DeSantis: ‘Our schools will be open’ despite surge in COVID infections

By: - January 3, 2022 4:05 pm

Classroom. Getty Images.

With nearly 3 million Florida public school students returning to in-person classes this week amid a record surge in COVID infections in the state, there will be no tightening of COVID protocols for students, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday at a press conference in Fort Lauderdale.

“Our schools will be open in the state of Florida,” DeSantis told reporters.

Meanwhile, at least five of Florida’s school districts are worried. In the past week, they have issued face-mask mandates to the fullest of their legal capability: requiring employees, visitors and vendors to wear masks in school settings, including school buses. Some also are issuing temporary orders to postpone field trips, hold staff meetings online, and wear face masks and/or limit capacity at sporting and performing-arts events.

They are prohibited from mandating face masks for students, according to the DeSantis administration and a new law.

The five districts are Alachua, Broward, Duval, and Miami-Dade, as announced on their websites and social-media channels, and Palm Beach County, according to the Palm Beach Post. Leon County’s school district is evaluating the need for stepped-up protocols with local health officials and school principals, according to its Twitter channel.

Outside Florida, the mammoth New York City school system tweeted a few days ago that schools will be open Monday and that the system is “putting additional health and safety measures in place to ensure students and staff are safe and that our schools can continue to be open.”

Other large city school districts are taking strong measures as the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads.

According to The New York Times, “Large city school systems in Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Newark have joined a growing list of public schools across the country that have postponed reopening after the holiday break, switched to remote instruction, or have taken both steps because of COVID-19 outbreaks and staffing shortages.”

Early in the pandemic in Florida, long before vaccines were available, public schools closed in the state’s 67 school districts, and thousands of students stayed home doing online instruction. At the time, in mid-April 2020, when the school year was nearly ending, DeSantis said, “It’s obviously not the ideal situation.”

Months later, he said he regretted the closures, and on Monday, he said of the state’s public schools, “They don’t need to do any crazy mitigation.”

By “crazy mitigation,” he likely meant mandates to wear face masks and other measures banned before the winter holidays.

DeSantis has been at war with local school districts that wanted to impose mask mandates and other instructions during various surges of COVID. The DeSantis administration’s policy was to give parents, not school boards, the right to choose whether their children attend school masked or unmasked. The State Board of Education docked pay from school boards that issued mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s policy, but the districts have since rescinded the mandates and the Board of Education has since returned the money.

“If you’re healthy, you need to be in school,” DeSantis said Monday, without addressing how infected but pre-symptomatic people (infected but not yet exhibiting symptoms) can spread the virus to others even if it does not sicken them personally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other infectious-disease experts.

Meanwhile, the governor’s theme for the press conference Monday related to federal authorities resuming distribution of monoclonal antibody therapies for COVID-19 patients, which were paused Dec. 23 due to concerns that the medicine does little to improve the health of patients infected with the new and no dominant omicron variant.

DeSantis said distribution sites for monoclonal antibody therapies are ready to open on 24-hour notice and that he anticipates Florida receiving 30,000 to 40,000 doses.

The treatments are designed to keep infected people from getting very sick and requiring hospitalization. Monoclonal antibodies are copies of antibodies produced by patients whose immune systems overcame their infections.

Joining DeSantis at the press conference were Surgeon General nominee Joseph Ladapo, Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie, Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller, and hospital executives with Broward Health. DeSantis and Ladapo harshly criticized the feds for the pause in distributing monoclonal antibody therapies, regardless of the questions about its efficacy against omicron infections.

The CDC reported on Dec. 30 that Florida confirmed 58,013 new cases in one day — Dec. 29. That was the largest figure of all states, except for New York. (New York data includes New York City and New York state, and the combination was larger than Florida’s number.) The CDC has not yet updated new COVID cases as of Monday afternoon, but new cases are expected to rise in Florida.

Phoenix Editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.

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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.