Walton County Schools report substantial rise in COVID-19 cases, over 900 in quarantine
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — The number of positive COVID-19 cases recorded among students and staff in the Walton County School District more than doubled in the week between Aug. 19 and Aug. 26, according to a Friday report from the school system.
At the same time, the number of students and staff quarantined due to either on-campus or off-campus exposure to COVID-19 also more than doubled compared to the first week of school, rising from 405 people to 911.
But in a Monday interview, Walton County Schools Superintendent Russell Hughes said that with the exception of the on-campus exposure numbers related to quarantining of students and staff members, the school district's COVID-19 statistics do not necessarily indicate that all of the reported cases originated or were subsequently spread in a school or other district facility.
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According to Hughes, the School District is obliged to report COVID-19 cases among staff or students even if the staff member or student never appears on school district property with the illness, but recuperates at home.
Hughes' comments came in the face of considerable social media backlash to a post on the School district's Facebook page announcing the latest numbers. That backlash, among other things, alleged a lack of transparency from the district and included requests for more detailed information on locations and other data.
In the first nine days of the school year from Aug. 10 to Aug. 19, Walton schools recorded 165 positive COVID-19 cases, according to a School district report. By Aug. 26, the number of positive COVID-19 cases reported among students and staff rose to 406, an increase of 241 positive cases.
Also according to the report, for the first nine days of the school year, 405 staff or students had been quarantined as of Aug. 19, with 256 determined to have been exposed on School district grounds and 149 people determined to have been exposed elsewhere.
By Aug. 26, according to the report, a total of 584 staff or students had been quarantined for exposure to COVID-19 on School District grounds, an increase of 328 people over the first nine days of the school year.
In terms of off-campus exposure to COVID-19, the district reported 327 such incidents as of Aug. 26. Between Aug. 10-19, the district reported 149 incidents of off-campus exposure to COVID-19, meaning that there were 178 incidents of off-campus exposure to COVID-19 among students and staff members in the days since Aug. 19.
According to other data in the report issued Aug. 26, 20 school district facilities have reported positive COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the school year. The report does not name specific schools where cases originated.
Also according to data in the Aug. 26 report, since the start of the school year the number of positive COVID-19 cases represents 3.1% of the district's approximately 13,000 students and staff members. The cumulative on-campus COVID-19 exposure number comprises 4.5% of the district's students and staff, and the cumulative off-campus exposure number reported as of Aug. 26 comprises 2.5% of the students and staff members, according to the report.
The one-page report, available through the news tab on the School District's website, online at https://www.walton.k12.fl.us/, also includes COVID-19 mitigation strategies being used to slow the spread of the coronavirus in district facilities and among district students and staff.
Those measures include urging people who are sick to stay home; encouraging social distancing; making hand sanitizer available at various locations inside facilities; contact tracing to determine potential exposure to the coronavirus; and daily cleaning of facilities and school buses.
COVID-19 vaccinations, which have not yet been made available to children under age 12, are optional for students and staff members under the Walton County School District's mitigation strategies.
Also optional, pursuant to an executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is the wearing of masks as a means to control the spread of COVID-19.
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During a recent visit to the area to promote the opening of monoclonal antibody treatment centers for people at particular risk from COVID-19, DeSantis vigorously defended his anti-masking stance in the face of a threat from President Joe Biden of federal legal action against governors who won't allow local school districts to adopt universal masking requirements.
" ... (T)o 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," DeSantis said at the opening of a monoclonal antibody treatment center in Okaloosa County.
On Friday, however, amid challenges to the governor's action from a number of school districts around the state, a Leon County circuit judge ruled that DeSantis did not have the authority to ban mask mandates.
DeSantis has relied on the Parents' Bill of Rights, which he signed into law in July, with regard to his executive order on masking. Briefly, the law prohibits government entities from infringing on parents' direction of health care and other decisions in their children's lives.
But Judge John C. Cooper noted in his ruling that there is an exception to the law that carves out an exception when a government action “is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”
Hughes said Monday that he has no plans to ask the Walton County School Board to institute a mask mandate district-wide. One reason is concern that a universal mask mandate would require people who have been vaccinated to wear a mask on school district grounds, he said.
"If the vaccine works, as the hospitalizations indicate they are, do you want me to make those (who are) vaccinated wear a mask?" Hughes asked. With regard to the effectiveness of vaccination, across the United States, hospitalizations for "breakthrough" COVID-19 cases involving people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus have largely been below 1% of cases.
The latest COVID-19 numbers from the Walton County School District come as the county as a whole is experiencing a dramatic increase in daily COVID-19 cases. According to data from local, state and regional health departments compiled by The New York Times, the county saw an average of 108 new cases each day for the seven-day period ending Aug. 29. For comparison, the seven-day average of new cases posted in the county on July 1 was just two cases per day.