Covid-19 cases among Florida children jumped 26% in a month. It's still hard to know which schools are safe

CNN's Rosa Flores reports.

Posted: Sep 15, 2020 2:21 PM
Updated: Sep 15, 2020 2:21 PM

Since many Florida public schools opened their doors about a month ago, the number of children under 18 who have contracted Covid-19 statewide has jumped 26%, state data show.

Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to push for in-person instruction across the Sunshine State. Even though his administration has released county-level data that indicates the 26% jump, it has not released school-level Covid-19 data for all K-12 public schools, which CNN began asking the state Department of Health for on August 31. On September 2 -- nearly two weeks ago -- state officials said by email the data would be released in the coming days and weeks.

But still, the state hasn't provided this key information.

To deal with this information gap, some school districts have created their own Covid-19 data dashboards or released coronavirus case numbers on social media pages or their websites. While useful in those jurisdictions, the overall result is a patchwork of data that varies in completeness and timeliness by district at a time when students, parents, teachers and administrators are making tough decisions about whether to opt for virtual or in-person learning.

It's a problem that reverberates across the US as the White House and federal agencies come down hard in favor of reopening schools but often fail to give reliable information to those on the front lines.

On campus, 'people were breaking the rules'

Florida began reopening schools August 10. On that day, 42,761 children under 18 statewide were infected with the coronavirus, the state Department of Health reported.

That week, nine of 12 school districts opening their doors were in counties with positivity rates above 5%, the uppermost threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for schools to offer in-person learning. CNN confirmed the list of districts that planned to open as provided by an attorney for the Florida Education Association and confirmed positivity rates with the Florida Department of Health.

One month later, 53,717 Florida children have tested positive for Covid-19, with a positivity rate of 14.3%, statewide data show.

In Martin County, the positivity rate among children tested is 20.5%, according to the latest state data.

Reese Richardson started seventh grade in person on August 11 at a Martin County public school. But after about a week and a half, she decided to switch to virtual learning.

"Kids were taking off their masks," Reese said. "They were touching. They were close in the halls. People were breaking the rules."

The Martin County School District is one of those districts that releases its own Covid-19 data via the news media. One day after reopening, an entire classroom was placed under quarantine. A month later, it has reported 23 positive or presumed positive cases and has quarantined 510 students. The district has 16,500 K-12 students.

Lindsey Tarpley appreciates the transparency from the district, she said. She works for the Martin County School District, and her children, ages 10 and 5, attend Jensen Beach Elementary School in the county.

"I use that information to make a decision for them to attend school," Tarpley said.

But Jill Richardson, Reese's mom and a former teacher, wants more transparency from the district and the state.

"I don't feel like I'm getting up-to-date or accurate numbers," Richardson said.

District-level data varies in detail

At least 1.1 million students were participating on August 31 in in-person instruction, the state Department of Education tweeted that day. But the data available to students and parents about the Covid-19 situation in their schools still varies from district to district.

Hillsborough County Public Schools launched a dashboard that shows 255 positive cases in students and employees since July 31. The Osceola School District posts on its website the number of students and personnel who are either quarantined or have tested positive for a given week.

Orange County Public Schools releases its Covid-19 data on Facebook on Tuesdays and Fridays. The latest post cites 18 new positive cases in 17 schools since the last report and lists 61 schools that "have had a positive case associated with an individual who has been on campus since the start of face-to-face classes on August 21."

Depending on how data are tracked and displayed, this piecemeal approach can make it hard to keep tabs on new cases and may not specify the schools, grades or classrooms where infected students have been.

Florida's largest teacher's union in a new TV commercial is pushing the state to release comprehensive data.

"As the virus spreads, those at the top aren't giving us the information we need," the narrator says in the ad. "Instead, Gov. DeSantis plays politics with our kids' health."

"When we deny what's going on in the schools, ... when we deny that information, it just causes the spread to grow much faster," said Andrew Spar, Florida Education Association president.

On why his administration has not released school-specific Covid-19 data, DeSantis had this to say during a September 11 news conference.

"It's not like if a test is reported to the state that the state necessarily knows which school that came from. That's not the way it's going," he said in response to a question from CNN.

DeSantis has asked his commissioner of education and state surgeon general to produce the information, he said. But a date for the release of the data has not been provided.

