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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida and WUSF can help. Our responsibility at WUSF News is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

As Coronavirus Surges, Local Health Departments Advise Schools, But Don't Put Brakes On Reopening

a picture of a brown brick elementary school building
Kerry Sheridan/WUSF
Palm View Elementary is one of the Manatee County Schools working to reopen next month

Many Florida schools are pressing ahead with reopening plans, and are in close consultation with area health departments. But are those public health officials putting any brakes on reopening, given the rising cases of coronavirus and COVID-19 deaths?

"No, ma'am," said Manatee County Superintendent Cynthia Saunders. "That is not the direction or the conversation that has been had."

Saunders said she is in contact with local health department officials multiple times per day, and that the health department has viewed - and made suggestions to improve - Manatee County’s reopening plans.

The plans were made in accordance with the state Department of Education order that schools reopen brick and mortar buildings next month.

Health department officials “are not going to tell us, 'if you have this number you gotta close it down today, if it hits this percent' – I mean that is really not what they do,” said Saunders.

Cynthia Saunders speaks near a large check written to support literacy
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
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WUSF
Manatee County Schools Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, at an event in January 2020, to promote reading

Over the past week, state reports show almost 11 percent of coronavirus tests in Manatee County have come back positive. Statewide over the past two weeks, the positive rate is about 14 percent.

"Public health experts and infectious disease physicians almost universally recommend that children not go to schools until the positive test rate is 3-5% over a two week rolling average," said a letter sent by the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to Gov. Ron DeSantis last week.

The letter asks DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to "rethink your order requiring superintendents around the state to open their brick and mortar schools."

The FCAAP represents 2,600 pedistricians in the state.

In an interview with WUSF, Saunders said reopening plans could be in jeopardy if the level of virus in the community isn't lowered.

"Honestly, I think probably the biggest challenge that we're facing as a community is how we are able to come together to figure out how we are going to live with COVID safely in the next year," she said.

"And if we don't come together, with complying with the health recommendations, then it could very well be that we're not going to be able to have school daily, brick-and-mortar, face-to-face."

Saunders said she is working with community leaders, locals sheriffs and the county chamber of commerce to come up with a campaign to communicate the need for social distancing and curbing the spread of coronavirus.

"We've got to do something different because obviously nothing's worked until now," she said.