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As Classrooms Get More Crowded, What Can Schools Do To Keep Coronavirus At Bay?

Sarasota County Schools is seeing a slight uptick in children returning to class from remote learning, with 73% in school since October 1, 2020 compared to 70% on August 31.
Sarasota County Schools is seeing a slight uptick in children returning to class from remote learning, with 73% in school since October 1, 2020 compared to 70% on August 31.

Like many area school districts, Sarasota County has seen dozens of coronavirus cases among students and staff, and has sent hundreds into quarantine since schools re-opened in late August.

Two months into the school year, more parents are planning to send their children back to school in-person.

As classrooms get more crowded, social distancing — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says is the best way to avoid coronavirus infection — becomes harder to maintain.

WUSF’s Kerry Sheridan spoke with Jody Dumas, chief operations officer, and Laura Kingsley, chief academic officer for Sarasota County Schools, about what they are doing to keep children safe.

I'm hearing that more parents are starting to want their kids to come back into the classroom. Are you starting to see that change?

Kingsley: Absolutely. We started district-wide with about 30%. And yesterday, one of our schools reported they're down to 17% of their children attending remotely. So I do see in our schools that more children are coming back from remote.

So what do you do about social distancing? I mean, ideally, kids should be six feet apart. But we know that's not the case in most classrooms. How are you handling that?

Dumas: As they come back in the classes, we'll use the entire classroom space to the best of our ability, but we will not be able to maintain six feet everywhere. That's why, you know, other mitigation strategies that we're using in our schools are super important.

Kingsley: Teachers have removed other, extraneous furniture to get as much room as they can in their classrooms. You see signage on stairwells, and you see signage in the hallways, like the little the placards down on the ground that say 'keep to the right' on both sides, so that there aren't huge congregations of kids. Almost every school has a way of doing that.

So at transition time, they're trying to socially distance as much as possible. And then another thing we will definitely keep is the spread-out lunchroom periods. So although that makes children eat a little bit earlier and a little bit later -- prior to the pandemic, we crammed kids into the lunchroom, we had every seat filled. And that's, you can imagine, the place where there might be conflict, or it's hard to watch and monitor. And now you have no issues in cafeterias! High school principals are like, ‘Wow, this is one good thing that has come out of this pandemic. We are keeping this.’

And playgrounds are opening again? How’s that going?

Kingsley: One of the big mitigating factors that helped us was Omni Shield.

Dumas: Yeah, so in terms of those, you know, those mitigation factors, we were trying to do as much as possible to protect our students and staff. We've also got the desk shields that we're using continuously across the district as kind of a secondary level of protection. And then in our cleaning protocols, one of the things we added this year was spraying of a product called Omni Shield, which is basically a product that lasts for about 90 days on surfaces, and it kills viruses, bacteria continuously.

That's something we've never used before and many districts have transitioned to that product. We sprayed that on all flat surfaces and touch points across the district. It was just kind of an added protective measure. And we sprayed that on playgrounds here about three weeks ago or so. We were waiting to open playgrounds to make sure we had that sprayed everywhere because we just don't have enough custodial staff to be cleaning between uses on the playground.

And so all playgrounds are currently open in the district at all our elementary sites and a couple of our high school site with their special programs.

And then the kids are told they have to wash hands when they go out to the playground, and wash hands and they come back. Like a lot of things, the washing hands, that's not going away either.

Another thing we really tried to stress is try not to mix groups of students. In the past, you might see three or four classes of students on the playground at the same time. Our principals and their staffs have really been diligent about scheduling the playground, so we're not intermingling kids between different classes.

Who's giving you medical advice on how to implement these mitigation strategies?

Dumas: We're lucky in Sarasota County, our health department has partnered with us since the beginning of this, they have really been a team we've relied on, not only on a day-to-day basis, but certainly strategically about how we're going to open campuses, what are we going to implement? We've also got a group of doctors from the community, from Sarasota Memorial. Dr. Manuel Gordillo, one of their epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors has been in constant contact with our team.

With the governor's orders recently about moving to phase three, there have been some questions about how does that affect our policy on masks. And right now, we are still getting CDC guidance, Department of Health guidance, all of the doctors that we've been relying on for input, are still saying, ‘Masks are an important mitigation factor there, what are bringing that number down at this point, and then we need to continue to wear a mask until at some point in the future, we get that number to zero, or we get a vaccine, or we're seeing significantly lower numbers of communities spread on not only in schools, but in the Sarasota County community.' So right now, our strategy with masking and our mitigation factors, we're not changing that right now.

Kingsley: Right. And, of course, the American Academy of Pediatrics, they came out saying, you know, stay vigilant, and that includes wearing masks and hand washing and staying as distant as you possibly can. All of the medical societies have really said, ‘If you continue these mitigation strategies, you will continue to see low spread, and you'll continue to see people getting less sick.’

At the school board meetings, there's been pressure from some members of the community to really abandon the mask-wearing. Is there any attempt to get the message those parents, to say, masks really have to be a key part of this going forward?

