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Pace High School has highest COVID-19 rate in Florida, but no plans to make changes

Annie Blanks
Pensacola News Journal

Despite having the highest positive COVID-19 rate out of any school in Florida, Pace High School has no plans to limit classes, close school or otherwise alter coronavirus protocols, Santa Rosa County administrators said Thursday. 

The school was No. 1 on the list of 1,920 primary and secondary schools in the state of Florida for COVID-19 cases, according to the most recent report issued by the Florida Department of Health on Oct. 10. 

The data is cumulative from the first day of school through Oct. 10. Pace High has reported 45 positive cases of COVID-19, including 44 among students. The schools with the next highest number of cases are Franklin County School in Eastpoint and Choctawhatchee Senior High School in Fort Walton Beach, each with 24 positive cases.

"It is a concern because it’s the highest number in the state," said Michele Barlow, director of student services for the Santa Rosa County School District and the liaison between the school district and the Department of Health. "But I do know that the school is doing everything they are supposed to be doing."

See the report:COVID-19: summary of cases associated with primary and secondary schools

Pace High School was No. 1 on the list of 1,920 primary and secondary schools in the state of Florida for COVID-19 cases, according to the most recent report issued by the Florida Department of Health on Oct. 10.

Santa Rosa County Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick and Pace High School Principal Stephen Shell did not respond to multiple requests by the News Journal for comment. 

Pace High School has been in session since Aug. 24, the same day students in both Santa Rosa and Escambia counties went back to school for the 2020-2021 school year. Since then, schools in Santa Rosa County have reported a total of 118 positive COVID-19 cases, compared to much larger Escambia County's 58 total cases. 

More than 80% of Santa Rosa students chose to return to school in-person, compared to about half in Escambia County. 

Administrators maintain COVID-19 protocols are working

Still, school district leaders in Santa Rosa County are standing by the high school's protocols, saying Pace High has done a "great job" of adhering to district COVID-19 procedures. 

"We have put mitigation strategies in place. Pace High has been following all of the mitigation strategies, such as mask-wearing, and we also have additional seating at lunch," Barlow said. "Some students can go to the gym, some can go to the courtyard, and there are hand sanitizer stations in every hallway. The halls are like roadways, they walk on the right, and they don’t allow any kind of congregating in between classes."

School board representative Wei Ueberschaer, who sat on a district task force this summer charged with reopening schools during the pandemic, said teams went to Pace High on Tuesday and didn't find anything to indicate community spread was happening there. 

“We had district staff and Department of Health officials go and investigate Pace High School (Tuesday) because we are concerned about the number of positive students there,” Ueberschaer said. “What they found was that Pace High is following all the district mitigation protocols we have put in place, including wearing masks, social distancing when possible and proper hygiene. They’re following the same protocols as schools who have little to no positive students since we’ve reopened. We could not find that they are contracting it at school.” 

In a statement to the News Journal, the Department of Health in Santa Rosa County reiterated its 14-day quarantine protocol for all exposed students and people in Florida, and said it had verified Pace High was following appropriate procedures. 

"The department works closely with the Santa Rosa School District and continues to provide guidance to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in Santa Rosa County schools," the statement read. "An infection control team visited Pace High School with Santa Rosa School District personnel to verify that mitigations are being utilized and make additional recommendations.

"Students must remain vigilant including wearing masks and practicing social distancing during school and during social activities away from school," the statement continued. "During the school day, and after the school day, students are encouraged to stay home when sick, utilize frequent hand washing, use of face coverings, and limiting events that require close contact. Parent and student cooperation in limiting exposure and during contact tracing is critical to stopping transmission."  

In person vs. virtual:'I'm scared to death': 82% of Santa Rosa County students will return to school in-person

David Godwin, a math teacher at Pace High and a representative of the Santa Rosa Professional Educators teachers' union, said he didn't believe students were spreading the virus to each other at school. 

“I don’t think kids have been picking it up at school for the most part,” he said. “Most of the kids that we have quarantined don’t test positive. All of our students are wearing masks, and most of our classes we can’t social distance, but they do have their masks on.”

No plans to close school 

The superintendent and the school board are charged with deciding whether to shut down or otherwise limit class activity at any school in the district. Pace High School's football game Friday night against Fort Walton Beach was canceled Wednesday due to "issues" regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, coaches said.  

Ueberschaer said officials have no plans to close the school, increase protective measures or otherwise limit classes at this time. In fact, the district is petitioning the state to roll back its quarantine protocol for students exposed to COVID-19, saying the 14-day mandatory quarantine for students is a "hindrance" and exposed students shouldn't be required to quarantine if they were wearing masks when they were exposed. 

Pace High School was No. 1 on the list of 1,920 primary and secondary schools in the state of Florida for COVID-19 cases, according to the most recent report issued by the Florida Department of Health on Oct. 10.

“We’ve asked the state to look at the 14-day protocol for brick-and-mortar schools, and we hope the state will revisit the issue,” she said. “If exposed students are wearing a mask around a student who was positive, can we just have the exposed student monitored for symptoms but allow them to still be in school?”

Schools elsewhere in the state with far fewer COVID-19 cases have shut down completely out of a fear of causing an outbreak. Enterprise Elementary School and Golfview Elementary School in Brevard County and Harmony Middle School in Osceola County each shut down for a week or more after a rise in cases. DOH data shows each of the schools has had a cumulative six cases of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, Fletcher High School in Duval County announced it would close through Monday, citing "multiple COVID-19 cases impacting our school community." The school district reported 16 new COVID-19 cases in addition to five previous cases, bringing the school's total to 21 for the school year. All students will have online instruction until Tuesday as teams deep-clean the entire school. 

Ueberschaer said closing any school in Santa Rosa County is an "absolutely last resort."

Pace schools lead the county for COVID rates

Schools in the unincorporated community of Pace far exceed other areas of the county for positive coronavirus cases, the DOH data shows. Behind Pace High School, S.S. DIxon Primary School has 12 reported cases, Pea Ridge Elementary School has seven, Sims Middle School has five and S.S. Dixon Intermediate has four. 

In total, five of the top 10 schools for COVID-19 in the county are located in Pace. 

“We only have these students for seven hours a day. I don’t know what they’re doing after school,” Ueberschaer said. “I don’t know what every home situation is like, I can only implore parents that if students are exhibiting symptoms, or if they’ve been exposed to a positive family member or are awaiting a result, please keep them home.”

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.