TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday he wants to differentiate between asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID-19 students when the state finally releases a breakdown of the virus in schools.
DeSantis, along with state health and education officials, addressed the state’s public disclosure of coronavirus data in Florida schools during a morning education roundtable event in Tallahassee.
After Duval County Public Schools said it planned to release a dashboard with COVID-19 information for each school, the Duval County Health Department told school officials last week they needed to get permission from the state level in order to tell parents and the community how many cases are in its schools.
On Friday, the Florida Department of Health said the information about the number of COVID-19 cases in schools was “confidential.”
State Surgeon Gen. Scott Rivkees said Monday that a school-specific report is in development.
“We’re trying to put together what is the best report that actually truly captures what the incidence of cases are in the state as related to schools,” Rivkees said.
Rivkees said the draft report that was accidentally published last week, and then unpublished, still needed modifications.
DeSantis weighed in on what he thinks should be in the report.
“You have 10 positive tests at a middle school in Martin County,” DeSanits said, laying out a hypothetical situation. ”How many of those positive tests, actually, how many of those people were ill? Were any of them ill? How many of them were symptomatic? I think that needs to be in there because I think these cases get spun as if they’re clinically significant.”
DeSantis said that information is critical for parents as they send students back into classrooms across Florida.
Rivkees and DeSantis both added that an age breakdown of positive tests is included in the daily coronavirus report published by the state.
But some critics have pointed out that the report only shows the county of residence for the patient, not which school they attend.
With students returning to classrooms throughout most of the state, DeSantis and an adviser to President Donald Trump on Monday tried to bolster support for offering in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Scott Atlas, a physician and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said during the news conference that evidence is “incontrovertible” that children are at extremely low risk from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We can’t panic. There’s no place for fear in public policy,” said Atlas, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “The children are not at any significant risk, although there are exceptions. But the exceptions, of course, exist in every medical illness. If you are a doctor you understand that, they do not overwhelm the rest of the evidence.”
Atlas and DeSantis also emphasized focusing on people who show symptoms of the virus and are particularly vulnerable to its effects, rather than people who are infected but asymptomatic. DeSantis said one of his priorities has been to “keep our society functioning.”
“To put society on its knees is kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face,” DeSantis said. “The schools, I think, are an important part of that.”
The news conference came as school districts in almost all areas of the state were required Monday to offer in-person classes. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran last month issued an order directing schools to reopen by Aug. 31. Districts in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have had the largest numbers of coronavirus cases, did not have to meet the date for in-person classes.
DeSantis and Corcoran have emphasized a need to give families a choice of using in-person instruction or distance learning. Corcoran estimated Monday that about 60 percent of students statewide are taking part in face-to-face instruction and about 40 percent are taking part in virtual or “hybrid” learning, though the numbers vary by district.
But while DeSantis and Corcoran have spent weeks touting the approach, it has been controversial and has drawn legal challenges from the Florida Education Associations teachers union and the Orange County teachers union. In part, the unions have argued that Corcoran’s reopening order last month violates the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public schools.
Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson last week ruled in favor of the unions and issued a temporary injunction against the order. But the 1st District Court of Appeal late Friday imposed a stay on Dodson’s ruling --- effectively meaning that the order remains in effect as schools reopen.
Nevertheless, Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram vowed to continue the legal fight.
“We are going to keep fighting because lives are at stake,” Ingram said after the appeals court issued the stay. “This is not about closing schools or opening schools. This is about allowing local districts to do what is best to protect local families.”
At least part of the unions’ concern has been that teachers and other staff members could be exposed to the virus, which is particularly dangerous to people with underlying health conditions. Schools shut down in March and students were shifted to distance learning as the pandemic hit the state.
During Monday’s news conference, Atlas said the focus of testing and other measures should be on vulnerable people. But he also warned about the effects of locking down schools and other parts of society. He said the United States is the “only country of our peer nations in the Western world who are this hysterical about opening schools.”
“You cannot shut down schools and then just assume you are doing something good because there is some infection in the school,” Atlas said. “We know that there is a significant drop in learning, but also all the socialization that children need, all of the physical activity, all the health, all of the nutrition.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.