The tumultuous 2020-21 school year will end with more than 115,000 cases of COVID-19 in FL’s K-12 schools

By: - May 26, 2021 7:00 am
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Classroom. Credit: Pixabay.

The first full academic year under the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to a tumultuous close in Florida schools, with more than 115,000 infections accounted for by students, teachers, staff and others.

But while the numbers continued to rise throughout 2020-21, the Florida Department of Health’s COVID updates in schools became a difficult task, the Phoenix found.

A massive list of COVID cases in schools had no grand totals; updates on the numbers sometimes were late; an archive of previous reports from the health department were hard to come by and the agency didn’t provide any analysis on the numbers of COVID cases in schools across the state.

In addition, getting information from the department was inconsistent.

Overall, it’s not entirely clear if the public knew what was going on in with COVID cases in both public and private schools.

School’s almost over: What are the numbers?

The Phoenix has been analyzing state data on COVID-19 in Florida’s public and private schools since September.

Between Sept. 6 to May 15, to be exact, there were 115,148 cases of COVID-19 in Florida’s K-12 public and private schools. That number includes students, teachers, staff and others who tested positive for COVID-19 related to Florida schools.

The breakout: 91,047 student, 8,291 teacher cases, 5,521 staff cases, and 10,289 other cases, according to the health department data.

During that time, 77,694 cases were symptomatic, while 24,269 cases were asymptomatic. The other 13,185 could not be determined.

Keep in mind that the school-related COVID numbers are not final yet because not all schools are out for the summer.

Some school districts such as Bradford in North Florida, Gulf in the Panhandle and Orange, in Central Florida, have already had their last day of school. Other districts, such as Sarasota and Palm Beach, will finish out the year in mid-June, according to school-calendar information from the Florida Department of Education.

Late start; unreliable updates, little communication

The Phoenix has been reporting on the state’s data since September, and along the way, numerous problems cropped up.

The first report of the Department of Health’s COVID cases in schools came out on Sept. 29, covering Sept. 6 through Sept. 26, 2020. In that timespan, there were about 2,600 cases of K-12 students, teachers, staff and others.

The problem? Some Florida schools had already been in attendance for in-person instruction since Aug. 10. A whole month’s worth of COVID-19 data from Florida’s K-12 public and private schools was not published or available for families and school districts to keep track of COVID in schools.

This was a contentious time in Florida schools, with heated debates and concerns over whether schools were even safe enough to reopen for in-person learning during a pandemic.

There were some critiques of the initial data report, with some school districts claiming that there were more COVID cases in their schools than the health department data reported.

The Phoenix reached out to the state heath department as to why the data did not line up with what districts self reported, but did not receive a response.

The department did eventually answer that question in a “Frequently Asked Questions” document about the data, saying that school districts and the state were creating their reports differently.

Then, the state health department said it would release weekly updates on Tuesdays. But there were issues with the timeliness in reporting. For example, throughout the academic year, updates were often a day or so late or even nearly two weeks late.

In December, the updates were inconsistent, possibly due to the winter holidays, but the exact reasoning is unclear. The Phoenix tried to get an explanation from the Department of Health for why they were late with the data and clarity on their schedule during the winter holiday, but they did not respond with an answer.

Even as recently as last week, the department failed to update their data in a timely manner.

In another issue, back in October, the department posted incomplete data, failing to post some of the data on COVID cases. (Those specific cases related to colleges and universities, which the health department also was tracking. The Phoenix has focused mostly on numbers relating to Florida’s K-12 schools.)

The Phoenix reached out to the department and the problem was addressed the next day, providing college and university data.

Meanwhile, the department didn’t provided any context for what the numbers meant in any given week — whether cases went up or down among schools.

No totals

The health department also failed to provide a grand total for COVID cases related to schools in the data reports that expanded to more than 100 pages.

This reports simply listed the names of schools, the counties and the number of COVID cases at each school. But there were no district or statewide totals. That would require downloading the reports and understanding a spreadsheet — which some people may not know how to do.

The Phoenix was able to handle the spreadsheets to, for example, determine milestones such as surpassing 10,000 cases in mid-October; 50,000 cases by late January, and recently 100,000 cases at the start of May.

Some numbers don’t add up

Each data update provides two categories of data: The overall cumulation of cases starting from Sept. 6 and data isolated from the previous week. But the numbers did not always add up week to week.

For example, the cumulative number of COVID cases from public and private K-12 schools spanning Sept. 6, 2020 through May 8, 2021 shows 112,890 cases, according to older state reports.

Now, the most recent data isolates the week of May 9 through May 15, reporting that the K-12 cases of COVID-19 for that week as 2,231 cases.

If you add these two data points up, you get 115,121, which one would expect to line up with the most recent cumulative data reporting total COVID cases from Sept. 6 through May 15.

But, but the newest report doesn’t say that. Instead, the cumulative data from the most recent update, spanning Sept. 6 through May 15, reports that there have been 115,148 cases in that time span.

This suggests that somewhere there are 27 more cases.

In addition, there does not appear to be a collection of all of the reports from the state Department of Health available to the public.

So unless you’ve been downloading and saving every update, which the Phoenix has been doing since early September, it’s difficult to see how numbers and school-related COVID cases have trended over time.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.