The Flagler County school district has the third-highest rate of Covid infections among students and staff out of 38 Florida school districts that are reporting their Covid numbers since the resumption of the school year less than four weeks ago, a FlaglerLive analysis finds. There is still no “appetite” for changing course and adopting a mask mandate, according to the school board member who tried enacting one two weeks ago, though data points to a direct correlation between masks and lower infection rates in Florida districts.
Flagler’s 731 confirmed cases among students and staff so far, for a district with a student population of 13,123 equates to a rate of 55.7 per 1,000, behind only the Charlotte district (58.6) and Sumter (60.8).
None of the 18 counties with the highest infection rates had a mask mandate in place for most of the three to four weeks schools have been in session. The Sarasota, Lee and Indian River districts, which are among the top-most infected 18, enacted mandates this week. (Most school districts started either on Aug. 10 or in the week following.)
In contrast, Broward County, which has had a mask mandate since the beginning of school (a week later than Flagler’s start date), has the second-lowest infection rate among all counties with public reports, with a rate of 2.4 per 1,000. Five of the six districts with the lowest current infection rates have enacted mask mandates. The others are Duval (school start date: Aug. 10), Leon (Aug. 11) Volusia (Aug. 16) and Miami Dade. But Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school district, is an outlier: students returned on Aug. 23, which largely explains its infection rate of 0.6, lowest in the state. The mandate, however, may help keep its infections from spiraling out of control, according to the public health consensus.
“Data from just Florida counties, those counties that have adopted universal mask wearing in the schools, have shown reduced cases and close contacts associated with that district for Covid compared with those counties that have not,” Bob Snyder, who heads Flagler County’s Health Department, a state agency, said today, based on his own gleanings of data from across the state. (FlaglerLive’s numbers were not yet complete at the time.) “This is the data. The data is very telling. It’s a very effective mitigation strategy like we have been asking people to please consider.”
Palm Beach and St. Lucie recently enacted mandatory masking, each with infection rates of 18.6 per 1,000, among the lower in the state among reporting districts. But Martin, Osceola, St. Johns, Bay, Clay and Polk counties all have lower rates than Palm Beach and St. Lucie, and no mandates. St. Johns, with three and a half times the number of students in Flagler, has had almost the same number of actual infections overall (737) and has a rate of 15.8.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning mask mandates. The Florida Department of Health issued an emergency order the week schools re-opened, allowing a half-measure: mask requirements would be permitted as long as they provided parents an opt-out at parents’ discretion. Several districts went that route, though calling that sort of approach a “mandate” is a misnomer. Alachua and Broward counties enacted the more restrictive mandates, with opt-outs allowed only with a physician’s or a health care provider’s note. As cases have surged, the list of districts with similar mandates has continued to grow, with Volusia County schools joining it on Tuesday after an emergency meeting. Volusia Schools’ mandate will be in effect until at least mid-October, pending a re-evaluation of covid numbers.
The latest counties to enact mandates follow a ruling Friday by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued a ban on mandates. The DeSantis administration is appealing.
Volusia approved its mandate even though it has the third-lowest rate of infections among the 38 counties reporting figures, and almost the same number of infections as does Flagler, though Volusia’s student population is almost five times that of Flagler.
The Flagler County School Board on Aug. 17 split 3-2 against adopting an emergency mask rule in the culmination of a raucous meeting that witnessed a long line of people who addressed the school board, largely–but not entirely–against such a mandate. Much of the information presented in opposition to making, however, was inaccurate or cribbed from social media as opposed to the more settled scientific consensus, including the Centers for Disease Control’s, that masks are effective as part of the strategy to diminish the spread of covid. The district had a mandatory masking rule in effect all of last year, when the full year’s infections totaled fewer than the numbers reached so far this year. The Flagler school administration has not shown an interest in reviving the subject, at least for now.
“I met with the superintendent and there does not seem to be an appetite for a universal mask mandate, or a mask mandate of any sort,” School Board member Collen Conklin said today.
Trevor Tucker, the chairman of the school board, has previously voted against a mandate but was not dogmatic about the issue. “I don’t have enough information one way or another to make a decision, and I’m sure we’ll have workshops in the future about this, is my guess,” he said today. As for an emergency meeting, he said: “I really think that depends on whether three board members want to do something, which would be next Tuesday, or if the superintendent would like to have an emergency meeting.” The board meets in workshop next Tuesday, but doesn’t have a decision meeting until the third week of September, unless a special meeting is called before that.
“I really want to get numbers before I make a determination one way or another,” Tucker said. “I really need to see more numbers, more data. I’ve kind of looked at data too, it’s all skewed, it’s all over the place. And I’d really like Tallahassee and the judges and the state to come to some type of unifying factor.”
But comprehensive data is in short supply.
The state Health Department on June 4 stopped issuing what had been somewhat detailed reports on covid’s spread and vaccinations, including pediatric and county-by-county reports, replacing them with abridged weekly reports for the entire state. A legislator and a non-profit are suing to re-gain access to the previous sets of numbers. There is no requirement that school districts report their covid numbers. Most, like Flagler, have chosen to do so, mostly through “dashboards.” But no two covid-reporting dashboards are alike. Much as the pandemic has been a 50-state response, lacking any sense of unified strategy, both school districts’ approach to the ongoing surge and the reporting of numbers has been a 67-county response, making a comprehensive portrait difficult to come by.
