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Palm Coast Saturday, Sep. 5, 2020 3 weeks ago

Flagler Schools reports 14 positive cases since schools reopened to students

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Cases have been identified at Old Kings Elementary School, Buddy Taylor Middle School, Flagler-Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

A total of three staff members and 11 students have tested positive in Flagler Schools since classes began on Aug. 24, with cases at Old Kings Elementary School, Buddy Taylor Middle School, Flagler-Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School, according to the school district.

Local officials are expecting a spike — potentially a brief one — as students return to in-person classes.

"As we have the students going to school and interacting, we’ll probably see some spiking," Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte said during the city's Virtual Town Hall event on Sept. 2. "We’re dealing with this in a long-term adjustment, and part of the city’s response and the Fire Department's response is is just to deal with these things as they start to come up, and maintain social distancing, maintain isolation when we need to, make sure that anybody who’s sick doesn’t come to work. And I think if we stay on that track, we’ll be able to deal with these small spikes as they start to make themselves known."

Flagler County's number of emergency room visits for COVID-19-type symptoms have been trending downward, as has the local positivity rate, and Flagler County has the lowest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the state. 

Still, Forte said, "Every time we open up a new aspect of the public, there’s going to be a bump, a spike, in the new COVID cases. ... We’ll work that out as we go."

Flagler Schools Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said the school district is still working out the details of instructing students during the pandemic and providing COVID-19 safety precautions.

The district has given students three options for instruction: in-person at brick-and-mortar classes, "remote live" from home over a webcam watching brick-and-mortar classes, or online through the iFlagler virtual school. 

The remote-live method is new for both teachers and students, she said.

"We are all under a steep learning curve this year, and I've appreciated so much our community and families for being patient," Mittelstadt said. 

She added that it was only the eighth day of classes.

"As in any new school year, we always take the first couple of days to adjust our rosters, to get our students in the right lanes in terms of teaching, to help our teachers make sure they have all the adequate supplies and needs in their classrooms," she said. "And it's been a lot of new things this year, that although we have worked very hard to prepare for, we have conditions that have changed over the course of how this virus has evolved, and the guidance by the health department and being mindful of the CDC guidelines, we need to be flexible and make adjustments accordingly."

The district has drawn criticism from parents and teachers who've said the reopening process lacked adequate options for teachers who did not feel safe returning to the classroom, and that some teachers had not received adequate cleaning supplies.

Mittelstadt said she meets each morning with her executive team, "and we look to see where we need to kind of pivot and shift, so I can ensure that I'm taking care of all the faculty and staff and their safeguard needs to ensure that they're able to go about their way of work at a high level, to ensure we've got some amazing opportunities educationally for all of our students."

As of Sept. 2, she said, approximately 6,500 students had signed up for brick-and-mortar instruction, 3,227 were using the remote live option, and over 1,400 were enrolled in iFlagler. 

That is lower than last year's enrollment. Mittelstadt said it's typical for students to trickle in during the early part of the school year. 

"Florida typically starts the school year prior to Labor Day, and so it’s not uncommon to see daily enrollment numbers continue to increase, even into the first part of September past the Labor Day weekend ... when our northern families come down to Florida and go, ‘Oh wow, we didn’t know you had already started in school,'" she said.  

Florida Department of Health-Flagler Health Officer Bob Snyder said the health department's priority this week has been supporting the school district as schools reopen.

Cases have been identified at five public schools and at a private school, he said, and the health department is handling contact tracing and case investigation. 

When there's a case in a school, health department staff conducting contact tracing will contact the people who are determined to have been within 6 feet of the infected person for 15 minutes or longer. 

"Our staff makes contact, and through another series of questions, they may be asked to quarantine for 14 days, look for symptoms and possibly get tested themselves," he said. 

Testing sites specifically for school staff and students have been set up at at Buddy Taylor Middle School and operate on Tuesday and Thursdays, he said, in addition to the seven regular COVID-19 testing sites that are open to the population at large.

Dr. Stephen Bickel, medical director at the Florida Department of Health-Flagler, said that recent evidence has indicated that COVID-19 probably doesn't spread by surface contact as easily as initially thought, because the amount of virus retained on surfaces is comparatively low.

In terms of surface disinfection, he said, "I think the measures that she [Mittelstadt] described are more than adequate."

Recent evidence also suggests that children under age 10 are about half as likely to be infected as are adults, and that when they are infected, they're asymptomatic in about 70-80% of cases, he said. Adults are much more likely to have symptoms. 

"It's thought that the risks of reopening schools is significantly less than we first thought it was," Bickel said. "And given that there are significant positive impacts to schools opening — the educational, the social, the impact on parents being able to work, the economy — a lot of experts are leaning towards promoting the schools opening and staying open. That’s kind of shifted in the last month or two, and the reason for that is we really didn’t have that much data until a month or two ago."

At the same time, the consensus is shifting in the other direction on the risk of outdoor spread.

"It used to be thought it was very low," Bickel said. But, "If people are talking loud, singing, shouting, playing very close to each other — no masks — there’s probably transmission. That can include outdoor sporting events. So that's an area where there may be a little more risk than we thought. ... The general recommendations hold: If people can’t social distance outside, they should be wearing masks."

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