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School COVID cases double in Escambia, quadruple in Santa Rosa as virus surges countywide

Annie Blanks
Pensacola News Journal

New positive coronavirus cases for students doubled in the past week in Escambia County schools and almost quadrupled in Santa Rosa County schools, mirroring a troubling trend community-wide as COVID-19 gains a second wind throughout Florida. 

Escambia County schools logged 20 cases in the first week of November and an additional 41 the second week, bringing its grand total (since the beginning of the school year) to 151. That number doesn't include Pensacola Catholic High School, a private school run by the Pensacola-Tallahassee Catholic Diocese, which logged as many as 50 cases in the two weeks after Halloween due to super-spreader Halloween weekend events. 

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Santa Rosa County public schools reported 11 cases the first week of November and 42 the second week, almost quadrupling its new caseload and bringing its grand total to 241 cases. 

Despite the rise in cases, new Escambia Superintendent Tim Smith said his district has no plans as of now to shut down schools or alter coronavirus protocols, saying his administration is tackling the response on a school-by-school basis as numbers come in. 

From top left, public relations coordinator Kim Stefansson, assistant principal Quinn Evans, Principal Jennifer Sewell, and new Escambia County School District Superintendent Timothy Smith observe teacher Patricia Smith's (no relation) third-grade hybrid class (in-school and remote learning) during a visit to Brentwood Elementary School in Pensacola on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.

“I think the reasons that our numbers were low earlier in the year is because of the protocols; they were working,” Smith told the News Journal on Wednesday. “It’s interesting how the numbers have spiked around the state, and what’s driving (the new increase), I’m not sure. But for us, we just want to stay diligent on our protocols and we want to alleviate the spreading.”

In Santa Rosa County, new superintendent Karen Barber said the district is in the process of installing $200,000 worth of air purifiers throughout its schools in places that students can’t social distance, like cafeterias. The $200,000 was provided by the Board of County Commissioners from its CARES Act funds.

“We’re going to do two things. Number one is to make sure that we’re taking every effort to help mitigate the spread of the virus, and number two, to ensure that we have continuity with quality instruction,” Barber said. “And when we identify ways in which we can do a better job, we’re going to do a better job.”

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Pensacola Catholic High School shut down its brick-and-mortar instruction Nov. 3 when 10 students tested positive in one day, and will remain closed until at least the end of November. At least 50 students have tested positive since then, and the diocese announced that the school's principal, Sister Kierstin Martin, tested positive last Thursday. 

The increase in school cases mirrors the trajectory of cases in both counties more broadly. Escambia County saw a huge jump in the number of positive cases the first week of November (667 new cases) and even more the next week (793 new cases). Santa Rosa County saw 216 new cases the first week of November and 339 new cases the second week. 

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