The numbers collected by FlaglerLive and published in the chart below are the first statewide look at the pandemic’s statistical profile in the schools. The numbers are only a snapshot in time, and are limited in scope and depth by the lack of the sort of more uniform numbers typically collected by state agencies. They reflect the improvised approach each county has taken–or not taken–in reporting covid figures. Twenty-nine counties simply report no numbers. Most have fewer than 10,000 students, but they also include Santa Rosa (28,600 students), Escambia (39,523), and Collier (47,706), which are not small. Even the reporting counties have their own quirks. Many don;t present cumulative numbers, listing weekly tallies instead. Some offer only the day’s tally. Several provide more transparency, offering both the number of infections and the number of impacted students and staff–those who have to quarantine–though only a few districts provide as complete a picture as daily reports showing breakdowns and percentages of schools’ staffing and student populations affected.
Because of the difficulties in gathering reliable numbers, the infection rate in the chart below is based on student population alone. Staffing numbers are inconsistently reported across counties. While rates for each county would be slightly lower if employees were included in population numbers, the difference between counties’ rate would remain in proportion. Infections among employees have been substantially lower than among students across the state.
|Baker||4,850||No||No public dashboard.|
|Bradford||2,797||No||No public dashboard.|
|Calhoun||2,057||No||No public dashboard.|
|Collier||47,706||No||Collier provides no cumulative numbers.|
|Columbia||10,256||No||Columbia provides no cumulative totals.|
|Miami‐Dade||351,353||204||0.6||Yes||School resumed on Aug. 23, so Miami Dade's numbers are not comparable to those of districts that started sooner.|
|DeSoto||4,716||No||DeSoto reports only the last two weeks' totals: 578 cases, for a per-thousand rate of 122.|
|Dixie||2,185||No||Dixie makes no mention of Covid anywhere on its website's home page or in any tabs.|
|Escambia||39,523||No||Covid webpage not functioning/not accessible.|
|Franklin||1,223||No||Dixie makes no mention of Covid anywhere on its website's home page or in any tabs.|
|Gadsden||4,745||No||Gadsden provides current numbers by day only, not cumulative numbers. Since Aug. 17, it has reported 54 cases, for a rate of 11.4.|
|Glades||1,737||No||Glades provides the last week's numbers only, not cumulative numbers. or links to previous reports|
|Gulf||1,836||No||No dashboard. Gulf schools closed due to Covid on Sept. 1, to reopen on Sept. 7.|
|Hamilton||1,552||No||No public dashboard.|
|Hendry||12,708||No||Hendry only provides "current" numbers (it does not specify the time scope).|
|Hernando||24,109||714||29.6||No||Hernando voted on Aug. 31 to impose a mask mandate but with parental opt-out, no doctor's note required.|
|Highlands||12,395||No||No public dashboard.|
|Hillsborough||242,336||6,803||28.1||Yes||Hillsborough schools imposed a restrictive 30-day mask mandate effective Aug. 19, with only a medical opt-out.|
|Holmes||3,103||No||No public dashboard.|
|Indian River||17,661||595||33.7||Yes||Indian River schools' mask mandate started on Aug. 30 and extends to Sept. 30, with medical-exemption only.|
|Jackson||5,870||No public dashboard.|
|Jefferson||781||No public dashboard.|
|Lafayette||1,163||No public dashboard.|
|Lake||44,990||1,904||42.3||No||The Lake County School Board is holding a special meeting "to discuss additional steps" on Covid mitigation on Sept. 2.|
|Lee||97,465||3,527||36.2||Yes||Lee County schools enacted a mask mandate effective Sept. 1, through Sept. 30, with only a medical opt-out.|
|Leon||33,570||447||13.31||Yes||Leon's numbers only reflect the last two weeks' cumulative numbers.|
|Levy||5,507||No||No public dashboard.|
|Liberty||1,215||61||50.2||No||Lee has posted numbers for only two weeks in August.|
|Madison||2,398||No||No public dashboard. No mention of Covid on the home page.|
|Manatee||49,912||1,857||37.2||No||On Aug. 16, the Manatee School Board approved a mask mandate but with a broad opt-out provision at parents' discretion, without a doctor's note or a religious exemption.|
|Marion||43,752||1,259||28.8||No||On Aug. 16, the Marion School Board approved a mask mandate but with a broad opt-out provision at parents' discretion, without a doctor's note or a religious exemption.|
|Monroe||8,543||180||21.1||No||Masks are required but with a broad pout-out provision at parents' discretion.|
|Nassau||12,462||No||Nassau only posts current-week numbers (73 for the week ending Aug. 27).|
|Orange||209,716||3,909||18.6||Yes||The Orange County School Board enacted a mandatory mask rule on Aug. 24, with an opt-out only with a note from a doctor or a health care provider.|
|Polk||111,898||1,467||13.1||No||Two Polk County schools employees have died in the past week due to Covid.|
|Putnam||10,703||No||Putnam schools' data is not cumulative, and was started only on Aug. 23.|
|Santa Rosa||28,600||No||Santa Rosa schools' data is not cumulative.|
|Sarasota||43,847||2,305||52.5||Yes||The cumulative figures date back to July 1. Sarasota passed its mask mandate on Aug. 30.|
|Suwanee||6,019||No||No public data dashboard.|
|Taylor||2,703||No||Taylor's data reflects only the latest day's available figures and are not cumulative.|
|Union||2,326||No||No public data dashboard.|
|Volusia||62,887||763||12.1||Yes||The Volusia County School Board adopted a mandatory mask mandate through Oct. 15, with only a medical opt-out.|
|Wakulla||5,048||No||No public data dashboard.|
|Walton||10,689||No||The district's Covid-data page is empty.|
(**) Cumulative students, teachers and staff.
(***) Mandatory mask mandates without parental opt-outs.
Note: the per-1,00 rate is based on student populations alone for consistency's sake. Infections among staff have been significantly lower across the state.