SEBRING — Amid Florida’s high numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, The School Board of Highlands County pushed back the start of school by one week to Monday, Aug. 17 with teachers returning on Wednesday, Aug. 5.
According to the School District, the decision is based on input from the district’s Calendar Committee and district and school administrators.
The later start will provide additional preparation time to ensure the district is ready to meet the needs of all students in each of its three instructional models.
Also, the district states face coverings will be worn by all students and staff while on the school bus and in hallways during class changes/transitions at the middle and high school level. The district will provide masks for those who don’t have face coverings.
The district’s original 2020-21 calendar had the first day of school on Aug. 11 with teachers returning on Aug. 3.
School Board Chair Donna Howerton said, “This allows us to train faculty to better facilitate students prior to them arriving. Having our students on three different platforms of instruction is definitely new to our teachers. Also, this will allow staff to ask questions and seek the necessary answers.”
District Administrator John Varady said, “The decision to require face coverings on school buses and in secondary level hallways during class transitions was based on input from the Highlands County Health Department, our local pediatrician task force, and input from district administrators and school board members.”
Many school districts in Florida have delayed the start of their school year. In South Florida where the pandemic is especially prevalent, the Broward School District is scheduled to start the school year on Aug. 19 with online learning only.
Miami-Dade County Superintendent Robert Runcie’s plan is to also start the school year on Aug. 19 with online learning only.
The Pinellas County School Board members unanimously approved a two-week delay in the first day of school until Aug. 24, with the last day of school on June 9.
The Monroe County School District will start its school year with at least four weeks of online-only classes. The start date has not been finalized, but could be pushed back a week to Aug. 17.
The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in an 11-page white paper sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, pointed to “significant benefits” of children going back to school, but also said those benefits have to be weighed against the risks.
It said that in many areas of the state, “coronavirus prevalence will not decrease enough in the next four to six weeks to make the benefits of school attendance outweigh the risks.”
“While it is clearly in a child’s best interest that he/she attend classes on campus, the benefits must outweigh the medical risks to the children, teachers, school staff and families,” the white paper said. “This goal must be the most important factor. We are learning more about the coronavirus nearly every day, and these recommendations are subject to change as new information becomes available.”
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran this month issued an order requiring districts to reopen brick-and-mortar schools at least five days a week in August, unless state and local health officials direct otherwise.
DeSantis has focused heavily on a need for families to have choices about whether to send children back to school or to use distance learning.
For Highlands County elementary and middle school students, the district has three options: attend school with face-to-face instruction with a teacher, full-time remote online learning with the same curriculum with a Highlands County teacher, or Highlands Virtual School with the Edgenuity curriculum.
Due to the many course offerings at the high school level there are two district options: face-to-face instruction or Highlands Virtual School.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.
SEBRING — After a record 186 deaths on Monday, the Tuesday count of 216 for those who passed due to COVID-19 in Florida set another record.
Highlands County had another death in the latest report from the Florida Department of Health for a total of 25 who have passed due to COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic.
Highlands had 12 new cases for a total of 1,115 cases. It was the first day with a daily increase below 15 since July 9.
Statewide there has been 451,423 cases, an increase of 9,446 cases from the Monday count, and a total of 6,333 deaths.
After a one day dip below 1,000 new cases, Broward once again had a four-digit increase with 1,329 new cases.
Counties with a three-digit increase in COVID-19 cases are: Bay — 103, Collier — 107, Dade — 2,801, Duval — 261, Escambia — 161, Hillsborough — 442, Jackson — 246, Lee — 162, Marion — 379, Orange — 374, Osceola — 159, Palm Beach — 574, Pasco — 108, Pinellas — 260, Polk — 162, Santa Rosa — 184 and Volusia — 100.
Broward and the counties with three-digit increases accounted for 7,912 of the state’s total of new cases Tuesday.
Testing data shows that, in Florida, 3.53 million have been tested with 12.78% being positive.
In Highlands County, 14,449 have been tested with 7.7% being positive.
Glades County continues to lead the state with a positive rate of 36.2% with 1,078 tested.
Nationwide, there has been 4,387,414 cases with 149,873 deaths.
Worldwide, there has been 16,824,259 cases with 662,081 deaths.
SEBRING — 2020’s hurricane season started slowly, but that doesn’t mean the season isn’t here.
County officials are making plans to handle everything that they normally would in hurricane season, with additional challenges from COVID-19.
Those plans may get their first test this weekend as a potential tropical cyclone, likely to become “Tropical Storm Isaias” (ees-ah-EE-ahs), approaches Florida from the Caribbean Sea. [See related story: "Possible Tropical Cyclone 9 still disorganized" on this page]
What’s new at the EOC?
Emergency Manager LaTosha Reiss and Public Safety Director Marc Bashoor told the Highlands News-Sun that the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and certain emergency functions have been activated since before the COVID-19 shutdown in March.
The 20-year-old building, built like a bunker, has a situation room designed for close interaction, but not social distancing.
“We can’t fit anybody [else] because the room is very tight during a normal activation. Even during a hurricane on a normal year without COVID, we have to utilize additional office space,” Reiss said. “We’re looking at doing a few satellite offices on the George Boulevard campus.”
That means three different locations with emergency service functions operating out of their own offices and communicating with the EOC via internet conferences, as is being done now. Also, not all emergency service functions will have to be fully activated at once.
Once the storm passes, things will ramp up for recovery.
Reiss said information technology staff have worked to ensure all communications connect smoothly. It helps, she said, that the EOC is the main data backup hub for adjacent county offices.
How will we shelter?
