A case of one student with COVID-19 at University High School in Orange City illustrates the difficulty of dealing with the virus in a high-school setting.
Volusia County Schools reports cases on an online COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard updates every Wednesday and Friday, and while it says how many students and teachers in the school system have tested positive, it does not say where the positive cases are.
The school system dashboard does not report cumulative cases.
The Florida Department of Health, on the other hand, releases detailed statewide data about school-related cases every Tuesday.
Here is some recent data reported by these two sources:
Wednesday, Oct. 14
This is the first time University High School appears on the school system dashboard after Orange City parent Jennifer Bruce was informed that her daughter was exposed to COVID-19 at school on Oct. 9.
From Oct. 9 to 13, according to the dashboard, there were 17 cases among students and nine among employees in the school system countywide. Sixteen schools and the school system’s DeLand Administrative Complex were listed as having COVID-19 cases.
For this week, the DOH reports one student tested positive for COVID-19 at University High School.
Sept. 6-Oct. 17
For this period, the DOH reported three cases at University High School: one teacher and two students, all of whom displayed symptoms, according to the report.
Sept. 23-Oct. 14
University High School is listed four times during this period on the school system’s dashboard; however, during this period the state DOH lists only three positive cases at the school.
Jennifer Bruce said she first suspected something was wrong when her daughter’s color-guard practice was canceled on Monday, Oct. 12.
Later that day, a call from the school alerted Bruce that her daughter had come in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. The caller said Bruce’s daughter would have to stay home for 14 days.
Based on cancellations and information from other parents, Bruce concluded her daughter had been exposed by a member of the color guard, which performs at sporting events with the marching band and other groups.
“She was exposed on Friday, and they had regular class, they performed at a pep rally, and there was a [football] game that night,” Bruce said.
What’s unknown, because of the school system’s determination to protect students’ privacy, is what the one confirmed case means for the rest of University High.
Two individuals — who didn’t want to be named because of fears for their jobs — told The Beacon a University High volleyball team, the school’s band, the Junior ROTC and all six periods of World History were also affected.
A third person, a University High parent, who preferred not to be named, told The Beacon band practice was canceled on Oct. 12 with no explanation as to why.
Volusia County Schools would not confirm COVID-19 cases or quarantines for any of those groups, but did confirm that three high schools — Atlantic High, Deltona and Pine Ridge — have canceled their football games “due to a COVID-19 related incident.”
School Board Member Ruben Colón said the nature of high school and the interactions between students and groups multiplies the chance of exposure. Colón also said the Volusia Department of Health is vigilant about responding to positive cases with quarantines, to stop the spread.
“I think the VDOH is being extremely conservative on how they are putting kids out of school, but it’s out of an abundance of caution,” Colón said. “We are yet to have any secondary transmission. What happens is, one person tests positive, and then DOH puts out a bunch of people.”
Three epidemiologists are embedded in the school district, Colón said, and they are responsible for contact tracing and notifying parents and administrators about exposure.
“They are following stricter rules, in my opinion, than we follow in health care. But the risk is higher,” Colón said. He is a respiratory therapist with AdventHealth.
Colón pointed out that children attending school are moving from place to place throughout the day. In the case of athletic teams, not only the players but two schools could be affected.
“Say three people test positive — that three might mean 40 kids are out,” Colón said.
If a parent is not directly involved with a positive exposure, getting information about positive cases at a school isn’t always easy.
District policy holds that any student who comes in contact with a student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 must stay home for 14 days, regardless of whether the exposed person has a negative COVID-19 test.
“Student attendance — and reasons for absences — are confidential. Our attorney has given us specific guidance even though other agencies release differing information. And just as an aside, students who are quarantining wouldn’t necessarily be absent if they are in class virtually.”
— Volusia County Schools spokeswoman Nancy Wait
The school system’s priority is student privacy.
“We are obligated to protect the privacy and confidentiality of all health-related information,” Volusia County Schools spokeswoman Nancy Wait said. “By law, we cannot comment on specific schools where disclosure of information would lead to the release of personally identifiable information about students or health care information about staff.”
For parents, who are concerned about their children’s health as well as their own, this approach can be frustrating.
Volusia County Schools’ COVID-19 dashboard is little help, Jennifer Bruce said. She said the numbers don’t seem to line up to her experience.
“The dashboard lists all of the schools, and it says six students and three teachers, and I know that’s wrong. There’s at least three from my daughter’s school, and there’s what, 50 schools? I just feel like that’s not very transparent,” she said.
School Board Member Linda Cuthbert told The Beacon VCS’s dashboard has actually been used as a model for other districts.
“Fellow school districts were told by the Department of Education to take down their dashboards, because they gave too much information. Some have used ours as a model,” Cuthbert said.
Cuthbert said the district has to prioritize students’ privacy.
“It’s a very, very delicate situation. We have to protect everyone’s private information,” Cuthbert said. “We have to be very careful with protecting individual privacy. We have to be careful not to anger DOE, and we have to be a good partner with DOH, and avoid crowding what they are doing. And, we have to obey the law.”
Adding to the uncertainty, Cuthbert said, is that parents — not the school district — are responsible for reporting on the status of their children.
She added, “We’re in a quandary. As much as we would like to inform the public on what’s actually going on, we’re unable to.”
Cuthbert and Colón both expressed frustration with the lack of guidance from the state.
“It would help if we had better guidelines from the state department. We had no guidance on how to reopen,” Cuthbert said, adding, “and ask if we’ve received any money. The answer is no.”
The district runs through about $100,000 a week in equipment like masks, gloves, sanitizer and cleaning supplies, she said.
On Oct. 20, Cuthbert and school system Chief Operating Officer Greg Akin asked for help funding PPE from the Volusia County Council, and received approval for $1.25 million of the county’s share of federal coronavirus relief funds.
Despite her frustration over getting information, Bruce doesn’t blame the school district.
“Honestly, I don’t know how they could change it, because they’re following guidelines from up above them,” she said. “Other than a little more transparency and insisting on a little better testing procedures.”
She added, “I’m not upset with the school at all. They have little power, and they’re so overwhelmed.”