St. Johns County Schools Consider COVID Protocol with Omicron Variant

Like so many other school systems across the country, the past year has been a piecemeal exercise for the St. Johns County School District in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students who chose to return to class in person for the 2020-21 school year on August 16 did so at almost the same time the delta variant of the coronavirus began to peak in northeast Florida.

By the end of August, the number of students testing positive for COVID or in quarantine had reached hundreds, with totals increasing almost every week.

But by June, St. Johns County school officials had ended mandatory masking for students and staff, also removing desk screens and some of the social distancing measures that were in place for much of the time. of the 2020-21 school year.

What ensued in the months that followed was fierce debate on both sides of the masking issue, with school board meetings becoming increasingly polarized and politicized.

These voices fell into two camps: those pleading with school officials to protect students and staff in what they saw as an escalation of the public health crisis; and those who said they don’t believe in the effectiveness of masks or who believe wearing them should be an individual or family decision.

On August 25, the school board ordered all staff and visitors to school buildings to wear masks for the next 30 days, an order that was not renewed on September 23 as COVID positivity rates started to decline in St. Johns County. Students – under the guidance of their parents – continued to have the option of wearing face coverings.

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At the start of the school year, between 25 and 40 percent of students regularly wore masks to school, an anecdotal estimate, according to Kyle Dresback, the district’s associate superintendent for student support services.

“And you saw like the number [of positive cases] keep going down, you saw that [percentage] decline, “Dresback said in a telephone interview with The Record on Tuesday.

When asked to describe what the shape or pattern of the COVID outbreak would look like in St. Johns County schools this fall through winter if traced, Dresback said, “You’ve got it. saw it go up until mid-September and then go down really dramatically, both among students and staff.

“So we feel good about where we are now and hope these numbers continue to be so,” added Dresback.

The coming weeks will determine – as the district takes its vacation from Dec. 22 through Jan. 6 – whether this holds true.

A new variant of COVID-19 called omicron is now spreading across the country, and with it, fears of reverting to more stringent measures implemented during the outbreak of the virus in the first half of 2020.

On December 20, the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that omicron was now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the United States, accounting for 73% of new infections the previous week.

According to the daily scorecard released by the school district, the number of students affected by the virus has increased steadily, if not sharply, in the last week before schools closed.

On December 21, 31 students were reported positive for COVID-19, of which 26 were quarantined. This was an increase from the 27 positives on Dec. 20 and 24 that were quarantined. By comparison, on December 15, those numbers were 17 sick and 11 in quarantine and gradually increased over the following days.

So far, hospitals in northeast Florida do not appear to be inundated with new patients with signs of the variant. But medical experts say this version of the virus could be more infectious, if not as serious, than previous ones.

“The good thing is that vaccines are now available for school-aged children,” said Dresback.

The state health department has yet to notify the school district of any new protocols it may be required to implement to guard against COVID, but that could change, Dresback, especially if the number cases were expected to increase by the time students return to class after the break.

This could include any federal, state or regional regulations that may be promulgated.

In the meantime, Dresback said, “We’re just keeping an eye on the numbers, but we’re ready to answer whatever we need.”

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