St. Johns County Schools had recorded 881 COVID cases as of Thursday — more than 25 times the number of cases in the district after the first 14 school days of the 2020 school year. By the end of the third week of 2020-2021, just 35 students and staff had tested positive.
District officials released COVID case counts going back to the start of the 2020-2021 school year in response to a public records request from WJCT News. The St. Johns County School District shares daily COVID case counts to its website, and has posted historical COVID data going back to November 2020.
Two and a half weeks into the school year in 2020, there were just five COVID cases among district employees. This school year, there were 89.
The St. Johns County School District attributes this year’s spike, largely, to the COVID delta variant.
“It cannot be understated that the delta variant is much more aggressive, as all areas of our community are seeing higher numbers than a year ago,” district spokeswoman Christina Langston said in a statement. “All areas of our community are seeing higher numbers than a year ago.”
This school year, the St. Johns County School district is seeing a slightly higher rate of infection than in more populous Duval County. In Duval (which started school a week earlier than St. Johns) 1.5% of the student body has been infected with COVID since the first day of school. In St. Johns County Schools, the rate is 1.7%.
Duval has required staff to wear masks from day one; students must wear them unless parents opt out. St. Johns started this school year with no mask mandate, but Superintendent Tim Forson issued a 30-day staff, employee and visitor mask mandate as of last week.
Heather Prediletto, the parent of a fourth grader and a sixth grader in St. Johns County, said she believes limited safety measures play a role in the COVID spike in schools. She is a co-administrator for a Facebook group of parents who want stricter protocols this school year. They’ve been asking the St. Johns School Board to implement similar measures as those that were in place last year, including mandatory desk shields and masks for students. The group has more than 1,000 members.
“It’s been great to lean on each other, but we’re all exhausted and we’re angry.” Prediletto said. “It’s the health of our children, and sometimes I think I’m crazy for sending them to school.”
Parents don’t have the option of having their students learn from home unless they transfer out of their current school and into the district’s virtual school. Last year, students could remain enrolled in their school while learning from home.
Prediletto said she has a family member who has a compromised immune system and is at higher risk of severe infection from COVID, so her family is especially cautious about the virus.
“We fear for our children,” Prediletto said. “We’re also scared for the community, because if kids are infected at school they’re going to spread it throughout the community.”
She said her hope is that the school board holds an emergency meeting to discuss safety measures, similar to what the Duval County School Board did as cases spiked in the first few weeks of the school year.
The next School Board workshop is on Tuesday, Sept. 7, when a school opening update is on the agenda. In response to more than four hours of public comment about mask mandates at the Board’s Aug. 10 meeting, school Superintendent Tim Forson supported leaving the decision up to parents.
“I have great confidence in our community and our parents,” Forson said. “What they all believe is that they are doing the best for their children.”
Forson also pointed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ July 30 executive order that was meant to bar school districts from implementing mask mandates in his reasoning against a mask mandate. Since then, at least 10 districts in the state, including Duval, passed mask mandates anyway, and a judge recently ruled that districts can in fact enforce mandates under their constitutional duties. The state is appealing that ruling while simultaneously withholding salaries of school board members as punishment.
St. Johns County Schools do not have a threshold of COVID cases that triggers a school closure. Langston said the decision is on a school-by-school basis. No schools have closed so far this year.
WJCT News’ Heather Schatz contributed to this story.