Editor’s Note: On Sept. 24, the same day this column published in the newspaper, the Monroe County School District sent out an alert. The district reports there are two cases of COVID-19 countywide, but did not specify school or whether it was staff or students. It also said there are students and staff from the Middle Keys quarantining as a precaution to COVID-19 exposure; again it was not school or grade level specific.
On Sept. 14 — more than two weeks ago — most students in the Monroe County School District showed up for in-person instruction on school campuses. All elementary school students are in attendance Monday through Friday, while middle school and high school students are attending every other day on what’s known as the A/B schedule. A minority have opted to attend virtual school for the first semester.
As of now, the Keys are averaging from one to five new coronavirus cases per day but, typically, health officials say, there’s a two-week lag between what’s known as a “spreader event” — for example, the start of classroom instruction — and the possibile spike in reported cases. Because experts say children can be asymptomatic, interpretation of the data is even more muddled and, frankly, more important.
Monroe County and other communities around the U.S. have braced themselves for this moment. Most agree that in-person instruction will result in a COVID-19 spike. So when, not if, it happens, how will the Keys school district disseminate this information to the public?
“There is an internal communication plan. We are working on the external communication plan, including how to do that legally,” said spokesperson Becky Herrin, hired especially by the school district to handle coronavirus communications. All of the information about positive COVID-19 cases comes to the schools through the Monroe County Health Department.
The details will matter.
Which school has been infected? Which grade level? If the infected student was a middle school or high school student, were they on the A or B schedule? Will it matter, as all teachers deal with both? Will there be a delay between a positive test or suspected spread within a school and the relay of that information to interested parties — parents, staff or the at-large community? And, what happens next — do schools shut down and instruction revert to virtual? Does that mean two weeks at home, or more?
Other school districts in Florida are using dashboards to communicate information, including Brevard County School District. Yet the Washington Post reported that Governor Ron DeSantis allegedly “ordered some districts to stop releasing school specific coronavirus information, citing privacy issues.” Rebekah Jones, the state’s ousted dashboard administrator for Florida, has created her own school-level coronavirus reporting system. It’s called The Covid Monitor and Jones said the site administrators receive reports and then verify them. The Florida Education Association is also reporting school infections on its website at feaweb.org.
Here’s my hope: that the best minds can come together on this and that they will decide to be transparent. That’s newspaper-speak for not fudging or delaying or hiding the numbers.
This illness discriminates. It strikes people with underlying conditions and the elderly. This illness is also impartial; it reportedly kills the perfectly healthy on a whim.
Here’s what I do know: people — students, teachers, parents and grandparents, employers — will all approach this from a different perspective. It’s their right and it’s their responsibility to know.
So the most important thing that we need is school coronavirus infections to be reported as distinct from the Keys population as a whole. That information needs to be truthful and timely so that we can all do what’s best for ourselves and the people we love.