As students return to schools across Florida, state officials acknowledge it’s inevitable that some of them or their teachers will carry COVID-19 into classrooms.
“The reality is that all of you are likely to have a COVID case,” education commissioner Richard Corcoran told superintendents in a conference call last week.
Look no further than Martin County on the Atlantic coast for an example. Schools in that district reopened on Tuesday, and had students quarantined by Thursday.
The question is, how will the schools respond? Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego, as head of Florida’s superintendents association, has asked the state for standardized protocols to make the decisions easier.
Department of Education officials are working on guidelines, spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said. In the meantime, Corcoran has given the superintendents some principles to follow if they have students or staff with symptoms or positive test results.
They’re based on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desire to keep schools open if at all possible, and to act “surgically” when incidents arise. They include touching base with the state before making a decision.
“Before you get to the point of closing a classroom, we want to have that conversation with you,” Corcoran told the superintendents, adding that he will provide several top officials’ cell phone numbers for easier contact.
If a child exhibits symptoms, he said, there’s no reason to close the school and clean it. But schools should make sure if someone appears sick, that person should be sent home and adequate communication should happen with families whose children might have been exposed.
Perhaps an entire class might be sent home for the day. But, without a positive test result or continued symptoms, he said, the students should be allowed back the next day.
The situation might call for even less drastic action, Corcoran added. School officials might want to determine who was within 6 feet of the person showing symptoms for longer than 15 minutes, he said.
Perhaps only a third of the classroom might need to stay home for an extended period, while others return.
“I know it sounds complicated, but it’s not,” Corcoran told the superintendents.
Fenske said Martin County district leaders were in regular contact with the state over the weekend, as they moved to quarantine more classrooms.
Corcoran reiterated the state government’s talking points that children appear at “extremely low risk” of contracting COVID-19, while the risks for other problems such as academic struggles and mental stress of schools closing are “very high.”
The Florida Education Association continues to challenge the state’s stance on reopening, with mediation over the dispute scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday.