Volunteers across Florida have created their own school-related coronavirus dashboards, and a school district is using Facebook after the county health department was told to stop releasing case information about local schools.
Governor Ron DeSantis (R) aggressively pushed for schools to offer in-person classes, even when Florida was the nation’s hotspot, and threatened to withhold funds if districts did not allow students to enter class by on August 31. state guidelines for school reopening, officials did not recommend that coronavirus cases be disclosed school by school. In fact, the DeSantis administration has ordered some districts, including Duval and Orange, to stop releasing school-specific coronavirus information, citing privacy concerns.
The state also left it to the districts to decide whether masks should be worn by students and staff members. Some require it, but many don̵
Department of Health spokesman Alberto Moscoso said in an email last week that “the Department is currently working to determine the best and most accurate way to report information on covid-19 cases associated with schools and daycare centers. “. He said the information will be available “in the coming days or weeks”.
Florida is further along in the reopening process than most other states, and DeSantis has been more aggressive than other governors in pushing schools to reopen and set a deadline. The Texas state government wanted schools to open buildings, but they are allowing the districts to operate remotely for some time. In Iowa, where schools are reopening this month – some remotely for two weeks with state permission – Governor Kim Reynolds (R) has ordered districts to open buildings for families who want in-person education. The order was challenged in court.
Florida’s school districts began opening in early August, and by mid-month about half of the state’s 4,500 public schools had students in their buildings. Three major districts have been allowed to stay online due to high coronavirus infection rates: those in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Parents had a choice between keeping their children at home or sending them to school, and about half of the 2.8 million K-12 students in the United States opted for returning to traditional classrooms.
Since August 10, at least 1,210 students and teachers have been sent home to quarantine due to exposure to the new coronavirus, according to the Florida Education Association, the teachers’ union.
The Florida Department of Health reported that 10,513 children under 18 have tested positive since schools began reopening for in-person teaching, a 34% increase. The state is not saying how many of those children were in school or in distance learning.
“I’ve filed requests for public documents like we’ve been told, but no one will even fill them,” said Bridget Mendel, a parent in Manatee County, southwestern Florida. “This is outrageous and I am concerned for my teacher friends and our children in Manatee.”
With school-specific, reliable information on coronavirus cases scarce, teachers and parents are trying to bridge the gap. Anonymous Twitter accounts have sprung up since the school began, initiated by Florida teachers who want to report what’s going on in their schools but who say they’re afraid of getting fired if they do it publicly.
“Transparency is a huge problem,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, which represents 150,000 teachers and school staff and is suing the DeSantis administration for opening schools too early. “Parents like me who have children in the classroom wonder, are they safe? And we want answers from the governor, but instead he’s suppressing the information. “
Leon County Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson ruled in favor of the teachers union, agreeing that the state had “ignored safety” in the order. Dodson cited evidence showing state health officials had been told not to give their views on the safety of reopening schools in their counties. Dodson’s decision is being appealed by the state.
There is a patchwork of school-related coronavirus data release requirements across the country. In Texas, for example, the state just started this week requiring districts to disclose to state agencies which schools have cases. The data will be published, but it is unclear whether it will be at the school or district level. California does not require districts to disclose information on a school-by-school basis, but it does recommend it.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the World Health Organization, recommend a local coronavirus positivity rate of less than 5% for the safe reopening of schools. But many of Florida’s 67 county school districts opened with higher positivity rates. The overall child positivity rate in the state is 14.5%.
Parents who decided not to send their children to school said confusion over how they would get information about coronavirus exposure in schools was a factor in their decision.
“It seems more like the information is leaking instead of coming from the school board,” said Dawn Herring, a suburban mother in Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg. She and her husband opted for virtual classrooms for their two school-aged children.
“Our family should see some more information on case numbers, mask compliance and social distancing, before we send our children back,” Herring said.
A number of school districts have posted specific coronavirus infection rate data on their websites, but the state has rejected it. After the Duval County School District in Northeast Florida released a coronavirus dashboard during the first week of school, the state ordered it to close within days, citing privacy concerns. The district launched a new dashboard on Tuesday and the state did not intervene.
In Orlando, the Orange County Health Department was told on Sept. 3 to stop disclosing information about coronavirus cases related to local schools. But the school district started listing schools with positive cases on its Facebook page within days. “Olympia High School will temporarily close and rotate” on a virtual platform, the district reported on its Facebook page Monday. He said six people had tested positive.
On August 24, the Florida Department of Health released a report detailing school-related coronavirus cases – reporting that 194 students tested positive in cases associated with primary and secondary schools – but it was quickly removed from public view. Moscoso said the report was released “inadvertently” and DeSantis said the report “wasn’t necessarily accurate”.
Many schools send individual emails to parents if cases are detected in their children’s school, but it is not required by the state and the information is not made available to the general public.