The new guideline in shelters is 60 square feet per person to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus.
That means shelter capacity will be limited, Reiss said. Anyone whose house will withstand winds and can shelter in place is asked to plan for that.
Shelters will have additional cleaning/sanitation supplies and practices, Reiss said, and face masks available for those who don’t have them.
Those who come to shelters still need to bring their own bedding, supplies and COVID-19 gear, along with a health check upon arrival.
Reiss said each shelter will have an area for people to isolate in case they don’t pass a health screening.
With capacity limited, the county will look at opening secondary shelters for overflow. The “refuges of last resort” don’t have generator power.
The county also works with the Florida Division of Emergency Management at www.floridadisaster.org/planprepare/shelters/ and info-SAFER-FL@em.myflorida.com to help direct people to shelters with space.
In some cases, because of COVID-19, that may be a vacant college dorm or a participating hotel/motel, but Reiss said the state and counties are still working out a system of referrals and vouchers for people to evacuate to a hotel or other rental property.
Bashoor said emergency professionals will perform under two different “postures.” Any patient interaction of any kind will require eye protection and a face mask.
“We were mandating N-95 masks [at all times], but found that blood oxygen level was dropping,” Bashoor said. “We have relaxed the policy.”
The N-95 mask is still recommended, but a surgical mask is also OK.
As with any disaster, he said, while out and about in the aftermath, people have been instructed to wear masks and eye protection, and supervisors will adjust rules, as needed.
“If you’re sick, stay home,” Bashoor added. “It’s the same message we give the public. We do not want sick people coming to work.”
Recently, he said, the county sent two people home who weren’t feeling well, and one ended up testing positive, he said, so the policy works.
How are staff numbers?
Bashoor said the county is not hurting for people. Still, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) change frequently — including twice in one day — and emergency response policies have to adjust.
For example, someone who had COVID-19 may continue to test positive for months, but that does not mean they are contagious, Bashoor said, according to the guidelines.
They must be off work for a minimum of 10 days and then come back once they have had 72 hours free of symptoms, unmedicated, he said.
“Negative test reliability is all over the place,” Bashoor said. “Symptoms are what really makes the difference.”
Right now, he said, thousands of people could be positive but not symptomatic and suffer no ill effects: “[We’ve] never experienced this and [we] never know.”
Morale up, stress down?
“It’s rough,” Bashoor said, “because it’s easy for people to dwell on the negative.”
From a daily statewide conference call, he said administration does everything it can to keep people up to date and will provide all the gear and guidance they need.
Bashoor said people are on edge, in general, because of everything from the virus to politics to two or three tropical waves on the water.
“It’s easy to see how everyone can get overwhelmed,” Bashoor said.
What can we do?
Check your hurricane kit. Make sure you have seven days of water — one gallon per person per day — non-perishable food; flashlights, radios and batteries; pillows and blankets; clothing; a first aid kit; your prescriptions; toiletries; cleaning/sanitation supplies; special items for infants/elderly; documents; cash; tools; pet care items, and toys/books/games for kids.
Know where you plan to shelter and know how soon must leave to be safe.
In addition, officials said, make sure you bring a face mask and hand sanitizer, plus patience, which you’ll need for any disaster.
The county has hurricane preparedness information via AlertHighlands at bit.ly/hcbccalert and at highlandsfl.gov; on Facebook @highlandsfl.gov; on Twitter, Instagram and Nextdoor at @HighlandsFLBCC, and via text messages by texting “HCCOVID” to 888777.
SEBRING — Hurricane hunter planes were launched into Possible Tropical Cyclone 9 on Tuesday afternoon and again Wednesday morning. It was determined that there is no closed center. Because there is no closed center, PTC 9 cannot be officially called a tropical storm despite meeting the maximum sustained wind requirements.
Meteorologist Tony Hurt from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explained the Potential Tropical Cyclone designation allows for warnings to be sent out for storms before they can be technically categorized if the storm is expected to impact land and further develop. NOAA began the designation with Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
PTC 9 is expected to be upgraded to Tropical Storm Isaias by Thursday.
As of Wednesday’s 2 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center the storm is moving west-northwest at 23 mph with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph with higher gusts. At the time of the update, PTC 9 was 105 miles south of St. Croix and 180 miles south-southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 275 miles primarily to the north and northeast of the center, the NHC said.
The storm is dousing the Leeward Islands with rainfall and gusty winds. Tropical storm conditions are expected across parts of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas today and tonight, according to the NHC.
Hurt said the storm is headed in the general direction of the peninsula. Hurt also said the storm is unorganized but is large and the effects from it will be felt on Saturday in Highlands County. The cone is forecast to move over the county on Sunday. A wet and windy weekend is ahead for the area.
“The intensity of the storm will have 50 mph winds closer to the center of the system based off the information we have now,” Hurt said.
The forecast is expected to change and bears watching. Make sure hurricane supplies and a plan are in place. Due to COVID-19, supplies should include hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes and face masks in case of an evacuation.
“Do not focus on the details of the track forecast, as rainfall and wind hazards will extend far from the center of the system,” the NOAA update said.
The western course would provide more land interactions and shearing that could cause the system to further weaken.
While the tropics may not have been in everyone’s forefront, with the possible exception of beach openings, lately, they have been active. According to the most “reliable records” NOAA has that date back to 1851, this year has been the fastest to reach the letter “I” if this storm gets named in the next couple of days. Hurt said this year has also been the fastest to reach the letters “H,” “G” and “F.” The previous record for an “I” was a tropical storm named on Aug. 7, 2005.
For further information on the storm visit nhc.noaa.gov.