Students' mental health is also a factor

The state does not require Martin County public schools to report the number of students and staff who are quarantined or have tested positive, Superintendent Laurie Gaylord told CNN.

Students quarantined in Martin County stay home. In some cases, a teacher -- considered an essential worker -- with the same coronavirus exposure is required to report to work for in-person instruction the next day.

Even with all these challenges, many parents and teachers in Florida are comfortable with brick-and-mortar schooling. In Martin County public schools, 64% of students are attending in-person classes, and 36% are learning remotely.

At Jensen Beach Elementary School in Martin County, the halls are marked to facilitate social distancing. The dining hall is disinfected after every use. But desks in some classrooms are not 6 feet apart. Parents were warned social distancing would not be possible at all times, Gaylord said, so masks are required to be worn in schools.

Tarpley, the Martin schools mom and employee, trusts the district is doing everything it can to keep her children safe, she said. And she believes there is no substitute for being in a classroom in terms of the mental health and well-being of her children.

"With everything in life," she said, "there is a risk."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 324537

Reported Deaths: 5594
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion44186858
Lake28094462
Allen18660301
Elkhart17663230
St. Joseph17256234
Hamilton13612170
Vanderburgh10028121
Tippecanoe896729
Porter855386
Johnson6718169
Hendricks6412158
Vigo625889
Monroe550450
Clark531078
Madison5239122
Delaware5075103
LaPorte481196
Kosciusko475941
Howard364177
Bartholomew335365
Warrick335372
Floyd329478
Wayne325678
Marshall311846
Cass303931
Grant287150
Hancock272957
Noble264946
Henry256437
Boone255054
Dubois245631
Dearborn228231
Jackson226334
Morgan221243
Gibson194926
Knox193021
Shelby192656
Clinton185421
DeKalb183932
Lawrence183849
Wabash172821
Adams172422
Miami170815
Daviess163145
Fayette153734
Steuben153414
Jasper151713
Montgomery149327
Harrison147624
LaGrange146131
Ripley145815
Whitley142314
Huntington133510
Decatur132543
Putnam131128
White131022
Wells130130
Clay130023
Randolph128121
Posey125816
Jefferson124116
Scott114520
Greene106053
Sullivan102716
Jay101913
Starke95022
Jennings90414
Spencer8908
Fulton87519
Perry85121
Fountain8228
Washington8127
Franklin73427
Carroll71913
Orange70028
Vermillion6607
Owen6468
Tipton60327
Parke6026
Newton57812
Rush5708
Blackford56612
Pike52719
Pulaski41815
Martin3705
Benton3643
Brown3574
Crawford3081
Union2782
Switzerland2655
Warren2562
Ohio2387
Unassigned0266

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 399808

Reported Deaths: 6346
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin52652672
Cuyahoga39132746
Hamilton31491372
Montgomery21355242
Butler15768149
Lucas15301420
Summit14667330
Stark9780209
Warren878777
Mahoning7985301
Lake752566
Lorain7149106
Clermont622953
Delaware597337
Licking589977
Trumbull5867148
Fairfield576464
Greene559568
Clark5438129
Allen518389
Medina496557
Marion489359
Wood4861108
Miami456268
Pickaway410548
Portage385574
Columbiana376599
Tuscarawas360567
Richland349639
Wayne340894
Mercer299248
Muskingum262510
Hancock257240
Ross251259
Darke246160
Auglaize243935
Erie240868
Ashtabula240454
Putnam234549
Geauga227051
Union20838
Scioto204316
Lawrence201139
Shelby199917
Athens19984
Seneca192919
Belmont176729
Madison172019
Sandusky166429
Huron163022
Preble162521
Defiance149923
Holmes146939
Knox139719
Logan139018
Jefferson138113
Fulton135826
Crawford134417
Washington133427
Ottawa128830
Ashland117328
Williams11479
Clinton113115
Highland108118
Brown10755
Hardin107019
Henry105423
Champaign10535
Jackson102012
Van Wert99918
Fayette97317
Guernsey96814
Morrow9682
Coshocton91015
Perry86613
Adams83813
Gallia81615
Pike7921
Wyandot76118
Paulding70012
Hocking68516
Noble65124
Carroll53210
Meigs41712
Monroe34921
Morgan2925
Harrison2433
Vinton2326
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