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COVID IN CLASS: How will Florida report cases in schools?

10 Investigates looked into whether the state has a plan to let the public know about positive coronavirus cases in classrooms.

TAMPA, Fla. — What is the state’s plan to report cases of COVID-19 among students and staff as schools prepare to re-open their doors?

“I think myself and many others have expressed concerns that schools do become an epicenter of spread,” said Dr. Jill Roberts.

Roberts works in public health at USF Health.

She says when it comes to keeping the community safe, it’s important to know where cases are in schools and how many there are.

“I think we need to do this with the schools because parents need to know is my school in a district that has a lot of cases, is it a route of spread and that’s going to aid with contact tracing as well,” she said.

The state has made it clear that school districts must report cases in students and staff to local health departments and update the Florida Department of Education.

What’s not clear is if data specific to schools will be made public.

10 Investigates asked FDOE and DOH if they’ll release where cases are, once they’re confirmed.

FDOE pointed to the weekly pediatric report from the Florida Department of Health and said, “The Department of Health would oversee the actual health-related data.”

DOH said it is “continuing to review and determine the most appropriate method for reporting outbreaks in schools.”

The agency also said case information for both students and employees would be part of its daily cumulative data report.

"If we have to dig to find that data as a public that’s not necessarily a good thing. That’s not transparency, and that makes people get very nervous, right? So, if it’s disclosed though [and] we’re coming out and saying, ‘this school, in this location had this many cases, people need to be aware.’ That’s really very helpful,” said Roberts.

That did not happen statewide with child care facilities.  

Gov. Ron DeSantis pointed to daycares and cited limited cases and no outbreaks as an example of why the state should reopen schools. 

The Department of Children and Families, which regulates those facilities, also told 10 Investigates that data is reported to the Department of Health.  

When 10 Investigates questioned the governor to find just how many cases there have been in those facilities, he said something different.

“So, there’s not any specific data. I mean, it’s basically like if there’s an outbreak in Pasco County is the health department tying that to a child care facility or not and that’s how it’s kind of been and it’s not,” he said.

The Department of Health said the same, sending this statement: “The Department does not maintain data specific to these types of facilities.”

Roberts says with health departments stretched thin across the state, it might be best for DOE to take the lead. But, she says, regardless, the public -- not just parents -- should know where cases are and how many.

“If we have so many kids in one location, and they’re not practicing social distancing and they spread things so easily; we want to make sure that the public is aware of that data when it does become the case,” she said.

“It will help us to get a good idea of what’s going on in the communities.”

10 Investigates also reached out to each district to find out if they will make cases public.

Hillsborough County:

“In the event of a positive case within a school campus, families will be notified. As for a plan to publicly report cases, I will reach out to you when a plan is solidified,” wrote Erin Maloney, a spokesperson for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

RELATED: Positivity protocol in Pinellas schools requires entire classes to quarantine

Pinellas County:

“Pinellas County schools has developed a dashboard that allows us to track and monitor reported positive cases,” said Isabel Mascarenas, a spokesperson for Pinellas County Public Schools.

The district says in the event of a positive case at school, the parents whose students have been advised to quarantine by the Department of Health will be notified immediately via phone call and a subsequent letter from the Department of Health.

Non-affected families (whose students, per the Department of Health, do not need to quarantine) will be notified by phone call and/or email of the positive case, nature and duration of the classroom closure, and actions being taken to prepare for the safe return of students/staff.

Citrus County:

“We do not plan on releasing information every day about how many cases we have in each school because we may not know how many cases. The health department is under no obligation to tell us,” said Lindsay Blair.

The Citrus County School District says it’s working with the local health department. Health officials will have the lead and will conduct an investigation to identify and notify all individuals who may have been exposed.

Sarasota County:

“There are no plans to publicly report instances of COVID cases per school at this time,” said Kelsey Whealy with the Sarasota County School District.

“District health teams will assist our local Department of Health (DOH) as best as they can to help them [DOH] contact trace & determine potential exposure risk. The DOH will communicate with those potentially impacted by a COVID case and the district will assist with additional messaging. Quarantining and class (or school) closure is determined by the DOH.”

Highlands County:

The health department will take the lead in contact tracing for schools in Highlands County.

The district says that students or staff that have been exposed (15 min or longer within 6ft) will be contacted and will be expected to quarantine.

“We are not planning on sending out mass communications for any individual case. If there were a spike in cases that were related to a school or program, then a mass communication effort could take place,” said Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge.

Hernando County:

The district says that in the event a student was determined to have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, parents will be informed by school staff via phone and email.

Polk County:

The school district will work closely with the Florida Department of Health in Polk County to notify school communities about a confirmed case. Parents and staff members will be notified by automated telephone calls and email, social media and posts to the school website.

Individuals who have come into direct contact with the positive case will receive specific instructions on what to do next (quarantine, isolate, monitor symptoms, etc.).

Students and staff who become ill or must quarantine/isolate who were participating in Campus Learning will transition to Campus eSchool until they are able to return to campus.

Students and staff members who either test positive or come into direct contact with a positive case will not be allowed to return to school until after a specified period of time and improvement in their symptoms. Specific information will be provided on a case-by-case basis.

Pasco County:

Pasco County school leaders have a two-level communication plan. A district spokesperson says they will not post publicly but will notify parents. Additionally, the district is keeping track of case numbers and can provide those when asked by the media.

The first level involves contact tracing and identifying students or staff who have been in contact with a confirmed case. The district will let parents know, advise that the student quarantine for 14 days and also provide them with information they need to know before returning to a school campus.

The second step is to notify the entire school. Parents will be told there was a case, that their son or daughter did not come into contact with that individual and they do not need to quarantine but should look for symptoms.

RELATED: Hillsborough County Schools could lose $23 million if district reopens online, Dept. of Education says

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