All four Okaloosa County high schools rank among state's top 6 highest for COVID-19

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

Fort Walton Beach High School still tops the state in the number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, but now Niceville High School and Crestview High School have joined it in the top five for all Florida schools.

More:Fort Walton Beach High has reported the most COVID-19 cases among Florida high schools

The number of new cases at Fort Walton Beach increased by just 12 between Nov. 14 and Dec. 26, the last date the Florida Department of Health put out a list of the state schools' COVID-19 totals. Its total climbed from 79 to 91.

More:COVID Northwest Florida: Crestview, Fort Walton Beach, Niceville see holiday spike in new cases

By contrast, the number of cases at Niceville rose by 70, from 18 between Sept. 6 and Nov. 14 to 88 by the end of the year. Crestview High School's increase was even more dramatic, having leapt from 13 in November to 87 as of Dec. 26.

Fort Walton Beach's total number of cases remains the highest in the state, just ahead of Bertram Trail High School in St. John's County, which reports 90 cases of COVID-19.

More:Okaloosa Schools get go ahead to shorten 'close contact' quarantines

Niceville now ranks third in the state and Crestview fourth. Choctawhatchee High School, whose case numbers rose by 47 between Nov. 14 and Dec. 26, from 37 to 84, retained its sixth place ranking among all state schools.

Fletcher High School in Duval County, which in November ranked behind only Fort Walton Beach in COVID-19 cases, saw its virus burden rise by 20 to 77, which put it seventh in the overall state rankings.

Okaloosa County Health Department head Dr. Karen Chapman has said at least some of the blame for the large coronavirus caseloads at each of Okaloosa County's high schools can be attributed to the age of the facilities. Older buildings have smaller classrooms and older ventilation systems which can to contribute to the spread of disease, she said. 

"We're at something of a disadvantage," she said. "Containing the spread is difficult in many ways in schools."

More:Health Department head again calls for masking as COVID-19 numbers rise in Okaloosa County

Otherwise, according to Health Department spokeswoman Allison McDaniel, the agency has no clear explanation for the number of cases in the county's schools compared to schools elsewhere in Florida. 

Many of Fort Walton Beach High's original COVID-19 outbreak cases, reported in November, were blamed on "an association with a team (sports) activity." 

On the Monday following Niceville High School's Dec. 11 home playoff game against Edgewater High of Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel reported on the packed stadium and unmasked fans in attendance. Gov. Ron DeSantis showed up for the game and he and Okaloosa Superintendent of Schools Marcus Chambers had a photo taken together. Neither was wearing a mask. 

"The schools have been getting attention online not only for the game itself, but images of unmasked spectators — including Gov. Ron DeSantis and his family — packed together in Niceville High School’s stands," the Sentinel reported.

Students made up the vast majority of the high school cases reported Dec. 26. Niceville had 79 students who had contracted the disease, Fort Walton Beach 77, Crestview 73 and Choctaw 72.

Two Santa Rosa County high schools also were among the top 10 statewide in total number of COVID-19 cases. Pace High School, which in November ranked third in the state, fell to a No. 7, ranking alongside Fletcher High School. It has added 20 new cases between Nov. 14 and Dec. 26 and presently reports 77.

Navarre High School's 65 cases places it at ninth overall in the state.

At Pace High School, 72 of the 77 confirmed COVID-19 cases were students and at Navarre 53 students were verified as having contracted the virus. 

Okaloosa County School District

Okaloosa County school officials responded Wednesday to questions about the number of COVID-19 cases in its four largest facilities.

School Superintendent Marcus Chambers said the district would continue to review data received from the Florida Department of Health and use it to produce "the best learning environment we can for our students." 

"Obviously the numbers are higher than we would like in our high schools. From the beginning of the school year, we have implemented a number of measures to control transmission in our schools, including adjusting bell schedules to reduce student contact, eliminating large indoor gatherings, enhancing cleaning protocols, supplying desk barriers for each student, strongly recommending facial coverings where social distancing can’t be maintained and requiring them on buses," Chambers said.

The emailed statement did not address the Dec. 11 football game.

University of West Florida health expert Wesley Farr said the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is lessened during outdoor activities unless people fail to practice social distancing and use masks. 

"At-risk activities include standing in line at concession stands and sitting or standing in packed stands without maintaining the 6 feet of social distancing," he said.

"Therefore, we still recommend social distancing and masks in this age group to prevent spread until we are able to achieve widespread vaccination of the population," Farr said. "These measures will be required at least through the end of this school year."

Asked if there was a cultural aspect of Northwest Florida that might make transmission of COVID-19 more prevalent within its school districts, Farr demurred.

"Healthy teenagers and young adults may be reluctant to wear masks to prevent COVID-19 spread because of the low perceived risk in this young healthy group," he said.

Farr noted that in Okaloosa County, the 15-24-year-old age group makes up 15 percent of all cases and 6 percent of new cases but only 2 percent of patient hospitalizations. There have been no reported COVID-19 related deaths of anyone within the 15-24 age group.

"Even though there is a high rate of infection, there is a low rate of severe illnesses," Farr said.

In his statement, Chambers said the percentage of students testing positive for COVID-19 remains low.

"It’s important for parents to know that our positivity rate among students is still very low. At the elementary level, only 1 percent of our students have been COVID-Positive since the first week of school. For Middle School and Combination Schools, it’s 2 percent. For our High Schools, it’s 3.8 percent. Our teachers and school staffs are doing a terrific job during a very difficult time," he said.

Chambers also noted that the overall positivity rate for COVID-19 in Okaloosa County, not just in schools, is among the highest in the state. He said he is sure the community numbers have had an impact on school numbers. 

"The School District does not make the determination as to whether transmission occurred within a school setting," Chambers said. "That is left to the Department of Health. The last information we received was that one of 10 cases in our schools came from transmission within the school.

"That suggests that minimizing student COVID cases is a community-wide effort," Chambers said. "Students sent home from school as close contacts should follow Department of Health guidelines during their quarantine period to ensure they can safely return to school as soon as possible."