COVID-19 surge in Lee and Collier schools led to more than 1,000 teacher absences last week

Dan DeLuca
Fort Myers News-Press

To stay connected with our comprehensive coverage of COVID-19 in Florida, sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter.

Southwest Florida schools are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and teacher absences since returning from the holiday break. 

There have been more than 700 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lee County schools since Jan. 2, according to the district's incident log. On Sunday alone, Lee reported 237 infections, the highest one-day total since last September.

Lee's 95 traditional schools also saw more than 1,000 teacher absences from Jan. 5-7, including 386 on Friday. That’s more than double the absences reported from a similar three-day period during the first week back from winter break a year ago.

Collier schools also reported seeing an uptick with 171 COVID-19 cases confirmed since Jan. 2, according to its virus information page. However, school district officials did not provide exact numbers for how many teachers are calling in sick or needing time off. They also wouldn’t say if absenteeism is at an all-time high since the school year started last August.

“Absenteeism is up since our return from the winter break, however, we cannot say this is all because of omicron,” district spokesman Chad Oliver said in an email.

Earlier:Lee School District will implement enhanced COVID-19 protections when schools reopens

By the way:SWFL clamors for COVID-19 tests even as Gov. DeSantis urges asymptomatic people to skip screenings

Both school districts have a guest teacher program to fill in when regular teachers are out. Lee district spokesman Rob Spicker said getting enough substitutes has been a challenge since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

“We have plenty who could work but choose not to,” Spicker said in an email.

Oliver said more than half of Collier’s pool of almost 700 guest teachers is currently working and an effort to recruit more is ongoing. 

Lee County has approximately 6,000 teachers and more than 97,000 students. Collier has 3,100 teachers and about 48,000 students.

Florida is facing a severe shortage of teachers and support staff, including bus drivers, that has steadily worsened as the pandemic wears on and makes recruiting and retaining teachers challenging.

There were nearly 5,000 vacancies in Florida for teachers and more than 3,700 openings for support staff at the start of the school year, which is a 67% increase from August 2020, according to the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest union organization for education professionals.

Rules loosened at schools

The rise in COVID-19 cases in schools is mirroring what's happening in both counties and around the state. Both Lee and Collier counties set records for the most COVID-19 cases in a week with a combined 15,584 reported last Friday. Statewide, there were close to 400,000 new cases, shattering the previous week’s record by nearly 100,000.

Yet Florida public schools have fewer safety practices available to fight the spread of COVID-19 than they did during the fall surge of the delta variant. Actions taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis have outlawed the mandatory masking of students and allowed students directly exposed to the virus to keep going to school instead of quarantining, as long as they were asymptomatic.   

For instance, in mid-September, when Lee County reported about the same number of COVID-19 cases as it did last week, there were more than 17,000 student quarantine absences, according to the district. In contrast, last week, about 6,500 students missed school due to a virus-related quarantine.

Similarly, Lee schools instituted a 30-day mandatory masking policy for students last fall but switched to a policy allowing a parental opt-out after a Florida judge upheld DeSantis’ executive order banning universal mask mandates.

COVID-19's toll on Lee County in 2021:More than 91,000 cases and nearly 1,200 deaths reported

In mid-November, DeSantis signed a law that prohibited district school boards, superintendents and elected local officials from mandating facial coverings. When the Lee school district announced its enhanced safety measures due to the current omicron surge, they included only a strong recommendation that masks be worn indoors.

The Collier school district has had a voluntary masking policy in place for this school year and has not adjusted its COVID-19 protocols despite the current case surge.

Dr. Cindy Prins, a University of Florida associate professor of epidemiology, said preventing schools’ ability to adjust policies like mask-wearing and quarantining when conditions worsen may end up having the opposite effect of their stated intention: maximizing students’ educational opportunities.   

"Some of these rules are perhaps better put in place at times when we don’t have surge," Prins said. "And then when surge comes in, it’s time to reassess that rule.

“I think even the simple rule of saying we’re going to put in some mask mandates but we’re going to do it temporarily. We’re going to do it while we’re in surge to make sure everyone is protected because this omicron variant is so infectious. If everyone is wearing a mask then you’re actually going to have less disruption in the classroom than if you have people not masking.”

COVID omicron surge: Florida ranks 5th among states where virus spreads the fastest. Cases up by 40%

Fans pack the stands at a girls basketball game between Fort Myers and South Fort Myers high schools on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Experts have long cautioned that large indoor gatherings pose a serious risk of spreading the coronavirus. Listed among Lee schools’ COVID-19 mitigation strategies is limiting attendance at indoor extracurricular events, such as sports and performances, “to ensure physical distancing.”

However, photos from last Friday’s girls' basketball game between Fort Myers and South Fort Myers high schools showed spectators packing the bleachers in South’s gym. That same day, Lee Health announced it was temporarily suspending some elective surgeries because of the sharp increase in COVID-19 patients in its hospitals. On Tuesday, the system reported it was treating nine children for COVID-19 at Golisano Children's Hospital.

Fans pack the stands at a girls basketball game between Fort Myers and South Fort Myers high schools on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

When asked if the photos from the game showed compliance with the district’s stated attendance policy, Spicker said online ticket sales are capped at 75% capacity for indoor events and that basketball games “are a public event that spectators choose to attend.”

Kevin Daly, president of the Teachers Association of Lee County, said the photos did not appear to show 75% capacity or physical distancing. When asked if his organization planned to seek any additional COVID-19 safety measures to combat the present surge, Daly said the district should just follow the rules it’s laid out.

“Everybody wants to be in school, teachers want to teach in person, kids want to learn in person, parents want to send their kids to school,” he said. “Let’s do what we’re supposed to do based on the rules we’ve all agreed to play by. That’s probably the best way to keep people safe.”

Naples Daily News reporter Liz Freeman contributed to this report.

Connect with Dan DeLuca: @News-PressDan (Twitter), ddeluca@gannett.com.

Journalism matters. Your support matters. Subscribe to The News-Press and the Naples Daily News.