School officials are watching the spread of the Omicron variant with a sense of caution and a degree of helplessness as the holiday season approaches and COVID-19 mitigation strategies have been severely curtailed by the state.
District spokesman Russell Bruhn told FLORIDA TODAY That Brevard Public Schools is not making any specific preparations for the potential arrival of the Omicron variant.
“We only have so many things that we can do,” Bruhn said. “Social distancing, encouraging mask-wearing, encouraging those who didn't get vaccinated to get the vaccine. And (for) people are feeling sick, we encourage them to stay home from work, and parents keep their child home from school."
If the Omicron variant does reach Brevard and does create a spike, the School Board may not be able to respond the way it did when numbers rose in early fall. The state has since tightened limits on how local schools can respond to the virus since the fall, forbidding school boards from requiring masks or vaccines, or forcing quarantines of healthy students.
Some early research has shown that the Omicron variant may be more virulent than previous strains; scientists in South Africa said Friday that Omicron may spread more than twice as quickly as Delta. As of Friday afternoon, it had been confirmed in the United States across six states — California, Minnesota, Colorado, New York, Hawaii, and Nebraska.
Most cases in the US have been confirmed among people who had recently traveled to Africa, but New York City Health Commissioner David A. Chokshi said there appeared to be community spread of the variant within the city.
Brevard County School Board members are monitoring the spread of the variant. School Board member Matt Susin said there is “no fear in his mind” about the Omicron variant, but is collecting data to evaluate impacts of previous COVID-19 spikes on the county, which he said will allow board members to make informed decisions when responding to future spikes.
“We may find that there's certain things that we did that worked, and certain things that we didn’t,” Susin said. “The sad thing is that we were flying blind as a school district to try to make decisions based on whatever was being thrown at us at the time. And that's just not how we do good policy.”
When the mask mandate was first put in place Aug. 26, the state’s ban on mask mandates was being challenged in court. The vote took place at an emergency meeting in response to a ruling by Judge John Cooper of the Second Judicial Court of Florida that Florida's Constitution requires public schools to keep students safe, and that school districts can impose mask mandates to accomplish that. But the state immediately challenged the ruling, and that case and several others have failed to strike down the state’s ban.
DeSantis signed bills prepared by a special session of the state legislature into law Nov. 18, preventing schools from requiring masks, vaccines or quarantines for healthy students, further solidifying the state’s stance.
Those steps have been celebrated by parents and politicians who believe such COVID-19 restrictions are ineffective or step on parents’ rights to decide what’s best for their own students. Others fear the restrictions could weaken schools’ COVID-19 responses and allow the virus to spread unchecked.
“If we continue to have restrictions on local control and the ability to make the right decisions for the health and safety of our staff and students, I am concerned,” Jennifer Jenkins, a School Board member who has long endorsed mask mandates, said. “I don't want to be back in a place where we had over 3,000 positive students in one month, and 10 staff members in ICUs.”
Cases in BPS remain low, Jenkins said. Twenty-three positive cases were reported across the district from Nov. 19 to Thursday, 21 of which were students.
“I'm concerned, but not going to be reactive,” Jenkins said. “I just hope that over the next month and the holiday break that our community continues to be as proactive and responsible as it has been to get numbers down where they are now. And I hope we don't have to see another impact in our schools.”
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: COVID-19 Omicron variant emerges Brevard Public Schools response