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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Florida schools defy DeSantis order to keep virus stats under wraps


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida school districts are defying Gov. Ron DeSantis and publicly reporting new Covid-19 cases among students and staff that the state government considers confidential.

The state Department of Health has tried to directly quash reporting on the virus in some instances, after DeSantis said K-12 testing data “needs to be put in the right context.”

With no statewide standard, local leaders are left to decide on their own how and when to report Covid-19 cases in their districts. The result is a mix of differing daily and weekly reports and digital dashboards at school districts across Florida, with some counties not reporting any data to the general public.

In Bay County, for instance, school officials are aiming to produce three coronavirus reports a week. The district initially held off reporting anything to parents and the community as it watched the Department of Health’s response to counties that had built online dashboards to track the virus.

“We don’t want to get into any trouble, but we think transparency is the best way to go,” Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt said in an interview.

In a message to his school district, Husfelt noted that the Department of Health had asked some districts to take down their Covid-19 dashboards. In northeast Florida, Flagler County said the state forbid its local health department to release coronavirus data tied to schools. The DeSantis administration delivered a similar message to other counties, leading the state’s largest teachers union to blast the Republican governor in ads airing in Orlando and Tampa.

The state and local showdown over coronavirus messaging is the latest example of how state health officials have aided in the Republican governor’s plan to keep schools open during the pandemic. The state health department was “notably absent” when local school boards sought advice for closing classrooms during the pandemic, essentially forcing them to reopen, a circuit court judge wrote in an Aug. 24 ruling.

DeSantis and the Florida Education Association, a teachers union, have tangled in court over the state’s hardline school reopening policy. About 1.6 million students have returned to school for in person classes, while some 1.4 million students are beginning the year online, according to the state.

Flagler Health Department spokesperson Gretchen Smith declined to comment on the report it had been blocked from releasing information on new cases. Smith said she was contacted by Department of Health attorneys after the Flagler Live, a local news source, published its report on Friday and was instructed not to speak on the subject.

Flagler will begin releasing weekly data on Covid-19 cases in schools, Smith said.

Schools in Florida are using a variety of ways to share information about local Covid-19 cases and contract tracing, sending message blasts and mass calls to parents. But in many cases, school districts are not releasing the data to the broader public.

The Department of Health provides school officials with Information on positive cases, but that data is considered confidential, said Alberto Moscoso, the agency’s director of communications.

“Schools, superintendents or school districts are advised that the Department has provided confidential information only to them under the statute and rule,” Moscoso wrote, pointing to state law on epidemiological reports and research.

Florida has no coronavirus report dedicated solely to schools, but the Department of Health inadvertently released a draft report last month that was quickly recalled. A schools Covid-19 report that Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees promised on Aug. 31 has yet to be published.

When asked about the report, DeSantis said the state should release more comprehensive data from schools, including whether cases stemmed from symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. Case data collected in the state’s daily Covid-19 reports are broken down by age, the Republican governor said.

“These cases get spun as if they’re clinically significant,” DeSantis said at an Aug. 31 education event. “Could you imagine if we carpet-bombed every school, K through 12, for flu tests?”

Since Aug. 17, when many schools resumed in-person classes, those daily virus reports showed a nearly 17 percent jump in cases among children aged 5 through 14, and a 14 percent increase for children 4 and younger.

Since mid-August, there have been 3,877 new cases among children ages 5 through 14, for a total of 23,033 cases reported Wednesday by the Department of Health. The state has reported 11,025 cases in children 4 and younger, an increase of 1,382 since Aug. 17.

Hospitalizations rose slightly in both categories. For the 5- to 14-year-old age group, there have been 34 new hospitalizations, for a total of 230 during the pandemic. Among younger children, an additional 34 hospitalizations were reported, for a total of 254, according to the Department of Health.

The state data doesn’t track school quarantines or closures connected to the virus. School districts that do report quarantines show hundreds of students have been sent home for 14 days due to possibly being exposed to Covid-19.

Pasco County has reported 36 student Covid-19 cases and 11 staff cases, which have sent 797 students and 77 employees into quarantine since the start of the school year.

In St. Johns County, 156 students tied to 12 positive coronavirus cases entered quarantine between Aug. 30 and Sept. 4.

School case data should be released, said Pamela Marsh, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation.

The statute referenced by the Department of Health has nothing to do with releasing general public health data, Marsh said in an email. The agency is using the rule to confuse school leadership and withhold critical information, she said.

“This is just another political maneuver to make the situation seem better than it is,” Marsh wrote. “Transparency is the only way our leaders will survive this with any trust from the public at all.”



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