Monroe County Schools using limited virtual learning to ease teacher shortage

NBC 6 | By Ari Odzer | August 7, 2023 

Kids in the Florida Keys are going back to school on Thursday, and for some of them, they might experience a little pandemic-era déjà vu. Their school district is bringing back a very limited form of virtual learning to fill in gaps caused by a teacher shortage.

Like every school district in the state, Monroe County Public Schools does not have enough teachers, driven in the Keys by the high cost of housing. As she tries to recruit and retain educators, Superintendent Theresa Axford is fighting an uphill battle against the cost of living, even with starting salaries for teachers at $61,500, because the median income in the Keys is $100,000.

“A typical rent is $3,000 per month, well that, you just can’t cut it on a single teacher’s salary, so we are always up against it, trying to help our teachers find places to live,” Axford explained, saying that principals and administrators have to act as amateur realtors.

New teachers were going through orientation Monday at Marathon High School. We asked some of them how they make ends meet, and how they found homes.

“Just by word of mouth, sometimes that’s a big part of finding homes down here,” said third-grade teacher Misty Reininger. 

“It is difficult, which means you have got to commit to being here,” said Anita Linville, who teaches English at Key West High School.

Linville told us a story illustrating the rental sticker shock when she spoke to someone who had a room to rent.

“And he said, I’m gonna give you a reduced rate — well it was reduced for Key West, but coming from San Antonio, I was like, wait, what? This is their reduced rate?” Linville said, incredulously.

Right now, the district is short by 26 teachers out of a total staff of 600. To fill the vacancies, the district is turning to virtual instruction for high school chemistry and physics, but unlike the pandemic version of distance learning, the students will be in school, not at home.

“So we’re going to see how these students do in this virtual environment,” Axford said, emphasizing that the students will be in classrooms together, not isolated at home. “It does make a difference because once again, you’ve got all the rhythms and everything that goes on in school, you’re just coming into the classroom and there’s going to be a teacher’s assistant there who’s going to make sure that everything goes well in person and then there’s going to be a virtual instructor.”

Despite the difficulties, teachers rave about the sense of community in the Keys schools, saying everyone helps everyone else. Reininger moved from Chicago.

“It is more expensive, our family does things differently, now we don’t take the great big vacations like we used to because we live somewhere that’s a vacation place, you know?” she said.

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