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Why is school district underreporting COVID-19?

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of March 4, 2021)

The Florida Department of Health has reported more than twice as many COVID-19 cases in our county’s public schools as have been reported by the school district, a Vero Beach 32963 analysis shows.

How is this possible?

The latest state report shows 741 people in the Indian River County public schools have tested positive for the virus as of Monday, including 594 students, 40 staff members and 101 people whose role was not given.

But the school district’s announcements of positive COVID-19 cases indicate a much smaller total, with only 312 people in the public schools testing positive for the virus, including 244 students and 68 staff members.

In the past, the school district has said the disparity in the statistics is because the district announcements only include those going to school in-person, while the state figures reflect people engaged in both in-person and virtual education via computer.

But the number of students engaged in virtual learning declined to 16 percent in the 3rd quarter from 33 percent in the 1st quarter, the district’s February 2021 Mid-Year Review says.

So, if you credit the School Board’s explanation, fewer than one-third of the student body – those studying at home – accounted for nearly 59 percent of the 594 student COVID-19 cases reported by the Florida Department of Health.


The state Health Department Monday told 32963 its COVID-19 case reporting is authoritative, and referred questions about the differences in the statistics for the Indian River County public schools to the school district.

But the school district did not respond by deadline to a series of questions emailed Friday about the disparity in the COVID-19 statistics reported by the school district and the Florida Department Health.

“COVID-19 data reported to the department is immediately integrated into our reports,” the Health Department’s media office said. “The school report is updated on a weekly basis.”

The comprehensiveness and accuracy of the school district’s press releases announcing COVID-19 cases in the public schools came under question last week after Vero Beach 32963 learned Vero Beach High School Principal Shawn O’Keefe and an assistant principal were out at least two weeks with the virus, during a period in which the district didn’t report any staff members at the high school testing positive for the virus.

It wasn’t until Wednesday, Feb. 24, after repeated inquiries by 32963, that the district issued a report of two staff members at the high school  testing positive. This was weeks after the school’s principal fell ill.

School district spokeswoman Cristen Maddux confirmed that O’Keefe was one of the two mentioned in the report, but attributed the reporting delay to the local Health Department office.

Vero Beach High School, the district’s largest school, exemplifies the long-standing disparity between the reporting of COVID-19 cases by the school district and the Florida Department of Health.

Vero Beach High has had 130 cases of COVID-19 this school year, as of Feb. 20, according to a summery the state Health Department released Feb. 26.

The state report shows 115 students, five staff members and 10 others at Vero Beach High have been diagnosed with the virus this school year.

Another 45 students and 6 unknown people at the Freshman Learning Center were diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Feb. 20, the state Health Department report says.

However, school district reports indicate only 47 students and nine staff members at Vero Beach High School diagnosed with COVID-19 since the new school year started Aug. 24.

District records show another 23 students and two staff members at the VBHS Freshman Learning Center testing positive for the virus this school year.

The disparity between the Health Department and school district reporting on COVID-19 cases at Sebastian River High School is also glaring.

According to the state Health Department, Sebastian River had a total of 104 cases of the virus this school year, including 95 students, two staff members and seven people whose role was not characterized.

But according to school district press releases, there were only 58 cases of COVID-19 at Sebastian River High School this school year, including 56 students and two staff members.