New analysis of coronavirus cases in Florida finds that reopening schools with in-person instruction did not lead to a surge of virus infections among school-age children, as many feared.
According to USA Today, Florida's positive case count among children ages 5 to 17 actually declined through late September after peaking in July. In counties where the coronavirus cases are surging, it's college-age adults, not kids, who are reporting more positive infections.
Health experts told USA Today that these early results show social distancing efforts and mask wearing has been effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Florida.
"Many of the schools that have been able to successfully open have also been implementing control measures that are an important part of managing spread in these schools," said Dr. Nathaniel Beers, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on School Health.
While the data is good news, the analysis also found that the rate of decline in coronavirus cases slowed in areas where schools reopened. "That might mean cases have plateaued and schools have not fueled new, large outbreaks. Or it might mean those counties are at the bottom of a U and could soon turn upward again," USA Today reports.
"It's one of those things where it's not a problem until there is a problem," said Dr. Katherine Auger, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
Because there is still a risk of viral infection, the experts who spoke to USA Today warned against reading the data and concluding that all schools should reopen or that safety measures should be abandoned.
In July, Florida state officials ordered schools to open full-time beginning in August. While other states reopened school districts with virtual learning plans, Florida mandated that public schools offer face-to-face instruction. The decision was attacked by the state teachers union, which criticized Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for introducing, in their words, "a reopening plan that could expose students, teachers, or their families to illness, hospitalization, or death."
According to state education officials, more than half of Florida families elected to return their children to school in-person, with the rest opting for remote learning. Now, with no surge in coronavirus cases materializing, more parents are requesting to send their children back to school.
A spokesperson for the Health Department of Martin County told USA today there is little evidence of in-classroom transmission within that county's school district. Cases "are leveling off, and the trends are going in the right direction, (and) the preventive measures adopted by the school district community have been an essential part in stopping the spread of the virus," the spokesperson said.
Counties with college campuses, however, are showing increased rates of infection primarily among 18- to 25-year-olds.
From USA Today:
Two counties – Alachua, with the University of Florida, and Leon, with Florida State University and Florida A&M – set records for cases in September. The number of young adult cases are rising even in counties without large campuses, the USA TODAY analysis found.
Many factors probably influence the contrast between college- and school-age cases, experts said.
When children go to school, they're often in one classroom and under close supervision for most of the day. When they return home, many families limit social interactions.
Young adults might attend college classes with strict coronavirus precautions for only a couple of hours each day. The rest of the time, people in that age group tend to socialize with a broad group of people and work service jobs where they interact with dozens of strangers in a single shift.
One of the challenges facing Florida schools is mandated quarantine for students who've come into contact with adults who tested positive for COVID-19.
According to Assistant Superintendent David Harris of Bradford County, 43 students and 40 teachers tested positive for the virus since classes resumed at the end of August. As a result, 640 students were sent home to isolate and have been unable to attend class.
"Very, very few – less than five – of the kids who were quarantined tested positive," Harris said. "We're sending a lot of kids out of school for 14 days that don't need to be. That's our biggest issue. That's a huge problem. ...They're falling behind."
If cases continue to drop, some schools plan to ease safety precautions.
"Our positivity rates are declining, and if we can maintain and hold lower positivity rates, it is very possible that we could revise recommendations," Kristine Hollingsworth, a spokeswoman for the Health Department in Collier County in southwest Florida, told USA Today.
Some parents and school officials in Florida are still trepidatious about fully returning children to school. Health experts are hopeful that as more data emerges about coronavirus transmission and infection, policy makers will be able to make better-informed decisions about returning to school safely.