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Hundreds of students in Palm Beach County forced to quarantine because of COVID days after school starts

Florida schools open amid mask debate
School mask debate rages in Florida as COVID cases surge 10:57

Just a few days into the academic year, hundreds of students in Palm Beach County, Florida, have been told to go into quarantine because of COVID-19 cases at their schools. Nearly 700 kids were sent home due to possible COVID exposure on Tuesday, the first day of school, followed by over 400 on Wednesday and more than 900 on Thursday. On Friday the number sent home was 1,020, the district reported.

As of Friday, there were 134 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 26 employees and 105 students, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard. The cases have been confirmed in 60 of the district's facilities and K-12 schools. 

The number of COVID cases spiked dramatically within the first week of school. On Tuesday, when classes started, there were just five confirmed cases among the district's staff members, CBS affiliate WPEC reported.

Palm Beach County is the 10th largest school district in the U.S. and the fifth largest in Florida, with more than 197,000 students. The district did not immediately respond to CBS News' request for comment.

Not all of those in quarantine are infected with COVID-19. Guidance from the Florida Department of Health says anyone in K-12 schools who is symptomatic or tested positive, or who is a close contact to someone who has, should be immediately excluded from facilities. Anyone who has COVID cannot return for at least 10 days. Those exposed can return after a 14-day quarantine from the date of last exposure, or after seven days if they get a negative test. 

Students in quarantine will not be able to take part in virtual learning, according to WPEC, and instead, will have to make up their work. 

Palm Beach Superintendent Michael Burke told MSNBC this week that the district's goal was to "get our students back in person on our campuses." But, he said, "we've gone as far as we can within the state law to require face coverings for both our students and staff." 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis mandated last week that school districts cannot require children to wear face masks, which have been proven to help curb the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. 

"The governor's got to take responsibility for establishing the ground rules we're operating under," Burke told MSNBC. "This ability for families to opt out is leading to more cases which is ultimately going to send more kids home and deprive them of the typical classroom experience." 

Three days before the first day of classes, Burke issued a statement to parents, guardians and staff, saying that the county was seeing a "rapid rise" in confirmed cases and hospitalizations. Despite the governor's executive order banning districts from enforcing mask mandates, Burke said that masks will be required in schools and on buses for all students. Parents and guardians can opt out, Burke said, and those who do have to send a signed note to the their child's school. 

All staff are required to wear facial coverings indoors and on district transportation with no option of opting out, Burke said. 

Florida Department of Health data shows that cases have been drastically increasing for several weeks. From July 30 to August 5 in Palm Beach, state data shows that there have been 7,787 new cases of COVID-19. Sixty-three percent of those who are eligible have been vaccinated in the state. 

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