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Sarasota School Board Addresses Safety Protocols, And Concerns, As COVID-19 Cases Soar

A woman in a mask sitting behind a large desk raises her hand up in frustration
Sarasota County Schools
Board Chair Shirley Brown expressed her frustration that the district could not return to a mask mandate as a result of Gov. Ron DeSantis' recent executive order.

School Board members expressed concern about safely returning to in-person classes as pediatric COVID-19 cases reach peak levels in Sarasota County.

The School Board of Sarasota County held a workshop Tuesday to discuss COVID-19 contact tracing, but most of the meeting focused on concerns about recent spikes in cases as the first day of school approaches.

Sarasota County is experiencing a significant increase in COVID-19 cases for people under 18, largely due to the delta variant. In the past week, an average of almost 30 new cases per day has been reported among minors.

“That's above what our peak was in early January, where we were averaging right at 27 to 28 pediatric cases a day,” said Michael Drennon, program manager for Disease Intervention Services for the Department of Health in Sarasota.

“Go back to April, we were right around 20 cases a day. So just in the last four to five weeks, we've seen an exponential growth in the number of pediatric cases we see.”

Florida has added about 17,000 cases a day for the last three days and hospitals are reporting more patients than at any point in the pandemic.

The current surge in cases, both statewide and in Sarasota County, has board members concerned about safety precautions as district schools reopen Aug. 10.

“We have really had a lot of parents who have reached out to us about no mask,” Chair Shirley Brown said. “Most of these people would really like us to enforce wearing a mask, or at least to strongly recommend a mask.”

Brown said she supports taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of the variant in schools, but feels restricted by Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent executive order that prohibits mask mandates.

“It brings back all the things that I think are so important, which is local control — local control by the health department, local control by the school board — but it doesn't seem that we are having that very much these days,” she said.

While masks will be optional, district officials highly recommend students wear them. They also encourage students to get vaccinated if possible, and to stay home when sick.

Many of the safety protocols the district developed last year will be in place for the upcoming semester. Schools will conduct nightly campus cleanings, install MERV 13 virus-grade air filters, and continue social distancing in classrooms

Last year, 1,814 of Sarasota’s roughly 43,000 students tested positive for COVID-19.

“That's a pretty good number,” board member Tom Edwards said. “It's because of all of the work that we did — mandatory masks and all of those great mitigation efforts. And if we can't mandate masks, then we can do everything else. We'd like to keep those same practices in place until the end of September and then re-evaluate.”

One of the main changes from the previous school year is how quarantines will be handled. If students are fully vaccinated, they will not have to quarantine after exposure to the virus.

In some instances, previously infected students will not have to quarantine either.

“A student who has been previously positive, they will not have to quarantine if they have another exposure within 90 days,” Drennon said.

“Once they've been a case and completed their isolation process and have been cleared to return back to school in normal activities, for the next 90 days they would not have to quarantine if another exposure occurred, unless of course they develop symptoms."

There were 15,952 quarantines in Sarasota schools last year. That figure includes some students who needed to quarantine more than once.

Officials hope that loosening the quarantine protocols will help keep students in class, but also said they will ensure teachers upload all lessons to Blackboard Learn, a virtual learning environment that students can access remotely.

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.