Palm Beach Post | By Katherine Kokal | August 31, 2022
With their power limited by state legislation that outlawed mask requirements in schools in November, Palm Beach County School District leaders have done away with nearly all COVID-19 protocols for this school year.
Face masks and vaccinations are optional for students and staff, and the district has also axed most reporting mechanisms when a student or teacher tests positive: Schools won’t report positive tests to the district, and parents won’t be notified if someone in their child’s class tests positive.
The district also has retired its online COVID-19 dashboard, leaving parents, staff and community members unsure of the number of cases in schools.
“It’s nice to be in the endemic stage, you know? Knock on wood,” Palm Beach County schools Superintendent Mike Burke said Aug. 1 at the district’s back-to-school news conference.
Back and forth with DeSantis, state leaders
The beginning of last school year when students and teachers returned to full in-person instruction was contentious as district leaders tried to find a way to slow the spread of COVID.
Face mask requirements were met with pushback from parents with a variety of complaints. They filled hours of public meetings to say masks didn’t work and that school leaders had no right to impose mask mandates on students.
In the first three months of school, district policies shifted as the severity of community spread cycled through peaks and valleys, but also in response to the changing legal landscape created by the governor and state lawmakers.
Palm Beach County schools began with a mask policy that allowed parents to opt out by writing a note to their child’s school and just about 10% did. hen the district ramped up to a full mask mandate in October when case counts started getting higher in classrooms.
It all came to a head in November, when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that prohibited schools from requiring face masks for students and did not allow vaccination requirements for students and staff. The law went into effect Nov. 18.
The next day, Palm Beach County schools lifted the mask requirement. Miami-Dade and Broward County schools did the same.
No more COVID-19 case reporting inside schools
But Palm Beach County’s new policies go beyond those mask and vaccination mandates and essentially stop all case reporting: Schools will no longer report positive cases to the district nor will they tell parents when a child in their children’s class tests positive.
“You’re not going to know until your kid tells you people are out of school,” Boynton Beach infectious disease specialist Dr. Kitonga Kiminyo, a father of two teenagers, said. “You don’t know if people are being honest about whether they’re positive or negative.”
School district officials stopped updating the online COVID case dashboard in May after the end of the school year. Now, it’s been retired altogether.
“The dashboard was voluntarily started by the district for the launch of the 2020-2021 school year when parents were given a choice for their students: remote or in-person instruction,” the district said in an emailed statement. “We continued the dashboard for the following school year as well, even though students were back to campus-based instruction.”
While parents such as Kiminyo used the dashboard to make decisions about how safe schools were, others have criticized the dashboard and the district’s ability to say exactly how many positive cases were at a school.
For example, the dashboard last year misreported the number of positive cases among employees on the first day of school.
Eight of the 19 positive cases among employees were miscounts that involved conflicting or unconfirmed tests, people who were no longer sick or employees not on property when campuses opened, Don Noel, the district’s risk and benefits manager, said at the time.
“I wish this never happened, but we want people to know. We’re all trying to be transparent. It was just human error. It’s not going to happen going forward,” Noel said.
Are we in an endemic stage?
Burke and other district officials were quick to declare COVID-19 an endemic virus — or one that the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health defines as “consistently present but limited to a particular region,” making the disease rates and spread of disease “predictable.”
But national health experts and local doctors aren’t so sure.
“We’re just not there yet,” Kiminyo said. “I would say we’re probably on the downside of the BA.5 surge, but I do not believe we have reached the point where this is endemic. We are still very much in the middle of this pandemic in Palm Beach County.”
Swings between large outbreaks and periods of relative calm and relaxation of public health safety measureshave made the pandemic difficult to predict, and difficult to declare over.
In April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed optimism that the country was heading out of the darkest days of the pandemic.
“We are certainly, right now in this country, out of the pandemic phase,” Fauci said during an interview at the time with PBS NewsHour. “Namely, we don’t have 900,000 new infections a day and tens and tens and tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. We are at a low level right now.”
Fauci’s comments came as the United States was reporting an average of 50,000 new cases each day. At the height of the omicron variant wave in January, the country was reporting an average of 800,000 new cases each day, according to the CDC data.
But in July, thecountry plunged into a summer of infections fueled by BA.5 — a highly infectious subvariant of the omicron strain.
In the two weeks between July 15 and July 29, Florida’s death toll climbed by an average of 452 each week, Florida Department of Health figures showed. That was the steepest increase in the number of deaths since late March.
(BA.5) is “something we absolutely need to take seriously,” Fauci told MSNBC in July. “Everybody wants to put this pandemic behind us and feel and hope that it doesn’t exist. It does.”
Since then, COVID-19 hospitalization numbers have stabilized and the concentration of virus in sewage is trending downward.
But the risk of catching the virus remains “high” in all of Florida’s 67 counties, the CDC said Thursday, because recent COVID case counts and rates of infection remain high at 16.2%.
Now, the United States is reporting around 90,000 new cases each day, CDC data shows.
Kids can get tested, sent home if positive from Palm Beach County schools
Students will be able to get tested for COVID at school with parental permission.
Still, if a child tests positive at school, they’ll be sent home for five days per guidance from the Florida Department of Health and the CDC.
Palm Beach County pediatrician Shannon Fox-Levine recommends on her practice’s website that students wear masks in class, despite not being required to do so.
Her practice also advocates for all eligible children to be vaccinated against COVID.
Children older than 6 months are eligible for vaccinations, and parents can schedule an appointment with their child’s pediatrician or find a vaccination site by using Palm Beach County’s online locator tool.