school bus with hand sanitizer

Miami-Dade schools’ COVID cases jump to more than 80, at least 50 schools impacted

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Miami Herald | by David Goodhue | October 19, 2020

Confirmed COVID-19 cases among Miami-Dade County public schools students and staff jumped to more than 80 over the weekend, a 75 percent increase in new cases from Friday to Monday, according to the district’s latest information.

But parents and teachers fear that number is significantly higher and say the district has not been transparent enough about the severity of the problem as children enter their third week back to face-to-face learning.

“We’ve been kept in the dark,” said Jennifer Desa, whose son attends Air Base K-8 Center in Homestead.

Parents at Air Base received robocalls from the school on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday informing them about a positive case on each of those days.

“Our school still isn’t on the dashboard yet,” Desa said Monday night.

School officials counter, however, that the district’s online dashboard that tallies COVID cases in the district should not be considered the latest information because cases are added to it only after they are confirmed by the Florida Department of Health.

At the end of business Friday, the dashboard reported 29 staff members and 19 students — a total of 48 who tested positive for the novel coronavirus since students returned to face-to-face learning the week of Oct. 5.

By Monday afternoon, the numbers rose to 54 employees and 30 students — a total of 84.

United Teachers of Dade, the district’s teachers union, tweeted a statement Monday indicating that the numbers were reaching a point where the district should consider shutting down schools again.

“We need answers — When is the public health great enough to go back to MSO?”

MSO is My School Online, the district’s online learning program.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, UTD president, said Monday that the union isn’t yet calling for schools to close, but rather for the district to be less opaque about the actual numbers. She also called for a more cohesive plan as to what happens when schools have positive cases.

She noted that when MAST Academy on Virginia Key had two cases last Monday, the school closed for a day to be sanitized. Meanwhile, other schools with coronavirus cases have stayed open without explanation, Hernandez-Mats said.

“People should know what to expect, and people should know that X amount of cases means the school is closed down for deep cleaning,” Hernandez-Mats said.

A district spokesperson said the decision to close a school is made after consulting with the Department of Health and is based on several factors, including the amount of people in the facility determined to have possibly come into contact with the person who tested positive.

The union also says internal intelligence gathering tells them that the actual number of students and staff who’ve tested positive since schools opened their doors is much higher than the district and the state Department of Health reports.

On Monday night, the district’s dashboard showed COVID cases at 59 schools. Hernandez-Mats said the number of affected schools is closer to 80.

“Everything is suspect to us,” she said.

While the union does not think the district has reached that point, Hernandez-Mats said it’s getting close.

“We’re very close to 100 schools. So a fourth of our schools will have a COVID case in it, and it’s only going to continue to increase,” she said.

There are 392 schools in the Miami-Dade public school system.

Natalia Zea, director of communications for the district, said that because Health Department confirmation is necessary, the dashboard is not an up-to-date reflection of the latest COVID cases at a given school.

“However, the dashboard is a lagging indicator and is not intended for use as an immediate notification system of cases. There are various measures in place for that,” Zea said in an email Monday night. “As cases are reported from individuals and schools to the District, contact investigation protocols are immediately initiated. In an abundance of caution and although some cases may be pending FDOH confirmation, M-DCPS notifies all potentially affected individuals and informs students, parents and employees in that particular school community.”

Zea added that sanitization crews come into the impacted school and clean the entire facility, “not just the affected areas.”

School officials also contact not only the people who may have come into contact with the infected person, they also send a robocall to all the families with children in the school, Zea said.

“Families should not rely on the dashboard to learn about cases in their school, nor do they have to. They are notified well ahead of a case being placed on the dashboard,” Zea said.

Broward County only updates its case numbers twice a week. Although the official number as of Friday was 61 cases, there were at least three more students who tested positive late last week at one school alone, according to a message to parents obtained by the Miami Herald.

Manatee Bay Elementary School principal Heather Hedman-DeVaughn sent parents an email at 1 p.m. Friday about the three students. It’s not clear how many other students at the school had to quarantine as a result.

Hedman-DeVaughn, who did not respond to emailed questions about the cases, told parents the school is following “CDC guidance as well as guidance from our Health Services Dept. and District.”

This report was updated Tuesday morning to include comments and information from the Miami-Dade school district.

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MAST Academy students walk toward campus while a school staffer guides cars toward the school drop-off point as all Miami-Dade public schools elementary students plus students in grades 6, 9 and 10 returned for in-person learning on Wednesday, Oct. 7. CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM