Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida on July 21, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
With the 2022-23 school year looming in Florida, millions of students and staff at K-12 brick-and-mortar schools and college campuses could face a triangle of health outbreaks and potential infections, with diseases already circulating in the state, nation and the world.
Even so, K-12 educators say school buildings will have fewer health protections for students and staff — for example, no more mask mandates — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and other potential medical threats expand.
However, some public colleges and universities have been strongly recommending students, faculty and staff to follow protocols, such as masking in indoor settings and encouraging vaccines to minimize the risk of COVID.
Florida’s COVID-19 cases have been rising due to the highly transmissible omicron subvariant called BA.5. The serious and deadly meningococcal disease — infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord — recently became an outbreak in Florida. And the monkeypox virus, causing a characteristic skin rash, has rapidly expanded in Florida and around the world.
The diseases circulating in the public school arena could potentially increase infections, particularly in the absence of face masks, social distancing, and other safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID and other diseases.
June Browne, an intensive care unit nurse at Osceola Regional Medical Center, told the Phoenix in a phone conversation that wearing a mask is still recommended. Browne is a member of the National Nurses United, a nationwide union representing registered nurses.
“I know nobody wants to keep wearing masks,” Browne said. “We’ve been in this for a long time. But I think we do need to be protected. We still need to get vaccinated, we still need to get boosted. We still need to wear a mask when we are going to be out and about among others.”
“Even though we are not in the peak of COVID,” she added, “COVID is still killing people.”
K-12: Options limited
As soon as July 28, K-12 public school teachers will start returning to their classrooms to prepare for the 2022-23 school year.
Around August 10, about three million students will start their first day of school with fewer health protection protocols, limited in part, because the DeSantis administration and GOP lawmakers prohibited school districts from requiring masks.
“Options are fairly limited under Florida law,” Jackie Johnson, of the Alachua County School District, told the Phoenix.
According to Johnson, the Gainesville-based school district has air-purifiers for their schools and are sanitizing learning spaces, but it’s “incredibly difficult” to social distance in a school setting.
“Schools were not built for social distance,” she told the Phoenix. Earlier in the pandemic, some schools tried to use social distancing as much as possible, but there were fewer students in brick-and-mortar schools at the time.
Russell Bruhn, a communication staffer with the Brevard County School District on the Atlantic Coast, told the Phoenix that a lot of the cleaning procedures will continue into the 2022-23 school year.
“The protocols that we’ve had during all the variants since March of 2020 will still be in play. Includes, you know, a lot of hand washing, hand sanitizer available to everybody. Water fountains will still operate the same way — meaning that they’ll be used to fill up water bottles, not to actually take water directly to the student’s or staff members mouth,” Bruhn told the Phoenix. “And our cleaning protocols will remain as they have been — which sometimes includes deep cleaning if we get to a point where we do have a concentrated issue of COVID cases.”
In the past two academic years, protective measures sparked political divides in education, specifically with masks.
GOP leaders rallied behind allowing parents to decide whether their own students could wear masks in schools, not districts, accelerating the “parents’ rights” movement among conservatives based off of a Florida law signed in March 2021.
There were clashes between the state and local districts surrounding mask requirements, ultimately leading to the Education Department withholding certain salaries of school boards that voted to implement mask mandates. And legal challenges ensued but later fizzled out.
In November, DeSantis called a special session to prohibit certain COVID safety measures, and a new law explicitly prohibited school districts from implementing mask mandates on students, allowing parents to make the decisions.
With that, parents have the authority to decide if their kids wear masks in public schools this school year.
Kyle Kennedy, a communications staffer with Polk County public schools, said in an email to the Phoenix that “Just like all other Florida school districts, we will not have a mask mandate this year.”
“We will continue to follow our existing COVID-19 procedures that involve additional cleaning and sanitization in schools. We’re also installing ultraviolet air disinfection devices in all classrooms,” Kennedy wrote.
However, some school districts are still encouraging mask use, even if the district cannot enforce the protocol.
“Masks are not required, but the district continues to strongly encourage students, staff, visitors and vendors to wear face coverings indoors at any district school location or vehicle,” according to Cathleen Brennan, communications staffer with Broward County Public Schools, in an email to the Phoenix.
Meanwhile, the statewide Florida Education Association is urging schools to implement health policies to prevent outbreaks and disruptions to learning for students.
FEA President Andrew Spar said in an email to the Phoenix:
“As COVID moves from the pandemic phase to becoming endemic, schools need to have policies in place to keep students safe while minimizing or eliminating disruptions to learning. By law, those policies cannot include requiring masks. Beyond COVID, the larger issue impacting our students this fall will be Florida’s massive shortage of teachers and support staff. Students need professionally trained teachers in their classrooms and bus drivers to get them to school on time. If the governor and state lawmakers are serious about providing kids with a high-quality education, they’ll leave divisive politics aside and take immediate steps to address the shortage.”
