ORLANDO, Fla. – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday provided a roadmap for reopening schools during the ongoing pandemic but in Florida where campuses have welcomed students back since the beginning of the academic year, much of the precautious are already being utilized.
Reacting to the long-awaited CDC guidance, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran released a statement saying Florida’s schools have been operating safely since August 2020 and will continue to do so.
“Since Summer 2020, Florida school districts, superintendents, public charter schools, private schools, educators, students and families have worked hard and have done an incredible job ensuring Florida students can continue to receive a world class education in-person, every day,” Corcoran’s statement read. “CDC guidance is informative, although Florida school districts, public charter schools and private schools should stay the course they began in Summer 2020. The science has been clear since August, and subsequent studies and data since then show that schools are safe to reopen.”
The CDC said there is strong evidence now that in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels, and the guidance is targeted at schools that teach kindergarten up to 12th grade.
The agency also emphasized hand washing, disinfection of school facilities, diagnostic testing and contact tracing to find new infections and separate infected people from others in a school. Each school district in Florida had to submit a reopening plan to the Department of Education last summer itemizing their COVID-19 safety protocols.
While some schools have closed for sometimes up to two weeks due to potential coronavirus exposure, most have reopened since August with students wearing masks and using seating charts to help contact trace should the need arise.
According to the Florida Department of Health data, some schools have reported just a single case of COVID-19 in students and/or teachers since August 2020 whereas a few schools have reported well over 100 cases over the course of the school year.
Universities and colleges in Florida are also required to report COVID-19 data to the DOH. Those campuses have reported much higher infection numbers including 2,411 cases at the University of Florida, 2,053 at Florida State University and 1,431 at the University of Central Florida.
CDC officials emphasized that in-person learning has not been identified as a substantial driver of coronavirus spread in U.S. communities, and that transmission among students is now considered relatively rare.
The CDC also stressed that the safest way to open schools is by making sure there is as little disease in a community as possible. The agency urged local officials to assess whether a bad outbreak is occurring in a community when making decisions about sending adults and children in to schools.
The guidance included a color-coded chart, from blue to red, on assessing community spread, including rates of new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests.
That said, high community transmission does not necessarily mean schools cannot be open — especially those at the elementary level. If school mitigation measures are strictly followed, the risk of spread in the schools should still be low, the guidance suggests.
The document suggests that when things get risky, elementary schools can go hybrid, providing in-person instruction at least on some days, but that middle and high schools might go virtual. This is something schools in Florida have done due to high quarantine numbers or to manage exposure for sports teams, creating learning pods.
Students have suffered due to coronavirus closures in the spring and those learning virtually have lagged behind, according to multiple school districts in Florida.
Orange County’s summer school will be open five days a week “because of extensive learning loss over the past 11 months,” the district announced earlier this week.
OCPS deputy superintendent Dr. Maria Vazquez said students learning at home have struggled during the pandemic academically, socially and emotionally.
“An expanded comprehensive summer school program will be conducted at each of our Orange County Public Schools, to help strengthen academic performance for students that have experienced learning loss through the pandemic,” Vazquez ssaid Thursday.