School closures reported in five FL counties; districts ‘drowning’ in COVID

Health departments unable to help with testing, contact tracing

By: - August 20, 2021 11:16 am

First-graders in class in spring 2021, when COVID infections had declined. Now, fueled by the Delta variant, infections in Florida are soaring. Credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Florida school districts caught off guard by a whole new COVID pandemic that erupted just as schools were reopening are scrambling to chase down infections and exposures on campus without the resources they need for testing and contact tracing.

One Florida school superintendent described it this week as “drowning.”

One school each in Charlotte and Hernando counties closed and one in Bay County delayed opening this week; the entire fifth grade at a Glades County school shut down; and 21 classrooms in Lee County were shuttered, according to the Florida Education Association.

The FEA also reports that 17 school employees, including seven teachers and an assistant principal, have died of COVID since Aug. 1.

The COVID resurgence, largely fueled by the the Delta variant preying on unvaccinated people, has driven more than 28,000 students and school staff in Florida into quarantine and isolation based on confirmed infections or direct exposures to infected people.

And that is with only six of Florida’s 67 school districts reporting, according to the FEA’s COVID tracker.

“I think these number are pretty staggering,” said Pasco County School Superintendent Kurt Browning, describing the local crisis to school board members Tuesday. “We are drowning. We are struggling to stay afloat.”

Browning, a former Florida secretary of state, said that of 1,261 COVID cases detected during Pasco’s first week of classes, fewer than 400 were “completed,” meaning traced to their source with that person and his or her contacts isolated from others. That means nearly 900 cases had not been traced, likely contributing to further spread of the virus.

Hillsborough County Schools reported that more than 13,000 students and staff were in quarantine or isolation Friday, compared with just over 1,140 in Orange County — even though the districts are of comparable size and reporting proportionate numbers of confirmed COVID infections.

Why are they so far apart in their reports of infected and exposed students and staff?

“Why are we not doing what they’re doing?” Hillsborough School Board member Melissa Snively asked during an emergency meeting Tuesday night, pointing to Orange County’s low quarantine count. “How are they doing so well?”

They  aren’t necessarily doing so well, answered Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Addison Davis. Earlier in the meeting, he shared that he had enrolled his daughter, because of elevated susceptibility, in the district’s virtual school for the semester.

Health departments ‘backlogged’

While commending Orange County on its efforts, Davis suggested that Orange and other districts relying on support from local public health departments may be unavoidably “backlogged” on contact tracing.

Hillsborough’s quarantine rate is higher because the district is performing thorough contact tracing using its own staff rather than relying on local health departments that are plenty busy already contending with the COVID resurgence in their communities and a surge in demand for vaccinations.

Jennifer Sparano, appointed Covid Commander to lead the district’s COVID response, said her team is “surgical” in its precision, to avoid unnecessarily moving any students or employees from classrooms into quarantine.

Board member Stacy Hahn said school districts should not have to do public-health work and called on the local health officials to” absorb” the school district’s burden of contact tracing.

Dr. Douglas Holt, director of Hillsborough’s Public Health Department, said it can’t be done.

“At this time, absolutely we do not have the capability to surge up, if you will. We would not be able to step in and assume that role,” Holt told the board members, some of whom appeared startled by the statement.

The Florida Department of Health has not yet responded to Phoenix questions about whether it could “surge up” personnel to help schools districts do testing and contact tracing.

Asked what the Florida Department of Education could do to help, DOE spokesman Brett Tubbs said, “The question hasn’t been raised,” but he predicted, “It’s just a matter of time.”

The question has come up with the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, which confirmed the problem in this written statement for the Phoenix late Thursday:

“Some districts are indicating that their local health departments are currently unable to keep up with the demand for testing and contact tracing necessary to return students to school in the most timely manner possible.”

The question has come up with the Florida School Boards Association, too.

“They [school boards] have said they need help. It’s a monumental task, it’s never-ending, and it consumes staff time,” said the association’s executive director, Andrea Messina.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has broadly criticized school protocols that force “kids who aren’t sick” into quarantine due to known exposures to Delta-variant coronavirus.

Removed from classrooms, quarantined students have limited access to instruction because the state no longer funds remote learning — live interaction with teachers via the internet, as was widely done in spring 2020 when schools were closed.

If quarantined, students can continue their education at home by accessing materials online or by taking home a self-guided work packet. This time last school year, schools could provide “innovative” or “hybrid” learning models, giving students interactive access to classrooms and teachers in real time over video conference platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This year, those options are not available because the state will not pay districts for offering instruction that way instead of in-person.

Medical professionals stress that students and staff who do not look or feel sick can be infected and contagious. They also say the Delta variant poses a greater risk to younger people than did the original coronavirus.

Asymptomatic cases

In Pasco County, Superintendent Browning worries about all that.

“You will have asymptomatic cases in classrooms,” Browning said Tuesday. “That is problematic.”

On Thursday, Pasco convened school principals to discuss what to do about insufficient contact tracing that lets infections to go undetected and spread, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty. Recruiting more staff is not an option because nurses are in high demand and hard to retain, and the local health department is stretched too thin to help the schools, he said. That means the district will have to be “creative” to do more with the resources it has on hand.

“This is not the school year we prepared for,” Hagerty said. “We are rebuilding the plane while it’s flying.”

Hegarty said the district would start issuing COVID data reports on Friday that more accurately represent what is happening in Pasco schools. Through Thursday, the district reported 251 suspected or confirmed infections in students and 105 in employees, with 292 students and five employees quarantined — far from the 1,291 cases Superintendent Browning referenced on Tuesday.

“We have fallen behind [in reporting numbers],” Hegarty conceded. “The grand total will be much higher [today].”

At the FEA, president Andrew Spar said Gov. DeSantis should release $2.3 billion in federal emergency funds intended for Florida schools, rather than tie their hands by banning COVID restrictions, such as mask mandates, they might otherwise employ. He said the money could pay for more testing, upgrades to air-conditioning filtration systems, and additional staff to reduce class sizes and ridership on school buses.

“The governor here is holding billions of federal dollars meant to help these districts,” Spar said. “Thousands are being quarantined, and we’re only two weeks into the school year.”

Through Wednesday, five school districts — Alachua, Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach — had voted to defy the governor’s ban on mandatory face masks in hopes of tamping down transmission, despite threats to punish them by defunding their schools and removing elected officials.

The school districts hope a court will find them in compliance because they offer a limited opt-out option for students and staff who document medical necessity, thus not fully mandating masks. DeSantis wants districts to let parents opt out at their discretion. He has argued that masks are unsuitable for young children. The state Board of Education is considering sanctions against Alachua and Broward counties and has not yet addressed the other defiant districts.

Federal authorities have pledged to help school districts that suffer state-imposed penalties.

Meanwhile, trial is set to get underway on Monday in a lawsuit filed by parents of schoolchildren who allege the governor overstepped his authority by implementing a ban on mask mandates in schools.


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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.