Amid national debate on reopening schools, McKeel Academy holds first day of school in Lakeland

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – As the debate continues on how to safely reopen schools in Tampa Bay, more than 2,000 students were back in the classroom in Lakeland-based charter schools.

“Definitely not going to forget this,” said Mary Nicholas, who started her senior year at McKeel Academy of Technology Thursday. “It wouldn’t be the same if it was online in my opinion. I love being with the teachers and interacting and have that connection and being able to be with my friends.”

Nicholas’ parents decided it was best for their family for Mary and her sister, Sophia, to return to campus learning.

“I feel very comforting to know what McKeel has done. With the whole COVID crisis, it’s out there, it’s real. But I feel very confident sending my girls to school,” said their mother, Elena Nicholas.

Seventy percent of students at the three McKeel schools chose to return to in-person learning. The rest started learning virtually Thursday, officials said.

“Learning all new policies and procedures to keep our kids healthy and safe is the biggest thing. It is every day, adapting, doing something new, figuring this out,” said Rebecca Juliano, a teacher at McKeel.

“We have done everything that we can possibly do to be prepared to welcome kids back on campus and keep our staff safe,” said Alan Black, the director of schools at the Schools of McKeel Academy.

Some parents changed their plans at the last minute when Black decided to mandate masks in all indoor classrooms late last week.

“We could not get the six feet of social distancing in our classrooms. We could get it in some but we couldn’t get it in all,” he said.

Some parents who wanted to bring their kids back to campus learning moved them virtual, and vice versa.

Black said he has requested a visit from health department officials to seek recommendations and discuss his plans, but that visit has not happened yet.

“I wish them well. I hope nobody gets sick,” said Stephanie Yocum, the president of the Polk Education Association, the teachers’ union that represents Polk County public school teachers.

She is hoping Polk County Public Schools does not follow McKeel’s lead.

“People are still scared. I still think, and our organization thinks as a whole, that the safest way to open is virtually,” Yocum said.

Polk County Public Schools are scheduled to reopen Aug. 24 with both in-person and e-learning options.

Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd will be updating board members on reopening plans during a work session on Tuesday.

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