BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Brevard Public Schools is taking a largely voluntary approach as schools prepare to reopen Thursday amid a rising number of COVID-19 cases countywide likely due to the highly contagious omicron variant, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
Masks are strongly encouraged, but not required, in Brevard Public Schools facilities for staff students and visitors.
The district encouraged social distancing and handwashing in a Monday evening press release and urged parents to vaccinate their children and keep them home when sick. The district has also gathered several thousand N95 masks to supply to students, staff and visitors, and said it will continue to replenish supplies during the pandemic.
Doctors in Brevard County and Orlando have urged caution, saying COVID-19 in children can lead to symptoms of long COVID-19 and myocarditis and can spread the virus to more vulnerable family members, News 6 partner Florida Today reported. But with Florida’s restrictions on COVID-19 mitigation measures, most Florida school districts including Brevard plan to reopen after winter break with guidelines far looser than those implemented this fall.
Parents disagree over whether the approach is sufficient to keep students safe. Omicron has so far appeared to be much milder than earlier COVID-19 variants, and children from the beginning of the pandemic have fared better than adults although there have still been deaths and hospitalizations.
Ashley Hall, co-chair of Moms for Liberty, which fought for masks to be made optional throughout the pandemic, called the precautions BPS have offered sufficient.
“We’re happy with it the way that it is,” said Hall, a mother of a Brevard student. “It leaves it open for people that want to do what’s right for them to do what’s right for them.”
Families for Safe Schools, a group that advocates requiring masks in schools, has called upon the district to re-instate its mask mandate and extend winter break through Monday to allow families and schools time to prepare.
“In recent light of the extreme amount of positive COVID (omicron) cases, its transmissibility and impact on our student population throughout our community, Families for Safe Schools wants Brevard Public Schools to require masks for all staff, students and volunteers effective immediately,” the organization said in a statement.
Many of Florida public schools’ strategies for limiting COVID-19 spread in schools have been curtailed by the state government. Legislation passed this fall forbids public schools from requiring masks without allowing for parental opt outs or from requiring asymptomatic students to remain home from school. The Brevard County School Board and several others defied executive orders and emergency rules from state agencies to mandate masks in schools this fall, but none are challenging the state so far in 2022.
According to BPS, cases have passed 800 per 100,000 people in the county.
The School Board’s mask mandate established near the end of August authorized district administration to allow parental opt outs when cases fell to 50 per 100,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks for all people in public indoor settings at or above that transmission rate. The board’s policy did not allow the district to reinstate masks if cases rose past that level and expired at the end of November, meaning any new mask mandate would likely involve board action.
School Board member Matt Susin said district officials considered a mask requirement for employees and a variety of other mitigation strategies before the Monday evening announcement.
Other districts have moved to take some action to require masks before classes resume. Palm Beach County School District requires masks for all visitors, vendors and staff members for at least two weeks starting Tuesday. Orange County will require all adults to wear masks inside schools through January. The Marion County School Board will meet Thursday to discuss a mask mandate with a parental opt out.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a Monday press conference in Broward County that public schools must remain open for in-person learning regardless of the impact of omicron.
Three weeks ago, Dr. Mihai Radu, a pediatric specialist at Atlantic Coast Medical in Merritt Island, had no patients testing positive for COVID-19. Now he said he has about 10-15 kids a week.
This is also the case with Dr. Maged Farid, owner and practicing doctor at Florida Pediatric Group.
According to Farid, the kids who are testing positive are not as sick as they were during previous surges. And even though both vaccinated and unvaccinated children are testing positive for COVID-19, those who are vaccinated are more protected against COVID-19, Farid said.
“Vaccinated patients are not, they don’t get very sick from it. They have just mild symptoms for a few days and then they recover...most of them don’t end up in the hospital,” Farid said.
Statewide, 15% of children ages 5-11 have been vaccinated and 58% of children ages 12-19 have been vaccinated as of Dec. 30, according to FDOH data.
According to Farid, a concern for some parents when it comes to vaccinating their children is myocarditis. “It’s important to get vaccinated, I get questions from the parents about the myocarditis issue because this is a risk to have myocarditis which is inflammation of the heart but the rate is very low,” Farid said.
Dr. Faris Al-Mousily, a pediatric cardiologist at Arnold-Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, said myocarditis can occur in kids after they get vaccinated and it can occur in unvaccinated kids who are infected with COVID-19. However, there are two key differences between the two groups of children who get myocarditis: the incidence and hospitalization rates, he said.
According to Al-Mousily, recent research found that after vaccination only 10 children out of a million got myocarditis. In comparison, 40 children out of a million got myocarditis after being infected with COVID-19.
“The risk of having this on three different publications over the past few months, was somewhere between 1 to 10 in one million, so each million dose of the vaccine given the possibility of inflammation of the heart muscle or the covering of the heart is 1 to 10 in one million vaccines given, so, relatively low. If you take a look at the actual disease the incidence of that from the disease is about 40 in a million, so, quite higher,” Al-Mousily said.
Not only is the risk of myocarditis higher for unvaccinated children, Al-Mousily said, the severity of myocarditis can be worse for unvaccinated children.
Myocarditis in unvaccinated children can mean longer hospital stays or ICU stays. For children who get myocarditis from the vaccine, they don’t typically get hospitalized and if they do it’s less intensive, Al-Mousily said.
On top of Myocarditis, long COVID-19 is another risk factor unvaccinated children face, explained Farid.
“Long COVID is a patient that had mild symptoms with the disease. They were not vaccinated but then they had side effects different from the disease that were significant and lasting for a long time. We have several kids that are very tired, fatigued, they have foggy brain. We have one that had significant weight loss after COVID with no other explanation,” Farid said.
Radu said he’s also concerned about children spreading COVID-19 even if they are asymptomatic and he presses that point when he talks to their parents, encouraging them to get vaccinated, too, asking “Do you want your kids to become orphans?”
“My advice is to be careful,” Farid said.