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Candidate Forum in Key West Gets ‘Touchy,’ Student Calls Summer School ‘Not Boring’

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'Hometown! Key West' moderator Todd Germain shows County Commission candidate Robby Majeska the line-up for the evening. In the background, most chairs are covered to meet social distancing requirements.

Last night I attended my first event since “Coronavirus” became a household word. Mark Kohl, my good friend of 20 years and candidate for State Attorney this year, and I drove down to Key West for the candidate forum hosted by “Hometown! Key West.”

Before going, I reread the regulations for the event, which included:

·     FACE & NOSE COVERING IS REQUIRED (when not speaking).

·     Each candidate may bring 1 guest with them.

Hometown! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating voters about the elections and candidates in Monroe County. In the past, the debates and forums have been well attended. In 2020, each candidate was allowed to bring only one guest to The Key West Studios, where the event would be broadcast live on two different Keys T.V. stations and Hometown’s social media.

Mark and I were the first non-event-organizers to walk into the room. (We had left the Upper Keys several hours earlier than we thought we needed to because Mark wanted to hang some campaign signs and be sure to arrive early.) Where there was once a room full of chairs for the audience, now there was a mostly empty room with one or two chairs spaced 6 feet apart. Joined auditorium chairs were covered, leaving open only chairs 6 feet apart. It was a different type of forum – a coronaforum.

Robby Majeska, candidate for County Commission District 5, walked in next. Mark and I knew the rules. No handshakes. No touching. We said hi to Robby and his wife, Isis, and chatted a little from a distance.

Next, Islamorada Councilman Jim Mooney, who is running for State Representative, walked in. For a second – even though I was wearing my obligatory mask – I approached him ready to give him a hug. I’ve known Jim since I moved down to the Florida Keys in 1999 and covered the Islamorada Village Council as a beat reporter for The Upper Keys Reporter then subsequently for the Free Press. Since then, I’ve always greeted Jim with a friendly hug.

“I don’t know what to do,” I confessed to Jim, with arms suspended in the air as I once again remembered the 6-foot distancing rule.

Jim didn’t seemed too concerned, so I followed through with a loose “hug-pat.”

It’s strange. Just strange to be in public with these people who I would shake hands with before all this, or who I’ve hugged for 20 years. It’s a new experience to have to “read” someone before you greet them. Are they uncomfortable? Are they fine with physical contact? Do they show signs of a respiratory illness? All questions we now have to consider in CoronaWorld.

Throughout the evening of the political forum, my face got hot. And there was a brain challenge to overcome. We had to wear masks the entire time, but yet the event organizers offered everyone a bottle of water as they walked in.

About 15 minutes into the event, I looked at the water bottle sticking out of my purse. How was I going to drink the water with my mask on? The event organizers had put me in a precarious situation. I had already broken one rule of the night by giving Jim Mooney a hug. I did not want to be kicked out of the political forum; that might have reflected poorly on Mark, who brought me. If I removed my mask to drink my water, was that Strike Two?

I looked around. A candidate was on stage speaking. The moderator was moderating. The camera people were recording. The greeter was greeting latecomers who had just arrived after sitting in Stock Island traffic for an hour. (Yes, Key West was different this time. Racing convertibles there would have been impossible.) And Mark and I were sitting on the far side of the room with no one watching me but a congressional candidate I had never met.

I reached for the water bottle, and none were the wiser.

* * *

Besides somewhat impossible distancing rules and face masks, the last couple weeks have been kind of normal. The Keys opened to tourists on Monday, June 1. Traffic is back to normal. Restaurants opened, then bars opened. Musicians started playing out again rather than on Facebook Live.

Last Monday, I started distance learning summer school. I have seven English Language Learner (ELL) students, and, again, I am loving it, and so are they! (One girl messaged me after class to let me know that she was excited because my class was “not boring,” which I have decided to take as a compliment and not an implication that my previous in-person classes were.)

Every day, the students participate in an interactive Google Meet with me and complete online assignments through amazing Internet-based programs that I’ve finally committed to learning. They wrote a script about themselves in Google Classroom. I suggested edits. They revised. Then they read the script in a video recording of themselves in a program called Flipgrid. Then they listened to and responded to other students’ recordings. It is just amazing how much technology is available for teaching and learning nowadays. It’s also bewildering to me how it took a worldwide pandemic for me to actual start learning about and using these programs that have been available for quite sometime.

I’m not sure what is going to happen in the fall. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced yesterday that he wants Florida schools to return back to pre-Corona “normal” in August. I don’t think it’s his decision, though; I think it’s county by county. Monroe County, for example, is working on a blend of distance learning for parents of students who do not want to send their children into public yet and in-person learning for those want them to attend school.

Before regular school ended, the school district sent surveys to teachers and posted surveys online for parents. Teachers were asked their opinions and comfort level of returning in the fall. Personally, I said that I would return if they needed me to, but I prefer distance learning, which has cut out about 99% of problems from my school day. I said I would be hesitant about the liabilities of enforcing 6-foot (or more) distancing rules. I suggested that all teachers plan for distance learning from their classrooms then offer it to students who did well and thrived in that environment last quarter from home. Others who did not do well and who need more teacher guidance should return to school. That way, we would keep physical class sizes low (maybe less than 10) and teach/grade home-based learners and their work in the afternoon after the in-person students left.

I don’t know what will happen, though, because there is a 50-person task force working on a solution this summer. That probably means that nothing logical will happen. We’ll see and hope for the best.

In the meantime, I’ll keep planning for and teaching my summer school class of seven “not bored” students. I’ll keep working out in my home gym on my lunch break, working on my tan after school, feeding and tending to my 5 chickens and 4 bunnies, running outside every time a chicken starts squawking, writing CoronaBlogs, filming Rebekah in the Keys videos, fishing on the weekends, playing my piano, tending to my yard, playing Fibbage 3 with my intelligent and ultra-hot boyfriend, and then finally relaxing from a hard day’s work with him in our hot tub.

We’ll continue to choose to take advantage of the opportunities this situation has created. We will choose to see to the positives in life. If you look at the negatives, that’s all you’ll see; that’s all you remember.

State Representative candidate Jim Mooney wears a mask. Seats are covered to enforce social distancing.

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