Students return to schools as Florida pediatric cases hit new peak

Coronavirus

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Coronavirus cases for the under 18 age group in Florida are hitting a new peak during the pandemic as students return to school after winter break, a University of South Florida epidemiologist tells 8 On Your Side.

“Just like every other age group we are seeing increases,” Dr. Jason Salemi said. “We are beyond even where we were during the summer surge in terms of the number of daily cases each day with the pediatric population.”

Salemi said the state is averaging about 1,500 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last week in the under 18 age group. There have been more than 182,000 total pediatric cases during the pandemic.

While most children become who become infected have milder or no symptoms, a Harvard study raised concerns about children silently spreading infection to others.

“How do we keep the adults in those schools safe and how do we limit transmission from schools back in the community,” Salemi said, adding districts must continue mitigation strategies like mash wearing, hand washing and improving ventilation.

Florida’s brick-and-mortar schools must remain open, according to the executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

He has said parents must have the option to choose and that closing schools was “the biggest public health blunder in modern American history.”

8 On Your Side reached out to Tampa Bay’s largest school district about the winter surge of COVID-19. A Hillsborough County Public Schools spokesperson replied with this statement:

“Our schools will continue to practice the safety measures which have proved successful since students returned in the fall. This includes wearing masks, distancing when possible, utilizing hand sanitizer and wipes, and frequent handwashing. Prior to break, we educated our parents and families about the steps they could take to help combat COVID-19, which include avoiding large gatherings. Our community is seeing higher numbers of COVID cases, however, local health experts believe schools are not where most of these cases are being transmitted. We as a district are confident these safety measures, which align with CDC guidelines, provide a healthy environment for both students and staff.”

Increased community spread is partly why Plant High School parent Damaris Allen has decided to keep her two sons at home for the second semester.

“My kids can show me posts on social media and Snapchat of kids gathering maskless, having giant parties,” Allen said. “There’s just a huge disregard for the virus and that’s very concerning.”

First grade student Empress Silvestry is learning from home because she lives with more vulnerable, older family members.

“I’m teaching my grand baby e-learning because of this covid thing,” her grandmother and guardian Penny Silvestry said.

She reached out to 8 On Your Side after running into trouble with e-learning on the first day back from winter break.

“Again, I got my child up this morning, 6:30, breakfast, our daily routine as we do with school and we go to the computer and nothing,” Silvestry said.

Silvestry, who is in her 50s, has underlying medical conditions. She said she would not feel comfortable sending her first grader back to the classroom until everyone in her household is vaccinated.

Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis had urged state leaders in December to make vaccinating teachers a priority, but Gov. DeSantis said Mondays teachers and school staff should not expect to be next in line for the vaccine.

A survey before winter break found that about 12,000 families wanted to transition their children from e-learning to brick-and-mortar schools, an HCPS spokesperson told 8 On Your Side. She added the district will be flexible with parents who change their minds closer to the start of the semester on Jan. 19.

“One thing everyone should be able to agree upon is schools should be one of those instances where its like they should be the last to close and first to open,” Salemi said.

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