In the thick of the lunch rush, the lights at the cafeteria at Marathon Middle and High School snapped off.
The lunch line was plunged into darkness, the trays filled with fried chicken sandwiches and smiley-face-shaped french fries lit only by the cell phone light of principal Wendy McPherson as she made sure everyone got their food.
The kids seemed unfazed by the interruption. It was their first day back at school since Hurricane Irma ravaged the Florida Keys nearly three weeks ago, and things were nowhere near normal yet. Nearly one in four of the 664 students are homeless. About a dozen have dropped out.
Still, McPherson said, returning is “pretty darn good. Good on the teacher end and good on the student end.”
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This is the only access many students have to power or AC, and the free breakfast and lunch for the next few weeks may be the only hot meals they’re getting. Students filled out surveys in first period on their needs — like clothing, hygiene products or school supplies — so teachers could parcel out the piles of donated goods.
On Wednesday, the second of three staggered school opening dates throughout Monroe County, teachers and students did their best to get back into the regular routine at a school that served as a Red Cross shelter days earlier.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to normal,” said Esteban Sainz, an 18-year-old senior. “Maybe after Christmas break it’ll get better, but it’s still messed up.”
The football field Sainz and his teammates played on is sickly brown after soaking in storm surge. Their homecoming game, one of the community’s beloved traditions, was postponed to January. Without steady wifi, he and his classmates don’t know how they’re going to complete any homework, which previously was online only.
Home isn’t much better.
Irma’s waves smashed a boat and trailer into his window, knocking the shutter off and dumping three feet of seaweed — and a fish — into his bedroom. Days before school started, officials slapped an orange sticker on his below-flood-level ground-floor home and told his family they couldn’t live there anymore. He hopes to finish out the rest of the school year in a FEMA trailer.
“It’s kind of like — we’re at school, but why are we at school?” Sainz said.
It’s too soon, he said. Plenty of students would prefer to be at home helping their parents with the monumental task of cleaning and gutting their ruined homes.
Randy Culmer, 17, said he could have made $200 in one day for manual labor, money that could fix his house. Or he could have been salvaging boats for the family business, snapping up local work before out-of-area price gougers can get to it.
“Being here is stressful because I could be home helping my parents,” he said. “We have so much work to do getting things back to the norm.”
Wednesday was a stab at normalcy, with class bells ringing and teachers taking attendance, but it wasn’t anything like life pre-Irma.
Amy Kelley, a Spanish teacher in her first year at Marathon High, said she doesn’t plan to assign homework all week. The first day was for swapping stories and finding out who showed up and what happened to the 100 or so that didn’t.
“You’re scanning your class, constantly asking who’s OK and who’s going to have a breakdown,” she said.
Trauma isn’t limited to students, she said. At least three teachers lost their homes.
Teresa Konarth, the school’s athletic director, said one of the fastest routes to “normal” is getting the sports teams running again. Athletic directors across the state are reaching out and offering help and equipment to make that happen.
In a town where the only entertainment options are a movie theater, boating or sports, athletics are everything, she said.
“Our community is driven by our athletics,” she said. “They’re out for every event we have. They sponsor us. They thrive on making our kids successful.”
Homecoming, and the parade and festivities that come with it, is a big part of that community spirit.
“I think our community needs it to show we have the fight to get back to normal,” she said. “It’s going to be tough, but I think we as a school community can do it.”