NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. – An off-campus party contributed to an outbreak of more than two dozen COVID-19 cases at Fletcher High School, Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said Thursday afternoon.
By Thursday evening, the school district was reporting at least 32 coronavirus cases among students and staff.
The rash of new cases forced the Neptune Beach school to close Thursday.
“I want to be clear, the situation at Fletcher does not appear to be connected to the school, but rather to a social gathering that occurred outside of the school,” Greene said during a news conference. “As superintendent, I would be remiss if we didn’t reflect on this situation and demonstrate what happens when a community of students lets its guard down.”
Greene said she didn’t know exactly when the off-campus party took place but added that it was likely Friday or Saturday. She did not say how many students attended the party.
“I’m not satisfied in that we are in a position that we had to close our school because of activity outside of the school,” Greene said. “I would be remiss if we didn’t reflect on this situation and demonstrate what happens when a community of students lets its guard down just for an evening."
On Thursday, students at Fletcher High began learning at home through at least Monday.
Greene said the school was closed because the outbreak had the potential to impact 20% of the students at the school -- a threshold set by the district before the school year started.
The total impact of the new cases was not completely known as contact tracing is still ongoing.
Dr. Pauline Rolle, director of the Florida Department of Health in Duval County, said all of the cases were linked to outside activities, including a party, as well as smaller gatherings and transmission within households.
Rolle also asked for the community’s help as the Department of Health continues its contact tracing efforts.
“When my investigators from for Department of Health call, please be cooperative,” Rolle said. “It is extremely important that you answer our questions and be truthful with us. That is the only way we are able to help protect the community.”
She asked that anyone familiar with the situation who thinks they might have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 call the Department of Health at 904-253-1850.
“We’ve gotten feedback from the community stating, ‘I don’t want to be a snitch,'" Rolle said. “Please, this virus is deadly. Don’t view it that way, view it as helping others. We need you to help us."
Rolle added that she has also heard some people say they’re concerned that the call from the Department of Health is a scam. She said anyone who is concerned that the call they receive is a scam should hang up and call the Department of Health.
The Department of Health also reminded students who tested positive to quarantine for at least 10 days after symptoms started and have their siblings quarantine, as well. In addition, the Department of Health asked those who were exposed to a positive case to quarantine for at least 14 days -- even if they test negative. And school and health leaders pleaded with families to continue social distancing, avoid large crowds and wear a mask.
“Some people from my class said that they were not feeling too well so I was, like, ‘Well, here we go again,’” said Fletcher High junior Randy Prosswimmer.
Prosswimmer said he wasn’t surprised when he found out his schoolmates tested positive for COVID-19 and the school was going back to virtual learning.
“I think I know at least three people that are sick. Probably more, but that’s all I know,” Prosswimmer said.
Morgan Meigs said he knew it would be hard to keep the virus from spreading.
“Anybody that actually has been to the school knows those hallways are cramped,” said Meigs, who graduated from the school last year. “And if you’re in that school, there’s not a lot of walkways.”
“I think it was just reopened way too soon,” Meigs added. “Not only was just the schools but with everything.”
Rolle praised DCPS for taking swift action at Fletcher High.
“If they had not been good partners, this could be much worse,” she said.
In addition to classes moving online, there will be no athletics or after-school activities at the school, including the Friday night varsity football game.
“Help us all help you,” Greene said. “I want nothing more than to keep schools open and to be as normal as possible with instruction and the activities that happen at our high schools and our middle and elementary schools. But if you choose to take risks outside of school, or even in school, it will have an impact. For your safety, for the safety of your fellow students and for the safety of your teachers and staff, exercise health behaviors and healthy habits."
Greene said once the Department of Health finishes its contact tracing, the district will then determine whether the school has to remain closed for a longer period of time. Greene said the district hopes to know that information before Monday.
The plan is to extend the shutdown if there’s 20% exposure to all those who are on campus -- or one in five. At Fletcher High, that would mean roughly 320 students and staff were found to be exposed to COVID-19.
One block away, San Pablo Elementary had 23 reported cases between Sept. 6 and Oct. 10, and Fletcher Middle School had one reported case, according to the state Department of Health. Both remain open.