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Some 400 students in Palm Beach County schools are quarantined just two days into the school year, a fact that highlights the difficulties schools will face as COVID-19 ravages Florida again.
Most of the 440 have not tested positive for COVID, but they presumably were exposed to someone with the virus. The school district on Thursday reported only 51 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the school system — 37 students and 14 employees.
Still, the widespread quarantine disturbs parents and disrupts students’ education at a time when teachers say they need to be in class to make up the ground they lost during remote learning in the last school year. Test scores dropped dramatically when students were allowed to learn at home.
Palm Beach County, the 10th largest school district in the country, was the first in South Florida to return to school when the year resumed on Tuesday. Broward County will start school Wednesday and Miami-Dade County on Aug. 23.
Many parents fear their children will fall victim to COVID-19 at school due to the state’s flexibility on mask wearing. They have furiously debated the issue in recent weeks with other parents — including Gov. Ron DeSantis — who claim that masks are harmful to children’s health.
DeSantis has decreed that districts must let parents decide whether their children wear masks. Although Broward County schools are challenging the point, Palm Beach County is following the governor’s directive. All students must wear masks unless they opt out with a simple note from their parents.
Almost 6,400 of the estimated 179,000 students in Palm Beach County schools had opted out of the mask rule as of Thursday, the district said.
Interim Superintendent Michael Burke called on DeSantis to reassess his policy on masks.
“The governor’s got to take responsibility for establishing the ground rules we’re operating under,” Burke told MSNBC on Thursday. “This ability for families to opt out is leading to more cases, which will ultimately send more kids home and deprive them of that traditional classroom experience.”
The school district said Burke was not available for comment later in the day. The district did not answer questions about whether entire classes were quarantined or how administrators determined which students needed to be isolated.
School Board member Alexandria Ayala said the spate of quaratines is a clear sign that the opt-out policy is already a failure. She said the district should consider waiving the mask requirement only for students with confirmed medical reasons, “to avoid abuse of that piece of the policy.”
She also said that, with COVID cases growing, the school system should explore restoring the option for students to learn at home.
“I have spoken to a lot of parents about distance learning and their desire to see that option come back,” Ayala said in an email. “I think we need to be sensitive to those requests and begin exploring our capacity to handle that possibility.”
Some parents reacted in horror to the quarantine news.
“Help us! How can we keep our kids safer?“ one person pleaded with U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel and governor’s candidate Nikki Fried on Twitter.
”This was so predictable, and likely just the tip of the iceberg,” another tweeted.
”It doesn’t matter where they got it,” someone posted on Facebook. “It matters that it can be easily spread in schools.”
The Florida Department of Health and Florida Department of Education issued a set of emergency rules last week establishing policies for dealing with COVID in schools.
Students who test positive must wait until they receive a negative test and show no symptoms or wait 10 days after symptoms subside before they can return to school, unless they get a doctor’s note clearing them for a return.
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Students who had “direct” exposure to a student who tested positive must meet certain conditions before they can return to school. They must either:
- Have a negative test, show no symptoms and had no direct contact for at last four days with someone who tested positive.
- Experience no symptoms and had no direct contact for seven days with a person who tested positive.
The rules define “direct contact” as at least 15 minutes of exposure within 6 feet of a person who tested positive.
Students who need to quarantine at home can get materials through Google Classrooms, have it e-mailed to them or have a family member who’s not in quarantine pick up those materials, according to Palm Beach County schools.
The district’s COVID-19 dashboard listed these positive cases as of Thursday.
- Wellington Community High: seven.
- Panther Run Elementary: four.
- Christa McAuliffe Middle: three.
- Tradewinds Middle: three.
- Citrus Cove Elementary: two.
- Frontier Elementary: two.
Single cases were reported at Allamanda Elementary, Banyan Creek Elementary, Discovery Key Elementary, Don Estridge High Tech Middle, Equestrian Trails Elementary, Independence Middle, Jupiter Elementary, Lighthouse Elementary, Limestone Creek Elementary, Osceola Creek Middle, Pahokee Middle-Senior High, Park Vista Community High, Polo Park Middle, Western Pines Middle, Westward Elementary and Woodlands Middle.