Back to school: After Irma, Florida classes begin resuming

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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 expected to resume next week

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

Officials in Collier County, which includes hard-hit Naples, say staff and school buildings are still struggling with power outages, sewage backups and repairs.

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. Florida International in Miami is adding a week to its semester.

In Fort Myers, officials at Florida Gulf Coast University were planning to postpone December's commencement because of storm issues, but a solution was struck to have smaller college-by-college ceremonies, which allowed FGCU to keep its planned Dec. 16 date.

"We've got a solution that ought to be acceptable to the vast majority," FGCU President Mike Martin said.

Barry University was also dealing with Hurricane Maria on Monday, even though that system is nowhere near the U.S. The school sent a charter jet to St. Croix and evacuated at least 72 students, faculty, staff and family members from the university's physician assistant program there. The group was to arrive in the Miami area later Monday night and many were expected to remain there until Maria passes.

Some schools face fewer headaches than others. At University of Central Florida, with the state's largest enrollment at 66,000, classes resumed Monday after more than a week off. The school has largely kept to its schedule for the semester and is 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. He also encouraged faculty members to work with their deans and chairs to help other students who face extenuating circumstances.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam announced a plan Monday to 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.

Officials haven't decided yet whether the academic year will have to be changed in Miami-Dade; those discussions will start in the coming days. School bus routes in some South Florida districts were slightly affected Monday 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. She looked forward to returning to campus.

"I miss work right now," said Dees, an associate professor at Miami. "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."