Sarasota, Manatee schools going on winter break as new variant emerges

Ryan McKinnon
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Winter Break is right around the corner for schools in Sarasota and Manatee, just as a new COVID-19 variant is showing up in Florida. 

The timing could mean that schools see a January COVID-19 spike for the second year in a row. 

The omicron variant has become the predominant strain found in wastewater samples in Orange County, officials announced this week, indicting that the latest version of COVID-19 is spreading in Florida. One of the first cases in the state was discovered at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa on Dec. 7. 

Health officials are still studying omicron, but early evidence from South Africa indicates it may be far more contagious but less dangerous than previous strains. 

By the way:Health officials recommend COVID booster shots as omicron variant spreads nationally

And:Omicron could be more contagious, less dangerous. That would be 'good news for the human race.'

Students returned to school on August 10, 2021 in Manatee and Sarasota counties, and for many it was the first time attending school without a mask on in more than a year. THOMAS BENDER/ SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE

Last year, before vaccines were widely available, the number of COVID-19 cases within schools tended to spike following a break.

In December 2020, when students in Sarasota left for Winter Break, the district had recorded 608 cases since the year began. The district nearly matched that amount in the first month that students were back in school after New Year's, with 568 new cases in January 2021.

Contact tracing at the time revealed that much of the spread was associated with travel over break. 

This year has the potential for a similar spike, with the emergence of the omicron variant in recent weeks that seems to spread even among the vaccinated, while having milder symptoms than its predecessors.

So far this year, Sarasota has reported 430 staff members testing positive for the virus, and 3,396 students. Those numbers go back to July 1, with the bulk of the cases coming during Florida’s COVID-19 spike in August and September.

The School District of Manatee County's COVID-19 dashboard began tracking cases when school began on Aug. 10. Since the beginning of the school year, Manatee has logged 2,619 cases among students and 382 among staff. 

Changing COVID policies

If there is a January spike, school districts do not have the same latitude to respond that they did last year, to the delight of some and consternation of others. Florida’s COVID-19 mitigation policies for schools have evolved since previous spikes.

Florida was an outlier in the summer of 2020 when Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all schools to reopen for full-time in-person learning by the end of August. The move was controversial at the time, but the notion that closing schools poses more danger to students than the virus has become more of a national consensus. 

It remains to be seen how DeSantis' other COVID policies will be viewed in light of the latest variant. He has issued several orders or spearheaded legislation that limits the power of local school boards when it comes to COVID policies.  

In September, DeSantis issued an executive order giving parents the authority to decide whether their child had to stay home after being exposed to the virus, as long as the child was asymptomatic. 

During a special legislative session in November, state lawmakers banned vaccine mandates for school districts and gave parents discretion over whether their child wore a mask or received the vaccination.  

Sarasota joined a handful of other districts across Florida in defying the governor's executive order against mandated masking in schools.

The Sarasota County School Board voted to impose mandatory masking beginning in August, with the caveat that the rule would be lifted once the county’s positivity rate fell below 8% for three consecutive days.

The mask rule remained in effect for just over a month. On Sept. 27, the positivity rate fell below 8% for the third day in a row and masks became optional, and on Oct. 6 the board lifted the policy all together. 

Board Chairwoman Jane Goodwin said on Friday that she was watching the spread of omicron closely and was worried about the spread after winter break. She said the governor's policies had tied the district's hands. 

"The things we would normally do to protect our students and staff, we can’t do," Goodwin said. 

Goodwin's more conservative counterpart, board member Bridget Zielger, has opposed mask mandates and applauded DeSantis' moves. Ziegler said that if COVID numbers do spike in January, leaders need to consider the severity of the cases and the potential negative unintended consequences when they decide how to respond. 

"What has been completely lost by many policy makers in this process is the cost-benefit analysis," she said. 

There is no policy currently in place that would require masks, district spokesman Craig Maniglia said.

The board's original mask policy included a provision that masks would become mandatory once again if the single-day positivity rate hit 10%, but the board repealed the policy in October.

The single day positivity rate for the county as of Dec. 13 was 2.86%. The average has remained under 3% since mid-October. 

Winter break runs from Dec. 23 to Jan. 11 in Sarasota, and from Dec. 22 to Jan. 6 in Manatee. 

Timeline:

Aug. 10: First day of school for both Sarasota and Manatee, with masks optional for first time in a year

Aug. 20: The Sarasota School Board makes masks mandatory again, with provision that policy will be suspended if the single-day positivity rate falls below 8% for three days. 

Sept. 27: Sarasota's single day positivity rate falls below 8% for third consecutive days and masks become optional. 

Oct. 6: Sarasota School Board officially repeals mask mandate

Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at ryan.mckinnon@heraldtribune.com or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.