Florida kids head back to school amid COVID-19 surge

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Doctors in Florida say they’re seeing many more coronavirus infections among children just as students begin to return to classrooms.

There has been “an enormous increase” in COVID-19 cases among children in July and August at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ronald Ford said.

Most of these children have been treated in the emergency room and sent home, but “those that are admitted are sicker than what we’ve seen before, and many of them are requiring care in our intensive care units,” Ford said.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says the share of pediatric hospitalizations is still between 1.1% and 1.4% in the state, which is how it has behaved throughout the pandemic. On Wednesday, 177 of the 15,071 patients with COVID-19 — about 1.2 % — were children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“There’s been no change in the proportion of pediatric patients who are COVID positive,” he said. “Obviously we have more people that are COVID positive in hospitals than we did six weeks ago, so the raw numbers are increasing for everybody.”

About 20 children who had the virus sought treatment at the South Florida hospital’s emergency department in June, Ford said.

“That number went to well over 200 in July and, even at this point in the month of August, we are already up to over 160. So we’re well on the way to breaking July’s record,” Ford said.

On Tuesday, the hospital had nine positive patients admitted, with five in the ICU, Ford said.

Ford’s advice to parents sending their children back to school: Get information from authoritative sources.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about COVID-19, about testing, about the vaccine,” Ford said. “The best thing you can do to protect your child is to keep them away from the virus. This virus is extremely infectious. And it doesn’t take much virus to infect and cause symptoms and disease.”

Masking works, reducing the incidence of transmission and the chances of children getting the virus, he said.

“So first and foremost, masking is going to be one of the best defenses we have,” Ford said.

DeSantis has attempted to block school districts from imposing public health protections on students, saying parents should decide whether their child should wear a mask at school.

At a press conference in a St. Petersburg elementary school, DeSantis maintained his stance and said the federal government was considering imposing a nationwide mandate for kindergarteners, first-graders and other students. The governor had previously raised the possibility the Biden administration could seek a mask mandate.

“Obviously if you are talking about the federal government coming in and overruling parents in our communities, that would be something we would fight back vociferously against,” the Republican governor said.

The U.S. government, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has issued guidelines recommending masks be worn indoors at schools nationwide, but hasn’t said it could order a federal school mask mandate. However, President Joe Biden said Tuesday he’s “checking” whether he could intervene to prevent governors from blocking school districts from imposing such mandates, though he also said he didn’t believe he had the authority “thus far.”

At least three school districts — in Alachua, Broward and Leon counties — have appeared to defy the governor’s order.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has sent their superintendents letters saying their adopted policy appeared not to comply with the new rules. He demanded a response by Wednesday and said he may recommend the state’s Board of Education withhold the salaries of the superintendent and school board members.

The Broward school board, after waffling for several weeks, voted Tuesday to require masks for students, teachers and staff when their school year begins on Aug. 18.

Miami-Dade’s superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, said Florida’s largest district will decide what to do after consulting with experts in public health and medicine as the county’s 334,000 students prepare to return to classrooms Aug. 23. He said he won’t be influenced by the governor’s threats.

“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” his statement said.


Gomez Licon reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.


The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state has been corrected. Officials reported 15,071 hospitalizations, not 15,077.