Schools are seeing COVID-19 cases in South Florida — but little spread among students

South Florida Sun Sentinel | by Scott Travis | November 23, 2020

South Florida schools may be winning a major battle against COVID-19.

While the virus has upended many students’ education, due to quarantines and an erratic mix of in-person and remote learning, it’s not creating as many health concerns as feared, district officials say.

There have been more than 2,000 cases of the new coronavirus since South Florida schools reopened this fall, but most of those happened off-campus and haven’t spread on campus, health and school officials said.

They said efforts such as contact tracing, social distancing and mandatory face coverings for students and employees have been effective.

“There is nothing to suggest that our schools are sources for secondary transmission,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said this week, after meeting with Broward health officials. “We’re a very disciplined organization in terms of all the protocols we put in place.”

The same is true in Palm Beach County schools, said Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County’s health department director.

“There are no secondary cases. That means people that are positive are becoming positive outside of school,” she told the School Board on Tuesday. “By doing contact tracing, we’re able to contain them so you can continue doing the classes and programs you’re doing.”

Miami-Dade schools “have not been informed by any public health authority of any case that originated in a school house,” spokeswoman Natalia Zea said.

Districts have required infected students, as well as those who were close to them, to quarantine. Although it’s been disruptive to those students, it’s limited possible spread, officials said.

Palm Beach County did have one outbreak related to a high school football game. Twenty players and coaches at Palm Beach Central High tested positive for COVID-19 after spending a prolonged time on a school bus during rain. About 62 were quarantined.

Alonso said it could have been a lot worse.

“Had we let those people stay in school instead of quarantining them, it would have spread in the school,” she said. “Even though it was an event that was unfortunate, we were able to contain it. That’s what contract tracing does.”

Data from the school districts’ dashboards shows that while cases spiked in late October and early November, they’ve leveled off or declined in the past two weeks. Experts expect that to change after Thanksgiving as many students attend larger family gatherings.

Schools opened in late September in Palm Beach County and early October in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, after offering online learning only since March. About 40% of students in Palm Beach County have returned, 26% in Broward and 45% in Miami-Dade. The rest have continued to learn online.

School districts elsewhere are seeing similar positive trends, Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday at a White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting. He said there’s been evidence over the past few months that “K-12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning and they can do it safely and they can do it responsibly.”

The success in schools controlling the virus could bolster the argument of parents and state leaders who want to keep schools open, regardless of how high cases may spike in the community. Many districts in other states have started closing due to increasing COVID-19 numbers in their communities.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have been major proponents of keeping schools open, but Corcoran announced recently that parents won’t be forced to return next semester.

About 60% of the students statewide are attending school in person. While Broward is one of the lowest in the state, with only a quarter attending, Runcie said during a town hall Wednesday that he would encourage more to come back. He said the district can easily accommodate about 55% of students and still maintain safety protocols, such as social distancing.

“Parents on the fence should know our schools are relatively safe zones for their children to come into,” he said.

So far, the schools with the most cases reported tend to be high schools, which also have the most students. Palm Beach Central has the most total cases in Palm Beach County, with 26, followed by Boca Raton High with 24. Calusa Elementary in Boca Raton leads among non-high schools with 17 cases.

In Broward, Western High in Davie has the most reported cases with 21, followed by Cooper City High, Fort Lauderdale High and Cypress Bay High in Weston with 17 each. Eagle Point Elementary in Weston has the most among non-high schools, with 10.

Annabel C. Perry K-8 in Miramar has had two students contract the virus so far, both of whom got it off-campus, Principal Thomas Correll told his School Advisory Council this week.

“There’s not really a lot we can do with what happens outside of school,” he said, adding they can only control “what does happen inside the school.”

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