More than 1,600 Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) students and staff are in quarantine as week four of the 2021-22 school year begins.
As of 5 p.m. on Friday, the ACPS COVID-19 dashboard reported 515 student and 134 staff positive cases of COVID-19, leading to 1,615 students and 52 staff to be in quarantine.
That total represents more than 6 percent of the total ACPS student population, which started the year at 26,200, according to spokesperson Jackie Johnson. It is also more than two-and-a-half times higher than the number two weeks ago, when the dashboard showed 613 staff and students were in quarantine starting the second week of school.
Local football teams ended up scrambling to find new opponents when some schools had to cancel due to COVID-19 cases and quarantines. Buchholz was scheduled to play Trinity Catholic on Friday, but Trinity canceled due to COVID-19. When Dunnellon’s matchup with St. Augustine got canceled for the same reason, coaches from Buchholz and Dunnellon decided to schedule a game at the last minute.
School officials also had to cancel Fort White and Palatka varsity football games, along with the Newberry JV game.
A week before school started, the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) had voted unanimously to mandate the use of face masks for staff and students with a medical opt out only, defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to ban such mandates. With cases still rising two weeks later, four SBAC members voted on Aug. 17 to extend the mask rule for another eight weeks.
On Friday Judge John C. Cooper of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit Court sided in favor of a group of parents when he prohibited enforcement of the governor’s July executive order, which had directed the state departments of health and education to craft rules to bar local school boards from adopting face mask mandates without a parental opt-out provision.
As it stands now, students and staff at ACPS are required to wear masks, and students can only opt out with a medical excuse.
ACPS Superintendent Carlee Simon said she was gratified by Cooper’s decision in the case.
“His ruling is a validation of the right of locally-elected school boards to protect their students and communities during this crisis without fear of political or financial retribution,” she said in a statement. “Just as importantly, the ruling is a victory for students in Alachua County and across Florida, all of whom have the right to attend safe schools.”
But Simon acknowledged that the legal battle over face mask mandates is not over.
“The state has made it very clear that it would appeal any decision it considered unfavorable,” she stated. “Fortunately the School Board has given me the authority to take legal action to protect our district’s ability to make decisions in the best interests of our students, families, employees and the broader community.”
Alachua County remains in a short-term state of emergency with a face mask mandate for residents when they are in public indoor spaces.
The emergency order allows for citations for noncompliance: “The County shall enforce the first violation of section 3 of this Emergency Order through a fine of $125.00 to the violator. The second violation of section 3 of this Emergency Order shall be subject to a fine of $250.00 to the violator. All subsequent violations of section 3 of this Order shall constitute a Class V violation under Art. II, Chapt. 24 of the Alachua County Code of Ordinances, requiring a mandatory court appearance and subject to a fine not to exceed $500.00.”
The Alachua County COVID-19 dashboard reported on Friday that adult COVID-19 hospitalizations remain above 400 with an average of more than 90 percent of those hospitalized reported as unvaccinated. Even as local adult numbers had dipped last week, pediatric hospitalizations rose to an all time high of 16.
The vaccination rate continues to decline with a high of 3,353 people vaccinated in the previous week ending on Aug. 13 and 1,991 vaccinations reported on Aug. 27 for the previous week.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.