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North Central Florida Public Schools Take Sanitary Precautions Against COVID-19, But School Is Still On

If voted on, the half cent for school sales tax would bring Alachua County Public Schools about $22 million a year for improvements on outdated classrooms. (Landon McFee/WUFT News)
If voted on, the half cent for school sales tax would bring Alachua County Public Schools about $22 million a year for improvements on outdated classrooms. (Landon McFee/WUFT News)

With the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Alachua County announced this week, north central Florida public school districts did not have plans to close as of Wednesday, but they are actively talking with health and education departments to create response plans.

The University of Florida transitioned all classes to completely online between Monday and at least March 30 and is urging all of its students to return home to their families until then as well.

Might area elementary, middle and high schools have their pupils and students stay home, too?

Alachua County Public Schools officials are in touch with the state departments of health and education eight to nine times per day, said Jackie Johnson, the district’s spokeswoman. The county’s first confirmed coronavirus case is unique and of low risk to students, teachers and parents, so there is no reason to close schools now, Johnson said.

However, she said, “If the health department recommends that we close schools, we will close schools.”

Closing schools is never an easy decision, particularly since many students would not have access to food or caretakers if unable to attend or stay in school, officials said. In Alachua County, more than half the students get most of their meals from the district.

“Could we at least provide the basic necessities of food for our children?” Johnson asked. “That is something we are working on.”

During summers, the school district provides three meals daily at more than 90 sites across the county, she said. It may consider a model like this one if schools are closed, she said.

Canceling schools for K-12 students is also different than canceling for college-aged students because thousands of public school students don’t have computers and high-speed internet at home, and may not have caretakers who can take time off work, Johnson said.

“To expect parents to find alternate care for three days, a week, let alone two weeks, is going to be a real hardship for families,” she said.

Schools have intensified cleaning since January because of the second flu wave of the season and  will continue to do so, Johnson said.

Putnam County Public Schools has developed plans for different scenarios associated with the coronavirus, but its leadership team does not want to overwhelm parents with information by announcing before necessary, said Felicia Cahan, the district’s public information officer.

Putnam County’s public schools website says it will contact households with people it knows who have traveled to areas deemed high risk for the coronavirus; determine appropriate registration for new students from those areas; sanitize and disinfect all schools; excuse absences from students with doctor’s notes, and cancel school-sponsored travel to high-risk areas.

Marion County Public Schools is also in regular contact with state and county departments, said Kevin Christian, the district’s director of public relations and multimedia productions.

Marion County, which has not had any confirmed COVID-19 cases, is preparing to follow the example set by Hillsborough and Santa Rosa Counties. Those two cases have had confirmed cases, but have not transitioned to online classes for students.

Shutting down schools in Marion County would be a last resort and would happen only if the emergency management or health departments mandated doing so, he said.

“When you shut down a school, you don’t only shut down that school – you shut down the entire community,” Christian said.

The district is encouraging its students to wash hands frequently, sneeze into elbows, throw away tissues immediately after use and stay home if they feel sick. Overnight, officials go into the schools and spray all surfaces with a germ-killing chemical agent.

“I hate to deal with worst-case scenarios, because I think it causes panic and a lot of unnecessary alarm in the community,” Christian said. “But at the same time, I think it’s important to know that our school district and school districts throughout the state of Florida are preparing for this. We’re taking measures, but we certainly hope and pray we never have to enact them.”

April is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.