The number of Miami-Dade County public school students in quarantine due to increased cases of COVID-19 a month into the return to in-person learning is likely more than 1,000, according to the teachers union.
This comes as almost 100 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were added this week to the district’s online dashboard that keeps track of the disease in public schools.
“We know there are thousands of students who are quarantined,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade.
The school district said earlier this week that it cannot confirm the number of people who have been told to quarantine because it is still in the process of contact tracing.
However, district officials acknowledged that each school with positive COVID cases would likely result in more than 100 students having to quarantine because of potential contact. There are more than 340 schools in the system, and 160 of them have cases on the dashboard.
Hernandez-Mats said the district’s response to the situation has been inconsistent, and teachers at affected schools are often the last to know the number of cases and people told to quarantine.
“You have teachers who are literally scared for their lives when they go to work,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going on.”
One hard-hit school is Barbara Goleman High School in Miami Lakes, which union officials say has more than 200 students quarantining at home, as well as dozens of teachers.
One educator there left school this week to go to a second job. When he got there, he received a message that he was one of the teachers who was supposed to quarantine, said Sonia Diaz, a teachers union spokeswoman.
So, if he had COVID, he potentially exposed the people at his moonlighting gig because he was allowed to leave school grounds without hearing about his possible exposure until hours later, Diaz said.
“Instead of getting more transparency from the district, we’re getting less,” she said.
On Friday morning, the number of cases tallied on the dashboard was 332. On Monday, it was 251. The real number is likely significantly higher, however, because cases aren’t counted on the ledger until they are confirmed by the Florida Department of Health.
School district officials have repeatedly said that the dashboard should not be considered a real-time indicator of the COVID situation in schools.
Some schools, like Miami Senior High School in Little Havana, have as many as 10 confirmed cases. Since most students, especially in high school, switch classes for every subject, that means that the students who tested positive probably came into contact with hundreds of other pupils, and dozens of employees, and all of those people must quarantine.
Hernandez-Mats said 17 teachers at JC Bermudez Doral Senior High School were recently quarantined. This equates to hundreds of students also needing to quarantine, she said.
“You’re talking about 400 students in quarantine as well,” she said. “Or, you have a bunch of kids sitting in an auditorium with no teacher in front of them.”
Students in quarantine need to return to online learning. About half of the district’s 255,000 students continued with remote learning when the schools reopened their classrooms the week of Oct. 5.
Some parents are also saying information from the district and schools isn’t getting to them fast enough. A parent of a Miami Killian Senior High student who was told to quarantine said he did not receive any information about the situation from the school, just from his son.
“Two days ago, my son was taken to the auditorium with a few other students, and they were told that another student in their class had COVID and that they’ll be sent home for 14 days,” said the parent, who did not want to be named to protect his son’s identity.
“When he was dismissed, his mom was not given any type of information, and we are in the dark from any type of school communication,” he said.
The increase in cases raises the question for teachers and parents of the case threshold before the district will close down a school temporarily for deep cleaning.
On Oct. 12, the district closed MAST Academy, a grades 6-12 school on Virginia Key with about 1,500 students, after two students there tested positive for COVID. Two days later, the district took similar action at Coral Park Elementary School in Westchester following positive test results there for one employee and three students.
With seven to 10 confirmed cases at schools including Miami Lakes K-8 Center, John A. Ferguson Senior High, Kendall Lakes Elementary, Coral Reef Senior High and Miami Senior High, Hernandez-Mats wonders why those campuses never closed.
“You have eight cases at Miami Senior High, and no one is closing the school,” she said, before the official count at the school went to 10. “Something is wrong.”
The district says it decides whether to close schools on a case-by-case basis.
Factors officials consider include the number of confirmed cases among students and staff, how many people were potentially exposed to the disease and if there is a potential outbreak.
Administrators will also consider whether they can notify everyone who may have come into contact with the infected person, as well as be able to sanitize the school before the next day.
“Each case is unique with several different variables to consider,” said Jaquelyn Calzadilla, director of media relations for the district.
The reason district officials decided to close MAST is because they were notified of the possibility of a case there on a Sunday, making the contact tracing and investigation “extremely difficult.” Calzadilla said.
“It was decided that it was in the best interest of the students and staff to have the site closed for the day while the contact investigation took place and those who were identified as being in close contact were personally notified,” she said.
Calzadilla said she could not go into the specifics of the situations at the other schools with positive cases. However, the district has maintained that cleaning crews go into every school with a positive case “to sanitize the entire school, not just the affected area.”
Miami Herald staff writer Michelle Marchante contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that 17 teachers at JC Bermudez Doral Senior High School had tested positive.