With vaccines out of reach, Manatee schools issue new guidance and COVID-19 reminders

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Bradenton Herald | by Giuseppe Sabella | January 7, 2021

As students returned to their classes on Wednesday, beginning a new year and a fresh semester, the threat of COVID-19 remained.

And while Florida was starting to receive the new Moderna vaccine, a limited supply was meant for health care workers and people ages 65 and older. Recent doses — including more than 5,000 in Manatee County — were gone soon after they arrived.

School district spokesman Mike Barber said the district has about 300 employees who fit the current age requirement. Employees will get vaccines through MCR Health once they become available, though the timeline was unclear on Wednesday.

In the meantime, he said, the district was creating a plan with help from MCR officials. That plan would not include a vaccine requirement for students or employees, Barber continued.

“My understanding is we can’t require it,” he said. “It has to be strictly voluntary.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently said a new vaccine by Johnson & Johnson could be approved by February and made available to teachers and hospitality workers. Until then, with a vaccine widely out of reach, Manatee County families and school employees will have to rely on each other to fight COVID-19.

Manatee schools planned to notify parents of new guidelines for students who exhibit symptoms on Wednesday evening. The guidelines were created by the Florida Department of Health in Manatee — a response to rising COVID-19 cases in the county.

Schools have been isolating students with COVID-19 symptoms and sending them home. Before the holiday break, students could return if they had no contact with an infected person and no symptoms for at least 24 hours.

“Starting with the second semester, students who display COVID symptoms at school will continue to be isolated and their parents will be called. However, they will not be allowed to return to school until the following conditions are met,” the notice states, going on to list new guidelines.

Along with having no fever and improved symptoms, students will need proof of a negative COVID-19 test. It can be either a rapid or PCR test. Alternatively, they can obtain a doctor’s note that indicates a safe return to school.

The health department created separate guidelines for families that choose not to get a COVID-19 test or a doctor’s note. Those students can return after:

  • At least 10 days have passed since the symptoms first appeared.
  • The student has been fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of medication.
  • And his or her symptoms have improved.

“These new guidelines from the Florida Department of Health Manatee are in effect in our schools immediately,” the notice continues. “If you have questions, please contact your child’s school for guidance.”

While similar, the new guidelines pertain to students who had symptoms, not direct contact with a positive COVID-19 case.

Students and employees who had a direct exposure — meaning they were within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes — will have to isolate for eight to 14 days, depending on the circumstances.

Local schools also sent a reminder to families on Tuesday evening, just before the return of students. It highlighted many of the same precautions used last quarter:

“If your child or student is sick or has COVID-related symptoms, or they are waiting on the results of a COVID-19 test, or they have been directly exposed to a positive case of COVID-19 during the last 10 days – THEY MUST STAY HOME FROM SCHOOL.”

School board members and district leaders said most COVID-19 cases started in the community and infiltrated local schools in the previous semester, when there were 419 cases and nearly 4,500 direct exposures.

Now, as more online students return to campus, the risk of COVID-19 exposure is even greater. While social distancing will be more difficult, schools will continue to use face coverings, temperature screenings and symptom checks.

“Thank you for your help and cooperation as we do everything we can to keep our students and schools healthy and safe,” the district said in its message to families on Wednesday.

Photo: Manatee County students began the second semester of the 2020-21 school year on Wednesday, as many wondered when a COVID-19 vaccine would be available. TIFFANY TOMPKINS FILE PHOTO