McKeel Academy among the first to reopen schools during the pandemic

It was back to school Thursday for thousands of kids at McKeel Academy in Lakeland. The charter school system, with three campuses for K through 12, is one of the first school to re-open in the state amid a COVID-19 pandemic.

Many districts are holding off several more weeks before they restart.

“I am very excited to be back,” said Mary Nicholas, a senior. “I was ready to come back to school and see my teachers.”

McKeel administrators say they have done whatever possible to protect their students and staff from the spread of the novel coronavirus.

They are being required to wear masks and socially distance. Some students will be eating their lunch on picnic tables outside to space them out from other kids.

“It’s going to be really hard for the people that are huggers,” said Mia Juliano, a student. “So when you see your friends, it’s going to be, wait, I can’t hug you.”

The kids are coming back to a very different place than the one they left. There will be new safety rules that can’t be broken.

“We have a great group of kids,” said Rebecca Juliano, a teacher. “They want to be here, and they know this is what they need to do to be here, then they’re going to do it.”

Everyone is required to wear masks in school and on the bus. If students forget to bring one, the school will provide a face covering. 

Social distancing, school officials said, will also be a priority. Instead of eating in the cafeteria, many students will eat outside. McKeel has also hired additional staffers to sanitize and teachers will spray down the desks in between classes.

"I am very confident that what we do here at school is going to be very safe," Black said. "To be honest, I'm a little less confident about what happens outside of school. So that's where we really need our staff, our families, our students, to make good choices outside of these buildings."

McKeel has also hired a COVID-19 coordinator, who works closely with the health department, and they've established a system to handle infections should a student, teacher or staff member test positive.

Not all the kids came back. Thirty percent decided to stay home and e-learn or attend virtual school.

Public schools in Polk County are set to start on August 24.