Officials suspect first case of classroom spread of COVID-19 in Marion County


Students wear their masks as they get off their buses at West Port High School in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted January 26, 2021 | Carlos Medina, Ocala Gazette

Students wear their masks as they get off their buses at West Port High School in this October file photo. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Health officials on Tuesday said they are trying to confirm if several cases of COVID-19 at a Marion County public school were spread in the classroom.

It would be the first instance of classroom spread in the county.

The news came during an update from Mark Lander, the administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Marion County, during a Marion County School Board meeting.

Until now, the positive cases in students and school workers have been traced back to contacts from outside the schools.

“I know one high school specifically; we had some indication there were some classroom cases passed on. I believe that might have been at West Port High School, is what I was told,” Lander said.

Allison Campbell, District 1 school board member, said the suspected cases are unsettling.

“Now that we have had a positive confirmed case – at least that’s the way Mr. Lander made is sound as of today – that has been a classroom transmission, that is a change from what we had for six months,” she said.

Kevin Christian, school spokesman, said Tuesday was the first time the DOH advised them of a suspected case of COVID-19 spread in the classroom.

For board Chairwoman Nancy Thrower, the report only galvanized the board’s plan to send a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, asking that school employees are put on the priority list for vaccines. The board is reviewing a draft and could send the letter as early as Thursday.

“Anything that happens in the school system has a profound effect on the community. So, we will be reviewing a draft of a let tonight going to the governor to continue to plea that we begin to get prioritized as school employees,” Thrower said. “Everyone counts on us to be functioning smoothly.”

The draft version of the letter asks DeSantis to classify school workers as essential workers and give those with direct contact with students prioritization for vaccinations moving forward.

“We understand the need to vaccinate Florida’s most vulnerable health care workers and the elderly. However, we would appreciate your consideration for future distribution plans, and ask that you continue your support and prioritization for the Marion County School District to serve its students and families,” according to the draft letter.

Campbell said the possible classroom spread cases are the reason why the school system adheres to a strict close contact rule of 14-day quarantines.

Any student or school employee who has close contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 is not allowed to return for 14 days, which health officials believe is the maximum incubation period for the virus.

“I have seen quite of bit of chatter from parents that are frustrated,” Campbell said. “If we are seeing classroom transmission from our students, that only further emphasizes the reason these close contacts are then dismissed, ensuring the safety of our students.”

When in-school classes resumed in Marion County in August, the district established guidelines to limit the chance of classroom spread. Students and personnel must wear masks or face shields when social distancing is not possible, including in hallways, common areas and on school buses. Custodians frequently clean surfaces throughout the day and conduct deeper cleanings at the end of every day. The district also provides teachers and other staff members with cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.

The district has also worked to inform parents about screening for symptoms, keeping sick children at home and steps they can take to avoid the spread.

Thrower said keeping vigilant of the guidelines remains important.

“Everyone at some level has COVID fatigue at this point. We want it to be over,” she said. “If we really want this to end, we really need to do what we know we need to do. The three simple things, wash your hands, wear your mask properly and social distance when possible.”