The 2021-2022 school year begins on Tuesday, Aug. 10, and recently Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning schools from mandating masks and threatening to cut district funding if school systems disobey the order—even though pediatric Covid-19 cases are surging.
From July 29-Aug. 5, 93,824 pediatric Covid-19 cases were reported nationally—that is, 15 percent of the weekly total of all reported cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. During the same time period, Sarasota County averaged just under 30 pediatric cases per day, according to Florida Department of Health epidemiologist Michael Drennon, who spoke at the Sarasota County school board meeting on Aug. 4.
But in much of the state, masking will remain optional, including for Sarasota County Schools and the School District of Manatee. (Students enrolled in schools that are part of the Diocese of Venice will be required to wear a mask).
Still, county officials insist that other Covid-19 safety protocols are in place to keep kids, teachers and staff as healthy as possible. Detailed Covid-19 protocol will be included in the school system's Return to Learn and Return to Work pamphlets; additionally, Dr. Brennan Asplen, Sarasota County Schools superintendent, spoke to us about what families can expect before returning to school.
Masks will be optional for students, staff and volunteers.
"We have every intention of starting the school year with optional mask policies," Asplen says. "If we don't do that, we could miss out on possible sanctioned funding. Eighty-five percent of funding goes to [employee] salaries, and we are in the people business. We need teachers in classrooms and schools open so students can get a high-quality education."
Virtual and concurrent schooling will no longer be an option.
Last year, students had the option to take classes solely online through Sarasota Virtual School, in a hybrid format or fully in-person. This year, all classes will be held in-person. If a parent wishes to keep their children home, they can sign up for Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which is separate from the county's system.
Quarantine will no longer be required for fully vaccinated students.
If a child age 12 and over is fully vaccinated and comes into contact with someone with Covid-19, they will not have to quarantine. If a child is unvaccinated, they will have to quarantine for seven to 10 days. If children are asymptomatic, they will not need a negative test to return to school. If they are showing symptoms, however, they will need to take a Covid-19 test and ensure they are not positive prior to returning.
If a child has already quarantined due to Covid, or has tested positive for Covid in the last 90 days, they will also not have to quarantine.
Plastic shields, sanitization and social distancing cues will remain.
According to Asplen, plastic shields separating children's desks have been kept by schools in case a parent wants their child to have one. Schools will be sanitized daily with Omnishield, a product which kills viruses for up to 90 days. Updated ventilation and air filters have also been installed. Social distancing reminders and hand sanitizing stations will remain.
Screenings of volunteers and school visitors, which include temperature checks and symptom questionnaires, will remain in place. No proof of vaccination will be required.
(Editor's Note: As of Tuesday, August 10, Superintendent Asplen announced that nonessential visitors and volunteers will be suspended from campus for 30 days. This is in reaction to the uptick in pediatric Covid-19 cases in the weekend prior.)
"Visitors and volunteers will be allowed at the school, but when they come to the front office, they will get a temperature check and will be asked questions about their symptoms, if they've been in contact with someone positive, or if they've recently traveled," says Asplen. "During a normal school year, the volunteers slowly start to roll in as the year progresses, so we are not expecting 100 percent capacity right away, anyway."
Contact tracing will continue and be updated regularly on the district's Covid-19 online dashboard.
Designated staff at each school will be in charge of contact tracing. When a student tests positive, they must report it to the school, which will report it to the Department of Health. Case reports will remain anonymous; however, students and staff who came into contact with the positive case will be notified by the school.
For more information on the Covid-19 contact tracing system in the school board, click here.
The district is working on possibly contracting teachers to help students with make-up work.
If a student misses school due to quarantine, the district is considering contracting teachers to give tutoring sessions to students via video call or over the phone. This would be outside of school hours, and depend on each student's need. "This will help keep students from getting too far behind, and teachers would be compensated for that time," explains Asplen.
This plan is not yet in place.
The district will be keeping a close eye on the Delta variant's effects on Sarasota-Manatee's pediatric Covid-19 cases.
"Safety is a top priority in our school system. We talk with the department of health every day to get the latest Covid-19 numbers and find out what's going on in hospitals," says Asplen. "We also have a couple doctors we touch base with to get input and thoughts on where we are with the Covid-19 situation, and what recommendations would be."
Vaccine clinics will be offered at various school sites, which are open to the public. There are also testing sites that serve the north, central and south county areas.
In Manatee County, protocols look similar—here's a rundown.
Masks are optional; students and employees who are present flu-like symptoms, "cannot attend their school or report to their job site," according to the district website. If they do, "anyone with flu-like symptoms will be sent home," says district spokesman Mike Barber.
Updates to air filtration systems will continue, along with thorough disinfecting of all schools.
In addition to in-person learning, remote instruction will be provided through Manatee Virtual School, a localized version of Florida Virtual School.
Quarantine policy will be coordinated with Manatee County Department of Health, in accordance with CDC guidelines. Parents will be notified of cases in their child's classroom. If they haven't been told to quarantine by health officials, and if their children are symptom-free, they may still attend school.