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The U.S. has reached 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Now experts are looking ahead, and the forecast for the fall and winter isn’t good.

USA TODAY

Many teachers and families feared a spike in COVID-19 cases when Florida made the controversial push to reopen schools in August with in-person instruction.

A USA TODAY analysis shows the state’s positive case count among kids ages 5 to 17 declined through late September after a peak in July. Among the counties seeing surges in overall cases, it’s college-age adults – not schoolchildren – driving the trend, the analysis found.

The early results in Florida show the success of rigorous mask wearing, social distancing, isolating contacts and quick contact tracing when necessary, health experts said.

“Many of the schools that have been able to successfully open have also been implementing control measures that are an important part of managing spread in these schools,” said Dr. Nathaniel Beers, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health.

Although things went well early, the experts cautioned that schools could still be the source of future problems. They warned against reading the data as a reason to reopen all schools or abandon safety measures.

Hundreds of students and staffers contracted the novel coronavirus despite the precautionary measures. The Florida Department of Health published a report last month showing 559 COVID-19 cases related to elementary, middle and high schools logged from Aug. 10 to 23. State health officials quickly retracted the report, saying it was a draft and “inadvertently made available.” 

Despite the bright spots in the data showing school-age cases declining from their summertime peak, there was one troubling trend: The rate of decline slowed in many places after schools reopened. 

That might mean cases have plateaued and schools have not fueled new, large outbreaks. Or it might mean those counties are at the bottom of a U and could soon turn upward again.

“It’s one of those things where it’s not a problem until there is a problem,” said Dr. Katherine Auger, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine who studied the lives saved by spring school closures.

All eyes on Florida

Health researchers and educational experts watch Florida for cues about what works to keep students, staff and the broader community safe amid a pandemic.

Most of the largest school districts around the country – including those in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas – reopened with virtual learning plans. Florida mandated that public schools offer face-to-face instruction and that campuses reopen no later than Aug. 31, a decision that drew an unsuccessful lawsuit from the state teachers union.

More than half of Florida families returned their children to school in-person, state education officials said. The rest chose remote learning.

As weeks ticked by and a surge of school-linked cases did not materialize, requests to return remote learners to the classroom have surged in some places.

In Martin County, along the