Education commissioner: Use ‘surgical’ response to virus in schools

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A sign at Lake Worth High School in Palm Beach County shows that the first day of school will be virtual learning on Aug. 31.

GREG LOVETT/PALMBEACHPOST.COM

BY ANA CEBALLOS
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is urging local school officials to be “very surgical, not sweeping” when responding to coronavirus cases, which he acknowledged are likely to occur as classes resume this month.

“If you have a COVID-19 case or you have (COVID-19) symptoms, don’t panic,” Corcoran told school superintendents in a conference call on Aug. 13. “Communicate with everybody and be open and transparent about it. We are going to have cases, and that’s OK.”

Corcoran asked superintendents to check in with top officials in the state Department of Education before shutting down a classroom or school and said symptomatic individuals should be sent home.

Dealing with symptoms

He also stressed that school officials should communicate with parents whenever a symptomatic individual attends school.

“Even though it is not required, we would suggest dismissing the class for that day. Clean it, hyperclean it, and let the parents know you hyper-cleaned the class,” Corcoran added.  “Unless your child has symptoms or you see symptoms, we are fine with your child coming back the very next day.”

The Florida Association of School Superintendents on Aug. 7 sought guidance from Corcoran and state health officials about how to deal with infected students and employees, after Corcoran issued an emergency order mandating that schools reopen bricks-and -mortar classrooms five days a week this month.

Positive cases already

Since 13 counties reopened schools last week, at least three school districts have confirmed that they have been forced to respond to positive cases or ask students to quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19.

In Martin County, 151 elementary and high-school students were sent home after they either tested positive for the virus or showed symptoms of COVID-19, district spokeswoman Jennifer DeShazo confirmed to The News Service of Florida on Monday.

Four students and one teacher in Bradford County tested positive for the virus and 78 students “have been asked to stay home out of precaution,” Assistant Superintendent David Harris said in an email to the News Service on Monday.

And in Seminole County, two fifth-grade teachers who were scheduled to start in-person instruction on Monday had to self-quarantine over the weekend, district spokesman Michael Lawrence said. One of the teachers tested positive for COVID-19 and the other came into contact with the educator who was infected with the virus, Lawrence said.

Call for protocol

Corcoran said he would not recommend quarantining an entire classroom if a student tests positive for COVID-19. Instead, he said school officials should consider quarantining a portion of the class or students who came into contact with an infected student for 15 minutes or longer.

“I know it sounds complicated, but it is not,” he said. The goal, Corcoran said, is to “keep everyone safe” and to “keep everybody getting the best possible learning experience.”

The Aug. 13 call with the school officials came a week after the Florida Association of District School Superintendents told Corcoran that school officials need a statewide protocol that lays out what to do when people show symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Clear and articulate processes for the role of the Department of Health as the lead in case investigation, contact tracing and quarantine direction, length and implementation are essential and must be consistent across all school districts,” Pinellas County Superintendent of Schools Michael Grego, who is the president of the association, wrote in an Aug.7 letter to Corcoran.

Lawsuit panned

The Florida Education Association and the union representing teachers in Orange County have filed lawsuits challenging Corcoran’s July 6 order. The unions allege that the mandate violates the state Constitution, which guarantees the right to “safe” and “secure” public schools.

While speaking to the superintendents last week, Corcoran called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
He praised the superintendents for working to reopen schools and offer in-person instruction, emphasizing that local officials should not hesitate to seek the advice of state officials.

“I think we’re going to be an example to the rest of the nation how to do this effectively, how to address the needs of each child and really focusing on closing the achievement gap and having a great semester,” Corcoran said.

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