be just like us,” said Dees, an associate professor at Miami. “I miss work right now. I miss campus. I miss normality and having some structure. I’ve never dealt with anything like this. I’ve never been through anything that has knocked out almost a month of a semester. But I know we’ll get through this.”

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