College and universities: Nothing new?
The State University System of Florida hasn’t released any new safety measures for campuses to follow, according to spokeswoman Renee Fargason.
“We are not issuing new health guidance at this time,” Fargason told the Florida Phoenix in an email.
Likewise, at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, health guidance hasn’t changed, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Haughney.
“Florida State University continues to work closely with local and state health officials to help keep our community safe,” she said in an email. “At this time, the Florida Department of Health has not changed its guidance for institutions related to masking or other safety measures.”
But at the University of Florida in Gainesville, officials are strongly encouraging safety measures on its campus, such as wearing masks in indoor settings and on public transportation and vaccines, according to its website.
Cynthia Roldán Hernández, interim director of strategic communications at UF, said in an email to the Phoenix:
“On June 15, university leadership announced measures aimed at addressing rising cases of COVID-19. As in previous semesters, university leadership will continue to monitor developments with COVID-19 and make changes to address the situation if needed.”
Tallahassee Community College also is recommending safety measures but wearing a mask isn’t a requirement, said Candice Grause, vice president of communications and chief of staff at TCC. “This new variant will not change the way we do business,” Grause said in an email to the Phoenix.
“TCC remains focused on the health and safety of our students. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the college took swift action to implement protocols that proved incredibly effective,” Grause said.
“As we prepare for the start of the 2022-23 academic year, we will continue to do our part to mitigate the spread of illness on our campus and in our community. We encourage personal responsibility among all our faculty, staff, and students, to wash and sanitize hands frequently, respect one another’s personal space, and stay home if they are ill. While masks are not mandated on our campus, they are made freely available and employees, students, and visitors are welcome to wear them. We also continue to utilize enhanced cleaning protocols, adhere to CDC guidelines for COVID-19 testing, quarantining, and isolation, and ask that if anyone from our community tests positive for COVID-19, that they notify Human Resources.”
BA.5, monkeypox and Meningococcal disease
While COVID-19 is well known by now, not everyone keeps up with it — or other major diseases.
Here’s what you should know when it comes to the latest information on COVID and two other diseases as Florida’s school year opens soon.
BA.5, a subvariant of omicron, has become the dominant COVID variant in the United States and has accounted for 77.9 percent of new COVID cases, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, cases have been increasing in Florida, with 12,466 new cases reported on July 20, according to CDC data. That figure is larger than the number of new cases during springtime 2022.
As to BA.5, federal health officials are warning that the subvariant is more transmissible and could lead to more hospitalizations.
CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in an email to the Florida Phoenix:
“An increase in cases may lead to an increase in hospitalizations and changes to CDC’s COVID Community Levels (CCL) in certain areas. However, there is no evidence available at this time to suggest that BA.5 causes more severe disease than other variants or omicron lineages.”
The COVID Community Levels in the United States indicate that the risk from COVID-19 is increasing in many areas. That means people should stay up to date on vaccines and take appropriate precautions.
In addition to COVID, federal and global health officials are continuing to monitor the 2022 outbreak of monkeypox and meningococcal diseases. Cases have continued to rise, and officials have said those diseases are disproportionately impacting the LGBTQ+ community.
The World Health Organization held a meeting on Thursday to assess whether to declare monkeypox as a public health emergency.
Cases of monkeypox, a rare disease that typically causes a characteristic skin rash, continue to climb in Florida and throughout the country. In Florida, there have been 226 monkeypox cases across 16 counties, state department of health data show, with South Florida accounting for the most cases. Broward County reported 117 cases and Miami-Dade reported 60 cases, as of Thursday.
The CDC data show a total of 2,323 confirmed monkeypox cases in the nation, with the most cases in New York (581), California (356), Illinois (208) and Florida (208) in the CDC analysis. Globally, there have been 15,335 cases “in countries that have not historically reported monkeypox” across 66 countries.
Another concerning disease spreading in Florida is meningococcal, which has caused deaths and has been detected in 17 counties, state data show.
The disease includes infections of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and bloodstream, according to the CDC, which created a web page within its website dedicated to information about the 2022 outbreak of meningococcal disease in Florida.
According to the Florida Department of Health, there have been 48 cases in Florida, with the most infections in Orange County (14).
State officials have posted general information about the disease, including symptoms, treatment options and vaccines. But the CDC has been involved as well, calling the outbreak “one of the worst outbreaks of meningococcal disease among gay and bisexual men in U.S. history.”
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