‘We are deeply concerned:’ Orange County schools see increase in COVID-19 cases ahead of winter break

Superintendent asks families to keep holiday gatherings small

While many students may be excited for the upcoming winter break, Orange County Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins says she’s worried risky behavior during the holidays could have a negative impact on classrooms next semester.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – While many students may be excited for the upcoming winter break, Orange County Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins says she’s worried risky behavior during the holidays could have a negative impact on classrooms next semester.

She said during the county’s COVID-19 update on Thursday there have been more than 2,000 coronavirus cases among students, faculty, and staff since in-person classes resumed in August. Though she said that number is “remarkable” when considering that there are more than 200,000 students within the district, she doesn’t like to see the figures rise.

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She said Orange County Public Schools reported 90 new cases on Monday, the highest single-day increase to date.

“We are deeply concerned that those numbers are growing,” Jenkins said.

When classes resume in two weeks, an additional 18,000 students will transition from digital learning back to brick-and-mortar classes, bringing the total number of students attending in-person classes to about 100,000, or half the student body.

The influx of students on elementary, middle, and high school campuses could make social distancing more complicated.

“I want to be very clear when school does open again in January, all of our safety measures will remain in place. That means face masks will still be required and we will do as much distancing as we can feasibly accommodate in our schools as those increased numbers show up, and we will have sanitation provisions in all of our classrooms and handwashing provisions as well,” Jenkins said.

She also asked that parents opt to arrange alternative transportation rather than having their child ride a bus to school.

With more students comes the risk of more cases occurring among the campus community, especially considering that children are likely to gather for holiday celebrations before they return to school.

Citing an increase in COVID-19 cases believed to be tied to the Thanksgiving holiday, Jenkins said she hopes families will use caution when making plans for the two-week break.

“We really need families to consider having very small, immediate family gatherings for the holidays. If there is a larger gathering, there have to be some precautions put in place because our dread is that when we bring those 18,000 students, additional students, back that we will see enormous increases based on activity that took place during the winter break. And so I would encourage parents, we actually have asked parents please, if at all possible, contain those holiday gatherings to very small numbers and hopefully the immediate family,” Jenkins said.

Dr. Raul Pino from the Florida Department of Health agreed that transmission occurring within homes and among family members has led to the recent uptick in Orange County’s coronavirus numbers. He said the virus doesn’t appear to be spreading in schools but it does seem to be spreading from children to parents and vice versa.

“So what we have seen the largest increase right now is (patients aged) 15 to 14, 35 and older. Those are the two segments that we have are seeing increases, significant increases. So those are the age of children and their parents. So that’s one hint,” Pino said of transmission inside the home.

Because of that, he suggested that residents practice social distancing measures, good hygiene, and possibly even masks when possible while inside the home.

“Although we are not expecting people to be masked during dinner, and we are not expecting people to be absolutely masked when they are by themselves. But if you are having a close niche, if you are inviting your cousins and other family members that are not from that household, it would be safe to keep some distance. We can still share food, we can still share time, we can still watch a movie together and be separated if you don’t know the person’s status,” Pino said.

Along with the upcoming holiday, another concern of Pino’s is the increase in the median age of COVID-19 patients. He said in mid-July, when cases were at their peak, the average patient was in their early 20s. Now, the median patient age is 39.

“The older the pandemic gets, the less asymptomatic we are going to see as we have experienced in the past, but also the number of deaths will increase as the pandemic gets into the older segment of the population,” Pino said.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings told residents that with a vaccine being deployed and another shipment slated to arrive next week, they still need to take precautions in order to keep case numbers and fatalities from swelling any higher.

“We are approaching some critical times, as we are about a week away now from one of the major holidays that we all celebrate each year. So we’re just asking our community to stay with us, double down at this time to make some tough decisions so that we can all get through this in a better shape than perhaps we would be if we didn’t,” Demings said.