MIAMI – It has been a month since some Florida schools began welcoming students back to classrooms.
Since then, there have been calls for the state and school districts to publish data that shows how many positive coronavirus tests have infiltrated public schools.
While some school districts, like Duval and St. Johns counties, have decided to publish the data independently of the state, other districts are leaving it up to the state to disclose the numbers, leaving many parents and students to wonder.
As Duval County Public Schools is set to begin phasing out its hybrid attendance model for students, the battle over how school districts should report useful COVID-19 data is still being fought.
Addressing the issue during a news conference in Miami on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the school coronavirus report is still being developed but offered no timetable for its arrival.
“I can tell you this, the Commissioner of Education [Richard Corcoran], I asked him to give...get as much data as we can,” DeSantis said. “So he’s gone to the Surgeon General, they’ve looked at it, hopefully, we’ll be able to have something that they can produce in a digestible format.”
“County health departments provide confidential COVID-19 information on positive individuals and close contacts to positive cases to schools, superintendents or other designated individuals in school districts as that has been determined to be necessary by the State Surgeon General," the Florida Department of Health said in a response.
The department then cited two state laws, which do say the information in the reports is confidential, unless releasing it is deemed “necessary.”
The Florida Health Department said it hands the information over only to the 67 school superintendents with the understanding that it’s to be protected by those two laws.
“We are still working to determine the structure and release of the report containing information regarding cases of COVID-19 in schools and daycares and will advise as soon as that has been finalized," the department said in its response.
DeSantis said COVID-19 data for school-aged children is already available in daily reports produced by the Florida Department of Health.
But that data only provides a wide age range for reported cases — broken down for ages 0-4, 5-14 and 15-24, for example — and the county of residence. The report also does not show a school-by-school breakdown, which parents have said can be crucial for their decision making.
DeSantis said the state’s report is enough to give the public a good idea of new positive cases for young people.
“So guess what, if you have that, from — what is it, the 17 to 24 category that they have? — in Leon County or Alachua, and you see a lot of cases, well guess what, those are university students at FSU or UF,” he said. “If you see them in lower age groups than that, then you know that is going to be a K-12.”
Looking at that data referenced by DeSantis, of the 777 new cases in Alachua County in September, 478 are in the 15-24 age group, making up 61% of the cases. Nearly all of those are 18- to 22-year-olds.
Of the 429 new cases in St. Johns County in September, 146 are in the 15-24 age group, 34% of the cases. Back in June, that age group was 30% of St. Johns County’s new cases.
Of the 1,590 cases so far in September in Duval, 307 are in the 15-24 group or 19% of the cases.
DeSantis said Friday that the state has seen very few cases compared to the number of K-12 students that have been in session. He also said the Florida Department of Health doesn’t always know which school the cases are coming from.
“We have about 1.2 million students that are in-person learning,” DeSantis said. “The number of positive tests that you’ve had over that time is such a minute part of that, that the school districts are handling it as they go, and, so it’s not like if a test is reported to the state that the state necessarily knows which school that that came from. That’s not the way it’s going.”
Last week, DeSantis said he wants to differentiate between asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID-19 students when the state does finally release a breakdown of the virus in schools.
He also acknowledged last week that coronavirus information is critical for parents as they send students back into classrooms across Florida.
State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said the draft report that was accidentally published two weeks ago, and then unpublished, causing confusion for many, still needed modifications.