More than 600 Currently Quarantined
by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly
Less than two weeks into the school year, Escambia County schools are instituting stricter COVID safety measures due to what Escambia County School District Superintendent Tim Smith describes as “a steady increase” in coronavirus cases among students and staff.
“It came time to kind of move into a phase of more — kind of a tightening up, and just more protocols that will increase the safety in the schools,” Smith told Inweekly Wednesday.
The superintendent said that it was difficult to provide an exact count of how many individuals in the district were currently quarantined due to COVID — “well, that’s a very fluid number” — but that such individuals would constitute both verified and symptomatic but unverified individuals.
“There’s just some processing that makes pinpointing the number a little challenging,” Smith said before settling on the sum of 630 students and staff members.
Changes driven by the current uptick in COVID cases include the cancellation of open houses and large student assemblies during the school day; a suspension of all field trips, except for competitions and performances; a suspension of visitor access for volunteers and mentors; encouraging social distancing, hand washing, and employing specialized cleaning techniques.
Smith said these precautions would be reassessed at the end of the current nine-week period, which ends in October.
“We’re hoping COVID numbers have decreased by then, but regardless we’ll reassess,” he said.
Another change Escambia has needed to make due to the increase in COVID cases — this one of an in-house operational nature — involves contact tracing. Whereas the district previously performed contract tracing out of a central office, individual principals are now tasked with the duty.
“Well, the numbers just grew so fast these past few weeks that we had to make a change on that,” Smith said, explaining that the move “decentralized” the task and that principals were able to tackle their schools more efficiently.
One common COVID-related safety measure that will not be employed in Escambia is requiring masks to limit community spread. Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that restricts school districts from requiring masks, though some Florida districts are pushing back on that front.
Smith referred to the “fundamental structure” of power in the state, with local districts answering to the state, and said there were no plans to overstep in Escambia.
“We’re going to be compliant to those authorities at this time. You know, our practice is that we always abide by the authorities that we have in the state,” the superintendent said. “That’s the structure in place to go against that; it’s a significant step for sure.”
While Escambia won’t be challenging the state when it comes to masks — it’s adopted a mask-optional policy — Smith said he appreciates the issue’s complexities.
“There’s a lot of dynamics that are taking place here on the masks. It’s a tough issue. I certainly understand people who are concerned,” he said. “And, you know, this is an issue that has two sides: you have one side that has a safety concern, and you have another side that is looking at, you know, parental rights. And both certainly are important, but for us, we’re going to comply with the authority of our state.”
Another safety measure commonly used last school year that will not be resurfacing in Escambia is the practice of taking a student’s temperature upon arrival on campus, with a fever getting a student sent home.
“We haven’t been doing temperature checks now, this year,” Smith said, explaining that there’s a new state requirement that any medical assistance — “or, medical checking, if you will, like checking the temperature” — now involves a parental consent process. “We have to make sure we have parental consent to do that. That’s a new requirement. So, that would have to be checked, because otherwise we’re not even permitted to take the temperature.”