ORLANDO, Fla. – Since Orange County Public Schools welcomed students back for in-person learning, there have been at least 480 cases of coronavirus across the district in two months and, according to Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins, a majority of those case are tied to off-campus activities.
As of Oct. 22, 303 students and 168 employees have tested positive since Aug. 21. There are currently 625 students and 83 employees under active quarantine due to exposure.
However, Jenkins said while students and staff wear masks and are spread out at school, the district cannot control what happens after educational hours.
Through Florida Department of Health contact tracing, health officials have repeatedly tied student and staff cases to community activity. Jenkins asked parents to help their children make “good decisions" before attending birthday parties and other social gatherings.
“That is where we are seeing the cases,” Jenkins said of social events outside of school. “It’s also important for our young people to remember while they may not be negatively impacted, they may be asymptomatic, they can still carry that virus to other adults, including our employees, and those in the community who are especially vulnerable because of their age or their health conditions.”
In early September, after officials with the Florida Department of Health traced six coronavirus cases to a birthday party attended by Olympia High School students, the decision was made to close the campus for two weeks to prevent the spread of the virus.
All students temporarily shifted to online learning and the campus has since reopened.
On Sept. 9 Dr. Raul Pino, the health officer with the Florida Department of Health-Orange County, said contact tracers learned at least 13 students had attended a birthday party off campus on Aug. 29.
Again on Oct. 22, Pino warned against students attending birthday parties. This time because of a sweet 16 birthday party in Avalon Park on Oct. 10. Pino said the event was attended by at least 30 people, half of whom later tested positive for the virus.
“I want to discourage parents from having birthday parties for kids, no matter how many (attend),” Pino said, adding if that party cannot wait until after there is a vaccine, hosts must take steps to protect their guests.
Overall, Pino said the median age of the virus in Orange County is 31 and trending toward younger people who are more socially activite.
The leading health expert said it’s not just about the spread at social events but “also what happened after someone contracts this and goes back to the community. What happens when students go back to school because the number of people exposed then exponentially increases.”
Jenkins said about 15,000 additional students returned to face-to-face learning the week of Oct. 12. About 42% of 206,000 OCPS students are now physically in school, compared to 33% on Aug. 21.
With more students on campus, Jenkins warned families to be vigilant in hand-washing, mask wearing and social distancing.
“We especially need to exercise caution, because we suspect there will be additional cases,” Jenkins said. “We thank those parents who are still keeping children at home, but we absolutely appreciate every parent who needs their child to come to school for their education and do everything in our power to keep them safe.”