MIAMI—At the end of the first day of classes last week, dozens of teens lined up to board school buses parked outside the entrance of Bartow Senior High, the main secondary school in the central Florida city bearing the same name. Despite being outdoors, and thus perhaps less likely to serve as a launching pad for mass contagion, the large number of students crammed together, some sans face masks, prompted a 12th grader to snap three photos and two short videos of the crowd.
The same day, Ashlee Caraway, the senior’s older sister who graduated from Bartow High last year, posted the photos and tagged an unofficial Facebook page for the school. At the top of the post, the 19-year-old wrote: #COVID19 !!
In a phone interview with The Daily Beast, Caraway said she shared the images hoping to draw attention to the lack of social distancing enforcement. She also provided The Daily Beast with videos that show closer views of students congregating and waiting to get on the buses. (Caraway’s younger sister, the current student, declined to comment.)
“I want people to see how messed up it is,” Caraway told The Daily Beast. “If the health department went in there, they would be shut down.”
After her sister got home from her second day of school, they found out that a student at Sumerlin Academy, a public military school that shares campuses with Bartow High and whose students have classes at both schools, had tested positive for coronavirus. While no Bartow High student had been reported to have tested positive as of last week, the Sumerlin cadet may have had contact with individuals at the adjoining school, according to a mass email sent to parents at both schools.
“She decided to stay home and let the week ride out,” Caraway said of her sister.
Bartow High’s first week offers a window into the perilous restart for Polk County Public Schools, which is responsible for overseeing 150 schools and more than 100,000 students. Polk has the ninth most COVID-19 cases out of the state’s 68 counties and boasts a pediatric positivity rate of 16.4 percent, according to the most recent Florida Department of Health update. That’s nearly 10 points higher than Polk’s rolling overall average positivity rate of 6.5 percent between Aug. 19 to Aug. 28, and a higher pediatric rate than five neighboring counties, including Orange and Hillsborough, which have larger populations.
In a press call last month, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield said schools should stay closed if the “the percent positivity rate within the community is greater than 5 percent.” Instead, Polk public schools and other Florida school districts in counties with higher positivity rates are implementing measures to quarantine pupils and staffers who come into contact with the infected. If they want to take more extreme measures, district officials have to consult with Florida Education Commissioner Richard Cocoran, whose department is currently appealing a court ruling that deemed his executive order forcing schools to offer in-person learning unconstitutional.
But Polk schools are failing to be transparent about the extent of their outbreaks, critics say. And the early returns—the fruit of an aggressive reopening push overseen by Trump administration ally Gov. Ron DeSantis—have health experts worried any modest progress in containing COVID-19 death and case rates in central Florida will be thrown out the window.
Kyle Kennedy, a spokesman for Polk County Public Schools, which oversees Bartow High and Sumerlin, said school administrators were aware of the issues raised by Caraway and working to address any deficiencies in COVID-19 protocols and procedures.
“Staff… assessed conditions after the first two days of school,” Kennedy said. “On Wednesday afternoon, the school started releasing students by bus number to further spread them out and help cut down on crowding. School staff are present during dismissal and are reminding students not to bunch together.”
He added that Bartow High was taking temperatures of a minimum of 20 percent of the student population daily, as required by the school district.
Summerlin Academy was one of two Polk County schools to report one confirmed virus case during the first two days of the school year, according to the school district’s online public case tracker. (The tracker lumps in Bartow High with Sumerlin.) Over the next five days, the school district added 14 more schools that each had one positive case and three schools with at least two confirmed cases.
In light of the high pediatric positivity rate in the county, it’s more than likely Polk public schools will be in a constant quarantine and contain mode, health experts say.
“That strategy becomes totally ineffective if half your system is down half of the time,” said Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan epidemiologist who served as a World Health Organization adviser. “You are just continuing to have disruptions in education that will be more disruptive than doing everything virtually.”
Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said he understood the arguments Cocoran and Gov. DeSantis made—that reopening schools was crucial to childrens’ development and making sure disadvantaged students don’t fall behind. But the reality is too dire. “From a health perspective, I regret to say it is not safer to send them back to school,” Redliner told The Daily Beast. “It’s a risky business that won’t end well.”
Referring specifically to the 16.4 percent pediatric positivity rate in Polk County, Redliner said, “Let me be crystal clear. Those schools should not be open because they will be hotbeds for exacerbating the outbreak and pose a serious risk for children, their families, and their teachers.”
Polk County School Board member Sarah Fortney, whose district includes Bartow High and Sumerlin Academy, agrees. “Our administration has worked tirelessly to really do the impossible,” Fortney said. “But we have allowed public schools to become the safety nets for everything relating to students. I think it’s politics over people.”
The district is also not providing the number of students and teachers that have been instructed to quarantine. Other Florida school districts in Orange and Martin counties, for example, do publicly release how many pupils and staffers are in quarantine.
Fortney said she was especially worried about the crowding depicted in Caraway’s photos, and anecdotal reports from parents and employees about crowded school buses.
“I have been bombarded with messages and talked to different people that students are standing in the aisles because the buses are so crowded,” Fortney said. “Many of them are not wearing their masks. And that’s before they even get to school.”
Polk schools spokesman Kennedy said the school district had performed well in minimizing the risk of COVID-19 exposure to students and staffers. “Considering all of the unique challenges involved with this year, we are very pleased with the results from this first week of school,” Kennedy said in a statement. “We will continue to move forward and maintain our focus on helping all of our students and families to make sure they have a successful year.”
Last week, during a virtual meeting of the school board, Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd explained that the COVID-19 positive student at Sumerlin Academy went to classes while he was waiting for the results of his test. He was sent home on Tuesday after he informed staff he tested positive, and Bartow and Sumerlin administrators performed contact tracing to determine who had been in close proximity to the student, according to deputy superintendent John Hill. Hill also said that the very first case in the system was reported at Boone Middle School after staff learned a student was positive from a parent who sent the child to school knowing the test results were pending.
“To be very honest, parents need to tell us when they know they have a case in their home,” Byrd said at the meeting. “We will advise them not to send their child to school. We will continue to push that message forward.”
Byrd also asked Fortney to provide her with the numbers to the school buses that were allegedly overcrowded so she could address the problem. “I actually went to the largest high schools and spoke to the bus drivers personally,” Byrd said at the meeting. “They are telling me the buses are not crowded.”
Fortney declined to provide the superintendent with further details. She told The Daily Beast that her tipsters were afraid to come forward. Parents fear retaliation against their children and employees don’t want to be reprimanded or fired for speaking out.
Since the meeting, the school district has not released more details on the other schools that have confirmed cases. “I’m not able to provide additional information about the COVID-19 cases that impacted our schools this week,” Kennedy said. “Please contact the Florida Department of Health office in Polk County to see if they can assist.”
A spokesperson for the Florida Health Department’s Polk office did not respond to requests for comment.
Laura Kelley, a Bartow High mom whose sophomore twin daughters opted for online learning, told The Daily Beast that she and other parents received an automated phone message and a mass email from the school district informing them about the Sumerlin student testing positive on Aug. 25. She added that her daughters are friends with a couple of affected students, but that the school district had not informed her about how many teens and teachers will have to quarantine. “It has been really frustrating,” Kelley said. “On social media, there has been a lot of talk about it among mutual friends about having to switch from face-to-face learning to e-learning to deciding whether or not to quarantine their entire family.”
Caraway said the school district should share more information about how many people are in quarantine at Bartow High and Sumerlin Academy. She said it was possible the Sumerlin student interacted with Bartow High students, since there is only one cafeteria for both schools and academy students are also taught by Bartow teachers.
“The problem is that we don’t know who he was around with,” Caraway said. “It pisses me off. I don’t want my little sister to come home and be sick.”