How increasing COVID-19 cases among children could impact new school year

ORLANDO, Fla. — COVID-19 hit Moriah Heath’s two children after several family members tested positive.

“My husband was sick first about 10 days before and then my youngest started running a temperature, like 102, and then my oldest showed no symptoms, but I think breathing was hard for him with running,” Heath said.

Thousands of children under 12 are testing positive for COVID-19 in Florida. They are the most vulnerable now because they are not yet eligible to receive any of the vaccines that have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

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During a news conference to discuss school literary programs, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will not impose mask mandates for children.

“We’re not doing that in Florida. At the end of the day, we have to start putting our children first … is it really comfortable, is it really healthy for them to be muzzled all day and have their breathing obstructed at school? I don’t think it is,” the governor said.

DeSantis made the comments as cases surge in adults and have slowly increased among children under the age of 12 in recent weeks.

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9 Investigates has been asking the Florida Department of Health for historical data that would show how many positive COVID-19 cases have occurred among children under 12, but so far, they haven’t responded to our public records request.

Each week the department publishes weekly numbers on its website, but the data are not maintained there, making it difficult for the public to track cases. We found a professor at the University of South Florida who has been saving the documents, and the data shows that cases are slowly increasing.

This comes as school is set to start in Central Florida school districts in just a few weeks. All districts have said masks will be optional for all students and staff, whether they are vaccinated or not.

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It’s one reason a Seminole County mother told us her children will stay home again this year.

“My daughter in elementary, we’re going to keep her in virtual until she’s old enough to be vaccinated,” she said.

Nearly 4,000 children tested positive for COVID-19, statewide, between July 9 and July 15 — that’s just one week, with a positivity rate of 11.5%. Dr. Kenneth Alexander said pediatric fatality and severe disease are still quite rare, but the new numbers are disappointing.

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“There’s really two parts to it. First of all, it is the virus adapting itself to become more infectious. But the other part is that as we have let down our guards, we have given the virus more opportunity for transmission. Let’s be honest, no one wants to live in the house all summer, but as we go out, as we send kids to camp, as we go on without masks, this is giving the virus more opportunities for transmission,” said Alexander.

We went back and found after a slight decrease in cases, the increase for children under 12 — who can’t get vaccinated, — started again in mid-June. The numbers have slowly increased since then, along with the positivity rate. Since March 1 of 2020, according to the Florida Department of Health, here have been 156,514 positive cases in that age group.

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If you do the math by the week, that’s about 2,204 cases per week in that time — much lower than the nearly 4,000 the state reported the week of July 9-15, the latest numbers available. There are 2.8 million children under 12 in Florida. The only age groups with larger populations are those in their 50s and residents 65 and older.

Alexander is working with Orange, Osceola, Polk and Seminole county school districts, along with a team of others, on how to best start school safely, knowing they won’t completely eliminate transmission of the virus.

“What we’re going to see is a lot of COVID testing, and as a result of kids that test positive, there will be kids sent home to quarantine,” Alexander said. “Now, what I’m worried about there is that if your child is sent home to quarantine, unless they’re safe by themselves, there’s a parent staying home as well. So I fear what we’re going to see in the early fall is a lot of parents having to take time off work.”

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School districts have said they can’t require teachers to be vaccinated, and they can’t survey staff to gauge how many are. Every Central Florida school district told me via email they will monitor cases, and maintain a dashboard where parents can track positive cases.

Moriah Heath will send her two elementary-age boys back to the school building in August, feeling comfortable that they’ll be safe.

“Everyone has been exposed as much as they can. I know the schools worked really hard last year, especially Andover, very hard to make sure all the protocols were in place, so I think they’re going to be fine this year,” Heath said.