WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Less than a month into the new academic year, the School District of Palm Beach County has already surpassed the total number of COVID-19 cases it had among students and staff members during all of last school year.
As of Friday, there have been 3,908 confirmed cases in the district, including 3,396 students and 512 employees.
School officials said there were roughly 3,800 cases during all of last school year.
However, there are drastic and important differences to note between the two academic years, namely the dramatic increase in students on school campuses right now compared to a year ago, along with the troubling emergence of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.
The School District of Palm Beach County said Friday its current in-person enrollment is now 162,577 students, compared to around 54,000 at the same time last year.
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"We are seeing a lot more children, birth now even through 18 years old, who are showing symptoms from COVID-19, which is new to us. Since in the past year-and-a-half, we weren't really seeing our patients affected," said Dr. Shannon Fox-Levine with Palm Beach Pediatrics.
Fox-Levine said her office started seeing an increase in pediatric COVID-19 patients around the time classes began on Aug. 10.
Since then, Fox-Levine said the cases have held steady. Roughly 20% of symptomatic children in her office tested positive over the last week.
"This variant seems to be, not only more contagious and more prevalent in children, but also more likely to cause them to have complications from the illness," Fox-Levine said, adding that kids are being hospitalized in the intensive care unit because of the delta variant.
According to Palm Beach County's COVID-19 hospital report on Friday, 11 patients are currently in the ICU wards of the county's 14 hospitals.
"It is very alarming. And that's why masks are still very important in the school setting, because those children in elementary school and some in middle school are not able to be protected," Fox-Levine said.
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To combat the spread of COVID-19, the School District of Palm Beach County is now requiring all K-12 students to wear facial coverings inside school buildings and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out.
The only exceptions to the mask mandate are for children with certain medical conditions.
Superintendent Michael Burke released the following statement to WPTV Friday about the COVID-19 case count in the school district:
"As a District, we are very concerned as the number of COVID-19 cases on our campuses, and in our community, continues to increase. In addition to a multi-layered approach to transmission mitigation protocols on District property, we are also providing students and staff access to voluntary and convenient COVID-19 testing and vaccination opportunities beginning next week. Additionally, I continue to encourage parents and guardians to keep children who are sick home from school."
Currently, only students 12 and older are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
In an effort to inoculate as many children as possible, starting on Sept. 8, the Health Care District of Palm Beach County will take its mobile vaccination unit to two Palm Beach County high schools per day for at least the next three weeks.
Eligible students from surrounding schools are invited to the sites to receive the vaccine.
"We hit all high schools, as well as middle school and elementary schools," said Dr. Belma Andrić, the chief medical officer and vice president and executive director of clinic services for the Health Care District, at a school board meeting on Wednesday.
The shots will be voluntary for any eligible students and staff members, Andrić said, and children ages 12 to 17 must have a parent or guardian present to receive the vaccine.
"We're just making it very, very convenient for people who may be too busy. Life is busy these days for parents who have multiple kids," Andrić said.
For a schedule of which schools the mobile vaccination van will visit, click here.
According to Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso, roughly 50% of 12-to-19-year-olds in the county are fully vaccinated, which represents the greatest increase in vaccinations among any age group.
Starting next week, the Florida Department of Health will open a drive-through rapid COVID-19 testing site on school district property for students, their families, and district employees.
A testing location at the Chuck Shaw Technical Education Center, located at 4260 Westgate Avenue in West Palm Beach, will run from Sept. 8 through Oct. 1 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.
The dates and times for a site at the West Technical Education Center, located at 2625 Northwest 16th Street in Belle Glade, have not been announced yet.
Tests will be offered on a first-come, first-serve basis and you don't need an appointment.
A parent or guardian will have to complete a consent form on-site prior to the test being administered, and a parent or guardian must be present with a child under the age of 18.
"Increasing testing, it's gonna bring a lot of ease on parents," Andrić said. "That easy, accessible testing will bring, naturally, some ease."
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St. Lucie Public Schools has reported 922 confirmed cases of COVID-19 this school year, the Martin County School District has had 424 cases, and the Okeechobee County School District has had 244 cases.
COVID-19 case data from the School District of Indian River County was not available as of Friday afternoon.