Naples Daily News | By Dan DeLuca and Rachel Fradette, Fort Myers-Press | September 7, 2021
Lee County schools have reported more COVID-19 cases in its first four weeks this year than the entirety of the previous school year.
Since the first day of school on Aug. 10, a total of 4,371 cases have been confirmed through Labor Day at the 87 school locations listed on the county’s COVID-19 incident log.
That’s about 300 more than last year’s total in the district’s schools, which was published by the Florida Department of Health and encompassed reports from September through May.
“The opening of this school year was made much more difficult by the surging case numbers and put great stress on our staff and families,” Rob Spicker, Lee’s district spokesperson, wrote in an email. “We are proud of the way our schools managed the process and appreciate the support of our parents. We continue to believe we have the protocols in place to protect the health and safety of our students and staff as much as is possible.”
Lee County did not maintain its own account of COVID-19 infections last year, instead relying on the Florida DOH’s weekly report. The DOH did not resume its statewide school case report for the 2021-22 school year.
Students account for 88% of the district’s COVID-19 cases to date.
Elementary schools have both the most total cases in the district (1,662) and the most infected employees (282). About 53% of the Lee County school employees who have tested positive so far this year work at elementary schools.
Nearly half of the district’s 87 school locations have already surpassed last year’s case totals. The 20 district schools located in Cape Coral have been especially hard-hit by the virus with 16 of them eclipsing their cases from the previous year.
Of the five district schools which have doubled their COVID-19 cases compared to last year, three are in Cape Coral. That includes Pelican Elementary which has reported 95 cases, more than triple its 31 cases last year.
Because no COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for children younger than 12, elementary students are not yet eligible for one.
COVID-19 cases in Lee schools top last year’s total
In just 4 weeks, Lee County schools have surpassed the district’s total for COVID-19 cases for all of last year. Shown below are the 10 Lee schools with the greatest percentage increase in cases from the 2020-21 school year
The number of students and staff members impacted by the cases due to quarantine parallels rising positive cases in the district.
As of Aug. 30, or more than two school weeks into the year, Lee schools reported 3,144 quarantines, according to records received after a public records request by The News-Press.
Per Lee’s Department of Health, positive cases resulted in 2,839 student quarantines and 305 staff member quarantines.
Last week, Superintendent Ken Savage announced a 30-day mask mandate for all district students and staff members beginning Sept. 1.
Days later, Florida’s Department of Education sent the Lee County school board a letter threatening sanctions, including withholding school board salaries, unless the district follows the state’s opt-out provision.
In his announcement of the mandate, Savage cited health advice and Lee County’s growing number of positive COVID-19 cases.
Lee County schools with most COVID-19 cases
Through Sept. 6, seven of the 10 Lee County schools with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases are high schools. Staff cases at these schools make up about 10% of the total number of cases.
In an interview last week after Lee’s first day with a mask mandate, Savage said the Delta variant has contributed to flooding the district with cases leading to lag in reporting and tracking cases.
“This is a challenge not just in Lee County, not just for the Department of Health, with the Lee County school system, it’s really a statewide issue we’ve noticed,” Savage said. “The sheer volume of what we’ve seen come through the Delta variant is so dramatic and so pronounced that it really overwhelmed systems that worked very well last year. I think the numbers are pretty well documented.”
Savage, who is serving in the interim until the school board finds a new leader, said the district has stepped up efforts to improve contact tracing, therefore, sharing updated data with the public.
“The increased testing, the turnaround time for that testing, the home-based testing, clearer protocols and increase staffing, it’s really a comprehensive attempt to try to speed things up,” Savage said.
The district is still determining what measurement will be used to determine the future of the mandate beyond its 30 days, he said.
“We’re trying to get as much of the real-time or next-day data that we can, it’s so important to have,” Savage said. “We don’t want to be waiting for the data.”
While school cases in Collier County are also exceeding last year’s pace, the district has yet to surpass its 2020-21 total.
As of Tuesday morning, the district’s dashboard listed 1,282 cases, about 700 fewer than last year. At its current pace of nearly 50 cases per day since school began, Collier would pass last year’s total later this month.
The higher COVID-19 case totals in Lee’s schools mirrors the greater overall spread of the virus in the county.
According to data from Johns Hopkins, Lee County averaged more than 1,080 cases per day last week, a minimal decline from the previous week’s average of about 1,100 per day.
Meanwhile, Florida’s overall weekly case count dropped 15% from the previous week’s total.
In Collier County, cases declined 5% last week as compared to the previous week.