With School District of Manatee County campuses more than three-quarters full, the hallways are bustling once again.
Although that would seem to make for questionable conditions when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19, the district continues to add layers of safety that make the campus as safe as possible.
Diann Minero, the senior school secretary at Braden River Middle School, has taken every precaution she can to reduce her risk of getting COVID-19. She wears a face mask, maintains social distancing and limits her interactions with others when possible.
So when Minero, who is 73, received an email from the school district about her ability to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, she jumped at the opportunity.
Minero walked into the Manatee Elementary School-based health clinic for her 11 a.m. appointment Feb. 2. After getting checked in, she sat patiently for it to be her turn.
“I have a healthy fear of COVID-19 at my age, and I have a fear of being hospitalized,” Minero said. “Luckily, I’m normally very healthy. … [The vaccine] is an added layer of protection.”
The partnership between the school district and MCR Health to provide vaccines to about 300 employees who are at least 65 years old is part of the continued efforts the district has put into place to try to keep students and staff members safe.
With more students on campus full time since schools returned from winter break Jan. 6, Minero said the vaccine is a sign of hope.
“I’m hoping to go back to a new normal, whatever it’s supposed to be,” Minero said.
Miriam Ortiz, a 66-year-old paraprofessional at Dr. Mona Jain Middle School, almost didn’t get the vaccine through the district and MCR Health’s partnership because she thought she was taking enough precautions, and her name was on the Sarasota County vaccine waiting list.
Her husband, Rich Berger, who is high risk, encouraged her to take advantage of the opportunity to get a vaccine.
“He said, ‘Look, you should go because you’re doing this for both of us,’” Ortiz said.
Students and staff are continuing to abide by multiple health and safety precautions at school including wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, washing hands frequently, cleaning high-touch surfaces and going down hallways one way.
The Manatee County Department of Health has been sharing the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines related to schools with the School District of Manatee County, so the district and the School Board of Manatee County could make the most informed decisions on policies and practices to ensure students’ and employees’ safety.
“The preventative measures are the best way to prevent the spread of the disease at this time,” said Dr. Jennifer Bencie, the chief health officer for the Manatee County Department of Health.
Charlie Kennedy, a school board member, was hesitant to open schools back in August because he worried about having so many students and employees on campus at once.
After visiting schools and seeing the health and safety protocols in action, Kennedy said the year is going as well as can be expected.
“The mask policy has been crucial for us being able to keep schools open,” Kennedy said. “I was worried last August about opening schools, but as we have learned more, not just the school district but as all of us have learned more, we know what works and what doesn’t.”
The district has not had to close any schools or part of any schools as a result of an outbreak since school began Aug. 17, 2020.
From August through December, East County schools had a total of 136 confirmed cases. In January, East County schools had 49 confirmed cases. But 84% of the students were back on campus after winter break.
The Manatee County Department of Health helped the district establish a District Operations Center that focuses on contact tracing when there is a confirmed case on campus.
Although there are more students on campus, Kevin Chapman, the director of strategic planning and district initiatives for the school district, said contact tracing hasn’t become more difficult because students can be tracked through the seating charts in each class and through class schedules.
There might be more students and staff being sent home to quarantine as a result of more students being on campus, but requiring the students or staff to quarantine is a safety measure, Chapman said.
“We’ve seen a very small number of students become positive when they’re in quarantine,” Chapman said. “A vast majority of the cases we see in our schools come from outside the school, meaning a staff or a student became COVID-19 positive from outside our school system.”
Bencie said that although people are starting to get vaccinated, continuing to enforce health and safety measures is crucial.
“Anyone who is vaccinated should continue to practice the prevention measures as a way of ensuring spread of the disease is minimized,” Bencie said. “The vaccine prevents people from getting ill. We’re still uncertain whether the vaccine prevents those who are vaccinated from still possibly taking on the disease or any of its variants and spreading it to others.”
Although many students decided to return to campus full time after the holiday break, about 15% of the district’s nearly 50,000 students chose to stay at home for e-learning.
Kaylee Cooper, a senior at Braden River High School, was on the hybrid schedule because she liked to socialize with friends while also reducing the risk of being quarantined or testing positive for COVID-19 by doing e-learning three days per week.
In December, Braden River High School decided to no longer offer the hybrid schedule.
Cooper, a member of the school’s girls soccer team, decided to continue with e-learning to reduce her risk of possible exposure that could lead to her missing out on playing in a soccer game.
Landon Kiefer, a senior at Braden River High School, started with hybrid at the beginning of the year and transitioned to full-time e-learning, so he could take electives at Braden River while being a dual-enrollment student at the State College of Florida.
Safety also played a factor in his decision.
“High schoolers are going to live like most high schoolers; they are going to go out and be with people they are friends with,” Kiefer said. “I would rather take the opportunity to prevent myself from being sick, so that is why I think staying at home is safer at the moment.”