Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | August 24, 2021
More than 7,000 Central Florida public school students must do schoolwork at home this week because of exposure to the coronavirus, a figure that includes the entire sixth grade at one Lake County school and a 1,600-student school in Osceola County.
With schools open, the contagious delta variant that has led to a surge of COVID-19 cases in the region has done the same on campuses, with students cases far outpacing what happened last school year.
“It’s a shock,” said Principal Linda Bartberger of Round Lake Charter, a pre-K-to-eighth-grade school in Mount Dora that last year did not have any COVID cases until weeks into the school year. “I did not expect Day 1.”
Bartberger learned Monday that 83% of her 88 sixth graders needed to quarantine.
“We just sent them all home,” she said, as it made little sense to have teachers instructing nearly empty classrooms while so many of their students would need online lessons. Instead, the entire grade pivoted to Zoom classes until Sept. 7.
Tuesday afternoon, the Osceola County school district announced that Celebration K-8 School would shut down for the rest of the week, switching everyone to online learning because the virus had “impacted multiple students, teachers, and staff members.”
The school, in the Celebration community, enrolls about 1,600 students. At the end of last week, Celebration had 247 students quarantined and 52 that tested positive. It also had 13 staff quarantined and 11 who tested positive.
The rising number of student cases and quarantines likely will play into the Orange County School Board’s expected discussion this afternoon about whether to impose a mask mandate. Orange, like most of its neighbors, allows parents to opt their children out of wearing masks at school but could join the small but rising number of school districts in Florida that made masks mandatory to help stop virus spread.
The board meets at 4:45 p.m.
The Orange County school district reported 1,234 active student quarantines Tuesday and 1,705 student cases since Aug. 2, when some sports teams began practicing ahead of the Aug. 10 start of classes. Apopka High School had one of the highest case totals, with 66 student cases and 85 teenagers quarantined, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.
If Orange school cases continue at the current rate, the school district could surpass last year’s 12-month total — 5,072 student cases — by the end of September.
The 381 student cases reported Monday was four times last school year’s daily high of 88 student cases recorded Jan. 19.
“Students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach if they are constantly quarantined or out sick,” the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association wrote on its Facebook page as the union urged the school board to adopt a mask mandate.
Teacher quarantines are not as numerous as last year, likely because some school staff are vaccinated. Under Florida Department of Health rules, vaccinated students or teachers who show no symptoms do not have to quarantine even if exposed to someone who tested positive.
At Round Lake, Bartberger said all of the sixth-grade teachers are vaccinated so they can be on campus, even as most of their students have to quarantine at home. Bartberger said fewer than half her students are wearing masks as they are optional in Lake schools.
The Lake school district reported 2,888 students quarantined last week and this week so far, with 462 positive student cases.
The Osceola County school district reported 2,143 student quarantines at the end of last week, with 379 students positive, its case dashboard showed. That included 28 positive students at St. Cloud High School and 142 teenagers on that campus quarantined.
The Seminole County school district reported a total of 1,952 active quarantines Tuesday but did not specify how many were students and how many were staff. If the pattern seen in other districts is true in Seminole, most of the quarantines and cases are in students. The district also reported 514 active positive cases. Winter Springs High School was among those most impacted, with 26 positive cases and 160 active quarantines, the district’s COVID dashboard showed.
School leaders say there are more cases and quarantines this year than last in part because many more students are on campus, making socially distancing difficult, and face masks are not mandatory. Last school year, about 50% of Central Florida students started classes online. Those on campus had to wear masks and were urged to keep their distance from others.
Already worried that many students struggled to learn last year while online, educators know lots of quarantines could hurt their efforts to help students gain ground this year. Orange Superintendent Barbara Jenkins noted that worry last week during a school board meeting, saying she did not want “more and more students losing instructional days.”
Because the state ended funding for the live-online programs school districts ran last year — in Central Florida they were dubbed Digital Learning, Lake Live, LaunchEd and Seminole Connect — students who are quarantined this year cannot simply log into classes from a laptop at home
But teachers have uploaded assignments to online platforms so students can access schoolwork and some may provide a way for students to watch lessons via video, too, officials said.
Some school leaders said that if an entire grade or school must move online, as happened at Round Lake, they may opt for live online classes until in-person classes can resume.