Martin County, Palm Beach County’s northern neighbor, opened on August 11. Hobe Sound SeaWind Elementary School students were sent home to quarantine the next day. Within a week, the district told local news that it had quarantined 292 students and 14 teachers from five schools. However, the school district doesn’t have a coronavirus dashboard and hasn’t released the numbers since.
Other school districts have created their own dashboards and the state has not closed them. Some are more detailed than others. Hillsborough County, for example, lists daily cases and names schools.
The Hillsborough School Board had voted to offer only virtual classes until mid-September. But state officials told the district, which includes Tampa, it would lose more than $ 200 million in funding if it didn’t open the school buildings. The district opened on August 31 and reported 181 cases in the first five days of class, including 45 children.
“I think we should have waited a couple of weeks before opening our doors. We could have come up with more creative solutions, “said Tamara Shamburger, a member of the Hillsborough School Board.” We have been absolutely armed and bullied in this. “
Coronavirus case numbers have been steadily dropping in Florida since July, when the state saw a spike that made it the nation’s hotspot for weeks. However, infection rates vary between counties; Martin County, for example, has a 23% positivity rate for school-age children. Glades County, west of Lake Okeechobee, has had a nearly 30% positivity rate since schools reopened, but the school district doesn’t have a coronavirus dashboard.
A total of 652,148 positive cases have been reported in the state since the start of the pandemic, with 12,269 deaths, as of Wednesday, according to state data.
Even before case numbers began to decline, DeSantis was pushing for schools to reopen and last week painted a rosy picture of the pandemic state in Florida, where the statewide positivity rate was 6% on Wednesday. Visiting cities in Florida with Scott Atlas, President Trump’s new coronavirus advisor, DeSantis said last week that the worst of the pandemic was over.
“We will never do any of these lockdowns again,” said the governor, who imposed a stay-at-home order in April as coronavirus rates rise. In March, thousands of spring break students visited the state and the beaches were packed.
The Florida Department of Education leaves masked mandates to school districts, and many counties have left the decision to students.
“Masks are highly encouraged, but we felt people could make a personal decision about it, so we didn’t enforce it,” said Bill Brothers, assistant superintendent of administration for the Suwannee County School District. “But we certainly encourage it. I would say half do and half not. “
Suwannee, a small rural county in northern Florida, had an under-18 coronavirus positivity rate of 21.7 percent as of Friday. Several months ago, an outbreak at a nursing home gave the county one of the highest rates in the state.
Schools reopened on August 10, and coronavirus cases were reported in schools that week. News of the cases was spread by word of mouth rather than official channels, said high school teacher Eric Rodriguez.
Rodriguez spoke to local media about the cases he was aware of and shared a video of a crowded hallway, with the students’ faces blurred. He was subsequently suspended from work for a day.
“My concern was that there were no plans for social distancing and no masking mandates,” said Rodriguez, who is also a teacher union representative. “I had teachers calling me over the summer, saying they were afraid to go back to work.”
He said many businesses in the county and county offices require masks, but schools don’t.
Suwannee High School played its first football game on Friday night and DeSantis attended. “I think you will soon see the sport in all 67 counties,” the governor said.
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said DeSantis gave Suwannee players a pep talk in the locker room. Corcoran quoted the governor in a tweet: “If you all lived in California, would you know where you would be tonight? On your couch!” (Suwannee Bulldogs beat the Santa Fe Raiders, 41-10.)
Rodriguez said many of his Suwannee High students agree with the science that wearing the mask helps prevent the spread of the virus, but they are taking a cue from their parents.
“I think some of them are hearing from their parents that they won’t be wearing a mask, and that’s not a big deal, so what are you afraid of?” Rodriguez said. “In this part of the world, either they think it’s a hoax, or a little covid won’t kill you.”
In other parts of the state, such as Osceola County in central Florida, masks are required, but cases of the coronavirus are still reported. The school district completely closed Harmony Middle School last week and sent 595 students home for a 14-day quarantine after 10 staff members tested positive.
Jennifer Bee Wright’s daughter is a Harmony student. He said the school informed parents via phone calls of the closure and also offered the students coronavirus tests.
Wright said she was initially okay with sending her daughter to classes in person because she believed “common sense” would keep children safe. He also said his daughter really wanted to go back.
“My daughter likes to go to school with the teachers,” she said. “It really makes a difference mentally for children to be sociable with each other and to leave the house.”
However, when Harmony reopens her doors to students on September 14, Wright’s daughter may not return.
“We’ll probably keep her at home until all of this is gone,” Wright said. “Not because we’re afraid of getting sick, but because I don’t want to drag her in and out of school and I have to worry and stress her about the change if it happens again, and I’m sure it will. “
Strauss reported from Washington.