Kingsley: I'm not on social media, thankfully, in any way. But I hear about, you know, kind of vicious conversations going on in social media, and people taking a really hard stance against what the school system is doing, or at a school. And it's very frustrating to me to see that and very hurtful. Because we work so hard at this. And our teachers and our administrators, they love our children. We all love our children. And we want the very best for them. And we're not going to give in to the opposite side. If we're being told from the medical community to do certain things, then we're going to do them.

Dumas: On a daily basis, we have our contact tracing teams and managers working on any cases that may come into our school sites. And we work very closely with Department of Health. I see all those cases come in, we talk about them on a daily basis. And I would say it's been controlled. And we've done a great job, I think with our contact tracing to identify students and staff that need to be off campus if they've been in contact with a positive (case), but it's daily work coming in, and we're seeing cases on a daily basis across our district. So that's just proof that at this point, we still need to continue with our mitigating strategies, because we're seeing it in our schools. And if we don't have those in place, we're not wearing masks, my guess is that's going to get worse.

Tell me about the dashboard Sarasota County Schools is operating. There have been some changes with that recently. Why did you stop reporting cumulative cases?

Dumas: So to let you know, we have struggled with that dashboardsince the start. We originally started with how we were tracking all of our COVID cases, and how we were tracking students and staff that were quarantine. Our initial push was not to provide a dashboard, really. We were really looking to provide a tool internally so that principals would know if a student was out — and when were they coming back.

And then we realized, hey, the community, other school districts, need a dashboard out there for everybody to see what's going on schools. So we started adapting that to the dashboard that you currently see out there today. And we have gone through several iterations of that dashboard. And that the reason we've changed things is because if we get comments in from the community or from staff members, we say that might make more sense. Let's do that. We really tried to structure the dashboard to some of the comments that we were getting. Hopefully, we're trying to satisfy everybody with the information we got out there.

You know with our latest change, we got some more comments and obviously we're still not there yet. And we've had comments come in, like we're trying to hide things or we're not being honest in our numbers. And that is absolutely not the truth. It's just a matter of getting that dashboard correct to make sure we're displaying the information that everybody wants to see. So my guess is we're probably going to modify that dashboard, again.

Our goal with this version of the of the dashboard was to provide parents, students staff with a snapshot of what's currently happening in our schools right now. And so that's what you see there today.

Kingsley: And that's mostly what parents want. So it may be journalists like you, Kerry, who want to know what's the cumulative number. But for us, that's not -- parents want to see is what's happening right now. I mean, we have parents who check that every day to see what's happening in their school. The sensational, what's-the-cumulative, is less important to us than what's happening right now?

Because like Jody said, behind that public facing dashboard, is the current information that's being fed to our schools on here are the kids who are current or staff who are currently quarantined are currently out. And here's when you can expect them back. That's the key for us that that is what principals and school staff need. And that is what our public has said they need. I haven't heard a lot of complaints about the where's-the-cumulative until you just said that.

The people who are responsible for this COVID dashboard are responsible for all our academic data dashboards. And every time they have to work on this one, they're stopped from working on academics. And, honestly, that's why we exist is to help our kids succeed in school, we need that academic data. So I keep pushing back on Jody, (we don’t need) more change on those dashboards.

Dumas: It's a great point that that Dr. Kingsley makes. Right now, we’ve got five case managers who are working the contact tracing in the district. You know, they're not case managers by normal job standards, they are nurses. They're taking on a second job to try and try and get this stuff done.

What challenges do you still face and what would you like to the community to do? What could they do to help?

Kingsley: That's a very good question. From my point of view, it's really supporting our teachers, and our principals in our schools. And whether they're a parent of a remote child, or a child in school, doing everything they can to understand, this is just not easy. It is not easy for them as parents. It's not easy for our teachers and our administrators. But we're doing everything we can to keep children safe, while we try to move on academically with each and every child.

It's our mission to, number one, keep our kids and our staff safe. And then try to help them succeed academically. So any support that can be given to teachers and to our administrators would be extraordinarily appreciated. From the bottom of my heart appreciated!

Dumas: I would have to echo that. I think that we are all trying very, very hard to number one, protect everybody keep them safe with the Covid-19 pandemic. But at the same time, focus on the core mission of excellence in academics and providing students and staff the environment to move everybody in the right direction as much as we possibly can.

And so, just an encouraging word from a parent to a teacher or a principal, like, ‘Hey, you're doing a good job,’ goes a long way, in this in this environment to make you feel good and encourage us to continue to work hard to do that. I think that is really what is needed out there to help us keep the great attitude moving into the winter season and into the flu season, because we're all a little worried about what that looks like.

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Sarasota County Schools chief operating officer Jody Dumas
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota County School Board /
Sarasota County Schools chief operating officer Jody Dumas

Sarasota County Schools chief academic officer Laura Kingsley talked about re-opening plans at a workshop in July, 2020
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota County Schools /
Sarasota County Schools chief academic officer Laura Kingsley talked about re-opening plans at a workshop in July, 2020

Kerry Sheridan