Manatee County schools report more than 100 COVID cases

Three dozen covid cases were reported on the first two days of classes in Manatee County public schools.

Three dozen covid cases were reported on the first two days of classes in Manatee County public schools.

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In the first three days of classes, the Manatee County School District reported more than 100 COVID-19 cases among students and employees, more than were reported the entire first week last year.

On Thursday morning, Superintendent Cynthia Saunders sent an email to district staff and School Board members, calling for more safety measures in the coming week after reporting there were 36 cases the first two days.

“I would like to institute all protocols we had in place last year, except the mandated mask,” Saunders wrote, emphasizing that masks would remain voluntary. “However, we will strongly encourage mask and vaccinations for all that apply, since those are individual choice decisions.”

That news was followed by an even bigger report of new infections on the district’s third day of classes. On Thursday afternoon, the school district confirmed that 76 additional people, including students and staff, had tested positive COVID-19 on the third day. The cases were dispersed among 23 school campuses as well at Manatee Technical College and two district offices.

The recommendations, along with a reminder to keep children home when sick, will go out to families through the Connect-ED messaging system. And according to Saunders’ email, she also hoped to roll out the following safety measures:

  • Temperature checks for employees and visitors (the district also announced random checks for students later in the day).
  • Plastic dividers in elementary schools and cafeterias where possible.
  • A daily COVID-19 questionnaire for employees when they arrive to work.

“I need this up and going quickly,” the superintendent said in Thursday’s email. “Should have all in place by Monday, if not sooner.”

In a separate news release Thursday afternoon, the district said those measures would go into effect immediately, along with several others:

  • Send home students and employees who are sick.
  • Reinforce and practice proper hand-washing techniques among students and staff.
  • Provide and encourage the use of hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Deep clean and disinfect schools and school buses daily, or in-between uses as needed.
  • Make every effort to social distance in schools.
  • Require masks for district employees who visit a school other than their own during the school day.
  • Limit nonessential visitors and volunteers to school campuses.
  • Strongly encourage the use of masks when indoors.
  • Strongly encourage eligible people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The superintendent has said in all her back-to-school messaging that we would deal with circumstances as they occur in Manatee County,” district spokesman Mike Barber said. “She said if we need to make changes, we will make changes, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Three days of COVID-19

The District Operations Center — staffed with employees from the school district and the county health department — reopened on Tuesday, the first day of classes, to track COVID-19 cases.

The office reported nine cases after the first day of school, though Barber confirmed that two were not on campus Tuesday. Of the nine cases in the report, he said, seven were among employees who worked at their schools and district offices on Tuesday, while the other two cases were among students who attended open house before the first day of classes.

“Those students were not on our campuses yesterday,” Barber said in an email on Wednesday. “But since they were on our campuses during an event for the start of this school year, they were included.”

The district reported another 29 cases among students and employees on Wednesday. The cases were spread over more than a dozen public schools and district offices, including five cases at Palmetto High School and three cases each at Blackburn Elementary, Williams Elementary, Nolan Middle and the Matzke Support Complex.

And on Thursday afternoon, the district reported another 76 cases among 60 students and 16 employees. Gullet Elementary School was listed twice in Thursday’s report with a total of six new cases on that campus. The school district did not immediately clarify whether the duplication was intentional.

Not including the two student cases from open house, the district reported a total of 112 cases from Tuesday to Thursday, the first three days of classes. Last year, the district reported a total of 17 cases for the entire first week of school.

At that time, the school district uploaded daily cases to its website, manateeschools.net, dedicating a page to the public COVID-19 dashboard. This week, in the absence of a dashboard, the district sent a report to local news outlets each evening.

The superintendent said during a recent School Board meeting that a public dashboard would relaunch by next week. The district’s technology department, she said, was focused on other projects before the start of school.

“That has not been our priority to get the dashboard up, with our new Alyssa’s Law and Register to Ride,” Saunders said, addressing School Board members. “Our IT Department has been focused on all those things to get school up and running. But they have been alerted to make sure the dashboard, as we had last year, would be activated Monday.”

Cases reported on Tuesday

Braden River Elementary (open house case): 1 kindergarten student tested positive.

Prine Elementary: 1 employee tested positive.

Palm View Middle (open house case): 1 eighth-grade student tested positive; attended open house

Southeast High School: 4 employees tested positive.

Manatee Technical College: 1 employee tested positive.

Professional Support Center: 1 employee tested positive.

Cases reported on Wednesday

Bayshore High: 1 employee tested positive.

Blackburn Elementary: 3 students tested positive.

Buffalo Creek Middle: 1 student tested positive.

Haile Middle: 2 students tested positive.

Harllee/Palm View: 1 student tested positive.

King Middle: 1 employee tested positive.

Matzke Support Complex: 3 employees tested positive.

Manatee High: 1 student tested positive.

Miller Elementary: 1 student tested positive.

Moody Elementary: 1 employee tested positive.

Manatee Technical College: 1 student tested positive.

Nolan Middle: 3 employees tested positive.

Palm View Elementary: 1 employee tested positive.

Palmetto High: 5 students tested positive.

Parrish Community High: 1 student tested positive.

Williams Elementary: 1 student and 2 employees tested positive.

Cases reported on Thursday

Ballard Elementary: 2 students and 1 employee tested positive.

Bayshore Elementary: 1 student tested positive.

Bayshore High: 1 employee tested positive.

Braden River Elementary: 1 student tested positive.

Braden River High: 3 students and 3 employees tested positive.

Buffalo Creek Middle: 9 students tested positive.

Gullett Elementary: 6 students tested positive.

King Middle: 4 employees tested positive.

Kinnan Elementary: 1 student tested positive.

Manatee Elementary: 2 students tested positive.

Manatee High: 2 students tested positive.

Matzke Support Complex: 4 employees tested positive.

McNeal Elementary: 2 students tested positive

Miller Elementary: 3 students tested positive.

Mona Jain Middle: 3 Students tested positive

Manatee Technical College: 1 student tested positive.

Nolan Middle: 2 students tested positive.

Palm View K-8: 3 students and 2 employees tested positive

Palma Sola Elementary: 2 students tested positive.

Palmetto High: 5 students tested positive.

Parrish High: 7 Students tested positive.

School Support Center: 1 employee tested positive.

Stewart Elementary: 1 student tested positive.

Tara Elementary: 1 Student tested positive

Williams Elementary: 1 student tested positive

Witt Elementary: 2 students tested positive.

What happens now?

The Florida Department of Health issued emergency guidance just before the start of school, including rules for students exposed to COVID-19.

An exposure means someone stayed within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Exposed students, the rule said, should not attend school or school-sponsored activities until:

  • The student is asymptomatic and receives a negative COVID-19 test after four days from his or her last exposure.

  • The student is asymptomatic and seven days have passed since his or her last exposure.

However, fully vaccinated students are exempt from the quarantine rule, so long as they remain asymptomatic. The same is true for students who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days.

And though daily reports offered no information on the number of exposed students in Manatee County schools, local families received messages about their affected children on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I am calling to inform you that your student has been identified as having ‘direct contact’ with an individual confirmed positive for COVID-19,” Williams Elementary School said in a message to one family.

“We’re here to help your student maintain their learning,” the message continued, encouraging the student to continue his or her work at home, either through online platforms or paper assignments.

Reporter Ryan Ballogg contributed to this article.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter @Gsabella