Julie Fitzpatrick, a mother of two third graders at B.D. Gullett Elementary School, has been serving as a substitute teacher at the school two to four days per week since school began Aug. 10.
At the beginning of the school year, she saw several students and staff members staying at home because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were in direct contact with someone who tested positive and needed to quarantine.
Now with the end of the first quarter Oct. 8 and students having been in school for two months, the number of positive cases at Gullett and within the School District of Manatee County has significantly decreased since the beginning of the school year.
In the first two weeks of school, the district reported 825 positive cases among students and employees. In the last two weeks, that number is 182.
Kevin Chapman, the director of strategic planning and district initiatives for the school district, said the increase in cases was a reflection of the surge in cases around the state.
“Those first 30 days were certainly challenging, but we did everything we could to keep all students and staff safe as we continue to do,” Chapman said.
Within the first week of school, the district implemented COVID-19 protocols that were in place last year including temperature checks for all employees and randomly for students, visitor restrictions in schools and employees must answer questions related to COVID-19 daily as they arrive to work.
Since Sept. 14, the district has seen less than 50 cases per day. The last time the district reported more than 100 cases in a day was Sept. 7 when the district reported 127 cases.
Mike Barber, a spokesperson for the School District of Manatee County, said the district is pleased to see the number of positive cases decreasing.
“We feel like this is a great thing for our community and especially a great thing for our schools,” Barber said. “It’s a matter of our schools, teachers, principals, students and parents all being extremely vigilant. They’ve been following the mitigation measures we have and staying home if they’re sick.”
The Florida Department of Health in coordination with the Florida Department of Education released a new emergency rule Sept. 22 giving parents the option to send their students back to school if students are asymptomatic after being exposed as a result of being in direct contact with someone who tested positive.
In the past, asymptomatic students who were exposed couldn’t return to school until they received a negative COVID-19 test after four days from the date of last exposure or seven days had passed since the date of last exposure.
Fitzpatrick is happy with the new quarantine rule because although she hasn’t had to have her children stay home to quarantine, she knows families with students who have had to stay home even though they were asymptomatic.
“I think it’s a good idea because if one of the boys were exposed but they were not showing any symptoms and tested negative, I would send them back,” Fitzpatrick said.
Brittany Larkin, a parent of a student at Braden River High School and a student at Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch, felt the district’s protocols were strict at the beginning of the school year but the mask mandate with opt-out option and the new quarantine provides more parental choice.
“They had so many measures in place but it almost was too much, and I think they had to kind of scale it back,” Larkins said. “I was seeing the same kids over and over getting quarantined when they weren’t showing any symptoms. I think parents were getting frustrated because it was constantly happening.”
The School Board of Manatee County implemented a mask mandate with opt-out option Aug. 16. The board extended the mandate Aug. 24 and will review the mandate during its meeting Oct. 26. If the county’s positivity rate falls below 8% before Oct. 26, the board will review the mandate at an earlier date.
As of Oct. 1, 10,070 students across the district have opted out of the mask mandate. The district has about 50,000 students enrolled this year.
Barber and Chapman said the district plans to stay the course with its mitigation efforts even as cases decrease.
“One thing we’ve learned with COVID is that there are ups and downs,” Barbe said. “We’re happy to see the numbers down and the positivity rate down, but I think the thought process from the district level and what I understand from the superintendent is you want to give some time to see if that’s going to sort of be a stable thing. We’re monitoring it and seeing if it’s going to stay at the lower levels and then make decisions from there.”
Larkin hopes the district continues the mask mandate with an opt out option because it gives parents the choice to send their students to school with masks or not.
“It seems to be working because numbers are down, so I hope they will look at that and they will keep it the same as long as numbers continue to go down,” Larkin said.