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'We have to assume everyone has it': Doctor helps schools plan for possible COVID-19 outbreaks

Once a case of coronavirus is detected, the district will follow CDC guidelines, assess the risk and disinfect the building accordingly.

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — One of the first districts to welcome back students in the Tampa Bay area is Manatee County. 

Desks are properly distanced, masks ready and all areas have been sanitized, but doctors say it's likely schools will become the next coronavirus hot spot.

“I expect COVID to be with us for the entire school year,” Dr. Scott Hopes said.

Hopes is an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida, but he also sits on the Manatee County School Board. His latest task is to create a plan to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. He’s preparing for a possible outbreak.

“From an epidemiological perspective, you don't expect any cases of SARS COVID 2, so one case in a school is basically an outbreak,” Hopes said.

Hopes says neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Florida State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees have come up with specific metrics to guide school districts, so it falls on local districts to decide what will happen if an outbreak occurs. 

“We probably have a little bit of a head start. I believe our district is probably the only school district in Florida that has an experienced epidemiologist on the board and maybe in the country,” Hopes said.

Once a case of COVID-19 is detected, Hopes says they will follow CDC guidelines and assess the risk, then disinfect the building accordingly.

“It’s a case-by-case basis, but depending on the environment, either entire wings of the building will have to be closed, classrooms, or an entire school. Hopefully, it's not to the extent that we have to close down the entire school district, but that's a possibility,” Hopes said. 

Anyone who tests positive must stay home for 10 days and can return once their symptoms are gone. The Manatee County School District has created a contact tracing database to see where the virus is spreading. Hopes says the efforts to mitigate the spread can’t just happen at school, families also have to practice them at home.

“Because of not having, you know, a silver bullet to identify who is carrying the virus and is contagious, we all have to assume that everyone is. Therefore, wear masks, protect each other, maintain that social distancing. and that's going to be difficult for especially our children, but more so for our adolescence. They don't like being in a bubble and now we have to put them in one so it's going to be interesting to see how they emotionally handle it,” Hopes said.

10 Tampa Bay checked in with other school districts in our area to see what they consider an outbreak. Some have detailed protocols you can find on the district's website. Others are leaving it up to the Florida Department of Health to decide how they'll continue the year.

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