Just a few weeks into the new school year and COVID has already forced thousands of Florida students out of their classrooms.
In Hillsborough County, the state’s third-largest school district, nearly 12,000 students and staff are either currently isolating because of a positive test or in quarantine due to direct exposure, according to the district’s latest numbers on its website.
While in small, rural Okeechobee County, positive tests or close contacts have impacted more than a third of the district’s total student population of 6,000.
It’s only week three.
“It’s as interesting as we thought it was going to be,” said Assistant Superintendent Dylan Tedders. “Let’s put it this way, by mid-to-late last week, we were already halfway to all the exclusions [quarantines] we did last year,” Tedders said.
But while quarantine numbers are reaching numbers high enough to make any parent anxious, district protocols on when to send students home are more relaxed this year.
If students are vaccinated and asymptomatic, they won’t be quarantined even if they’ve had direct exposure. The recommendations come from both the CDC and the state department of health.
However, protocols change for students who are unvaccinated and quarantine lengths vary if students are asked to quarantine at all.
In Pasco County, parents are frustrated over more relaxed protocols some parents fear, are too risky.
“I don’t think it’s good enough, it’s on the side of dangerous really,” said Bobby Fernandez, whose three children were home e-learning last year.
Since the option is no longer available this year, Fernandez sent her kids back to school. By week two, her son’s high school reported a case but Fernandez is frustrated the school didn’t reveal much information about it. Her son is vaccinated.
Diane Butley’s 6-year-old son also returned to school after e-learning last year. She also received a generic email stating there was a positive case confirmed in her son’s second grade. But her son wasn’t quarantined and she wants a better understanding of why since the email didn’t provide much detail.
“The problem with that is there could be kids who are carrying the virus and can be sick and spreading it and not know it,” Butler said.
Case in point, one parent, who asked to remain anonymous, shared an email exchange he had with the district after he was notified of the possible exposure in his daughter’s second grade but no indication on whether or not she should get tested.
The school advised his daughter did not need quarantine. His daughter didn’t have any symptoms but he and his wife decided to get her tested anyway. He sent the district the following email with her results:
“My daughter tested positive this morning,” he wrote. “As responsible parents we had her tested before sending her back. Your policies would have ensured that it would have spread even further throughout our school,” the parent wrote to the school board.
A spokesperson from Pasco County schools told us this year they are trying to unnecessarily quarantine students. Last year, tens of thousands of Florida students were quarantined but never got sick. It’s a balance many districts, including Pasco, are still trying to figure out.
In Okeechobee County, unvaccinated students who are exposed must quarantine for 14 days, with no exceptions. But unvaccinated staff who may have been exposed are not quarantined.
“We’re treating our staff like essential employees so if they’re not showing symptoms they can be at work,” said Tedders, who understands why some parents may be frustrated with less restrictive protocols.
But, he also said many parents with quarantined children are also frustrated since it means some parents may not be able to work.
“The game changed so we’re having to adapt to the game-changing and just try to keep people at work and at school,” he said.
Thresholds for closing schools due to outbreaks are being left open for discussion. Of about a dozen Florida school districts we contacted, all of them told us they have not set thresholds but hose decisions would not be made without consulting with the county health department.