COVID-19: Over 400 Walton students, staff quarantined during first week of school

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Slightly more than 400 Walton County School District students and staff were quarantined during the first week of school this year due to exposure to COVID-19 either on school grounds or in the community, according to an initial release of data from the School District regarding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the county's public schools.

The report, available through the "news" tab on the School District's website, online at https://www.walton.k12.fl.us/, listed 405 students and/or staff as quarantined as of Thursday of last week. According to the report, 256 of those quarantined had been exposed to COVID-19 on school grounds, with the remaining 149 people were exposed outside of school facilities.

A week after classes began Aug. 10 in the Walton County School District, 405 students and/or staff members were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a School District report.

Previously:Class is in session: Walton County schools leave COVID-19 mask decisions to parents

The latest:COVID cases up across Walton County

Overall, between the start of classes on Aug. 10 and Thursday, the School District reported 165 positive COVID-19 cases, according to what Superintendent Russell Hughes says likely will be "a monthly if not weekly" report on coronavirus statistics. The school district is offering the data in what Hughes calls "a spirit of transparency" regarding the effects of COVID-19 on schools.

In a telephone interview Monday afternoon, Hughes acknowledged that the COVID-19 numbers for the first week of school this year are "much more than we (had) last year."

Asked whether he was surprised with the numbers thus far this year, Hughes said "it confirmed how different this (new Delta) variant (of COVID-19) is." According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Delta variant of the coronavirus "causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus that causes COVID-19."

Parents are being notified if the school district determines their student or students have been exposed to COVID-19 within the district's definition of exposure as "being less than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes with a person who has tested positive."

Also according to the report, the district "is collaborating daily with local and state experts, as well as speaking internally at the district office and with school principals on a daily basis" about COVID-19.

Other data in the initial COVID-19 report show that 20 School District facilities were involved with positive COVID-19 cases or exposure to positive COVID-19 cases in the first week of the school year. The report does not identify the facilities where those cases or exposures occurred.

Beyond the raw numbers, the data include the percentage of students and/or personnel affected by the coronavirus, statistics to which Hughes pointed in outlining the effects of the coronavirus on the school district.

For example, the report notes that the 256 people quarantined due to on-campus exposure to COVID-19 represents 2% of the district's 13,000 students and personnel. Additionally, the report notes that the 165 positive COVID-19 cases reported during the first week of the school year represent 1.3% of the students and personnel.

The School District has a number of what it is calling "mitigation strategies" for COVID-19 in place. Among those protocols are for students, teachers, staff and visitors to stay home if they feel ill; contact tracing to determine potential exposure to the coronavirus; and keeping "non-essential visitors and volunteers" from entering schools. The policy on visitors and volunteers will be re-evaluated Sept. 1, according to the report.

Beyond that, the School District is encouraging social distancing "as much as possible" to help control any spread of COVID-19, and is displaying signs reminding students and others of social distancing, the use of hand sanitizer, the washing of hands and the use of face coverings.  

The district's "mitigation strategies will be updated as new guidance becomes available throughout the school year," notes the report, which reminds parents whose children are quarantined or ill to "document your child’s absences and request, complete and turn in make-up work."

In terms of potential new strategies for limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the school district, one example might be potentially making some changes to the way that schools handle pep rallies, Hughes said Monday.

In turn, Hughes said, measures like that might help limit the spread of COVID-19 in the wider community, just as more stringent measures in the community might help limit the presence of COVID-19 in the school district.   

Importantly, however, and in line with a July 30 executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis making masks optional in the state's public schools — leaving it to parents to decide whether their children will be masked at school — the School District report notes that face-covering as a COVID-19 mitigation strategy is "optional for all, including the bus."

DeSantis, who was in Northwest Florida on Friday to announce the opening of monoclonal antibody treatment centers across the state to treat COVID-19 — one center is now operating at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds in Fort Walton Beach —  vigorously defended his executive order.

Responding to a question regarding President Joe Biden's threat of federal legal action against governors who won't allow local school districts to adopt universal masking requirements, DeSantis said at the opening of the monoclonal antibody treatment center that "to have the federal government come in and overrule the rights of the parents, as if they know better ... and force masks on kindergarteners, first-graders, second-graders, that's a massive overreach."

In Walton County, for the seven-day period that ended Sunday, an average of 90 COVID-19 cases were being reported each day, according to data collected from various sources and made available by The New York Times. That's a 32% increase from just two weeks ago, and is up sharply from May and June, when the average number of new daily cases was in the single digits. That began to change in mid-July, when the average number of new daily cases began a rapid rise.