By the end of the first week of school in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, a total of 243 students had to miss school and quarantine due to either being exposed to or being diagnosed with COVID-19.
The numbers are similar in both counties. According to Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, a total of 113 students were identified as having been exposed to or diagnosed with the virus, about 10% to 15% of which were confirmed positive cases.
In Santa Rosa County, Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said 130 students and 18 faculty members had to isolate for the same reasons. At least one student at Gulf Breeze High School was confirmed positive.
First day of school: First day of school in Santa Rosa, Escambia counties: Students, parents cautiously optimistic
Thomas said the numbers in his district weren't surprising, as school officials expected and were prepared for at least a small number of cases.
"Before the first day of school, before a single child walked into our buildings, there were 33 students in the traditional method that could not come to school because they were told to isolate by the health department because of exposure to COVID," Thomas said.
What was surprising, Thomas said, was instances where parents knew their child may have been exposed or positive for the virus, and chose to send their child to school anyway.
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At one middle school in Escambia County, which Thomas would not name due to student privacy concerns, a parent had their child tested for the coronavirus Sunday, the day before the first day of school. The child went to school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before getting a positive test result, and as a result, 40 children at the one middle school had to be sent home to isolate for 10 days.
"If you're going to take a child to get tested because they have symptoms or you think they've been exposed, don't turn around and send the child to school the next day," Thomas said. "The parents have to be our partners in this."
In Santa Rosa County, Wyrosdick had the same concerns.
"Our greatest frustration is parents who send their child to school symptomatic," he said in an email to the News Journal on Friday. "We desperately need parents to do daily health checks on students before sending them to school."
Both districts have policies that require any person at a school who comes within 6 feet of a positive individual for more than 15 minutes and who is without a mask or other protective material to isolate for 10 or 14 days regardless of whether they have symptoms.
Both schools say they're working with their respective health departments on contract tracing and keeping tabs on who has been confirmed positive and who has been exposed.
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"Cases reported among school children would be investigated and contact traced as in any other case," said a spokesperson for the Department of Health in Santa Rosa County via email. "We continue to work closely with the school district to ensure they have the most current prevention and infection control guidelines."
In Escambia County, a Department of Health spokesperson also outlined a process of contact tracing when a person tests positive.
"FDOH-Escambia continues to serve as a resource to the school districts to establish protocols that ensure students have safe and healthy learning environments," a spokesperson said Friday. "FDOH-Escambia works collaboratively with the local superintendent, school district and school board to provide county data and trends and educate on mitigation strategies to make the school environment as safe as possible. We will continue to collaborate with local school districts on best practices to ensure the safety of students and staff."
Tech issues plague both districts, but first week 'amazing' overall
Besides COVID-19 issues, officials at both districts said that overall, the first week of school went well, though multiple technical issues were reported due to so many students learning remotely.
Thomas said there were some "first day tech glitches" and some students reported internet connectivity problems when there were multiple students in one house trying to connect, but the district has been able to resolve most of the technology issues.
"A lot of parents have been going both ways the first few days. Some started remote and felt like, 'Hmm, I don't know if I can do this,' and switched to in-person," Thomas said. "Others thought, 'I'm a little worried,' and put their student into remote learning."
Wyrosdick said his district is "working through" a few technology issues, including on-boarding students to Florida Virtual School, but had a good first week overall.
"The first week was amazing," he said. "Students were excited, teachers were excited. We are glad to be back in school."
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.
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