Okeechobee schools to continue using face masks through at least summer school


OKEECHOBEE -- The Okeechobee County School Board has approved the use of face masks in schools  at least through summer school, but with the vaccinations increasing and COVID-19 rates lowering, there’s a chance the practice could end by the next school year.

Board members approved a motion to continue the use of face masks at their March 9 meeting, but wanted to revisit the item again at their June meeting.

“I’m fine with starting summer school with it,” said board member Jill Holcomb. “I just want to make sure we bring it up before the start of next year, just want to make sure we revisit that so that we are consciously making that choice and it’s not an automatic thing.”

Face masks have been a tool the school district has relied on to limit the amount of exclusions from positive COVID-19 cases in the school system. Other mitigation techniques such as social distancing when possible, use of hand sanitizers and deep cleaning of classrooms, have also been critical.

The biggest jump in cases and exclusions in Okeechobee schools came after Christmas break, In the month before the break, Okeechobee schools had 178 exclusions due to exposure to COVID-19. In January they had 559.

That jump in exclusions in the school district came among an increase in cases throughout the county in January and February. Florida’s Agency for Healthcare Administration website showed Okeechobee maintaining a rate of roughly 9-14 people hospitalized per week with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 throughout December. In the first week of January that number jumped to 33 Okeechobee residents hospitalized at one time for COVID-19.

Deaths in Okeechobee from COVID-19 went from 51 total in early January to 80 by the end of February according to the dashboard ran by the Florida Department of Health.

The good news is that cases have appeared to taper back down as vaccine efforts ramp up. The Florida Department of Health says they have administered nearly 10,000 doses of the vaccine in Okeechobee. FDOH reports 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Okeechobee County so far through the first fourteen days of March, which is down nearly half compared to the 117 cases in the last 14 days of February.

The Biden administration directed states to open vaccinations to all adults by May 1. At a press conference on March 12 announcing the age requirement for the vaccine would be lowered to 60, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis indicated the state could open up eligibility to all adults in April.

“We could get down to 55 relatively soon,” Gov. DeSantis explained. “Then if the supply flood gates really open, we could be in a position sometime in April where it’s just available and people can get it. That’s a much different situation than where we were just a few weeks ago.”

In early March the Centers for Disease Control updated its guidance to say that fully vaccinated people are able to safely visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing, as well as visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.

Okeechobee Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy said it remains to be seen if spring break will cause a similar spike in cases as the Christmas break did, but he looked at the situation optimistically.

“Numbers are going down overall,” Kenworthy said at the March 9 school board meeting. “I don’t know what spring break is going to do to those numbers. But one good thing is that spring breaks are spread out across the state over a month. whereas everyone had Christmas on one day. So, hopefully we’ll still continue to go down.”