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It's been about five months since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Alachua County. Last week, the county announced a new way to combat the virus — through a committee of local health experts.

The county health department formed the COVID-19 Science and Medical Advisory Committee, which is composed of six UF public health professionals, to guide the county’s and school system’s decisions with medical advice.

The health care professionals have informally advised the county health department and school board since January, said Jackie Johnson, the spokesperson for Alachua County Public Schools. The committee was established to provide a more direct line of communication among ACPS, the health department and the medical community.

To School Board Member Tina Certain, the advisory committee will help reopen schools safely. Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order, ACPS was forced to reopen its schools and draft a reopening plan. The school board passed the plan to the state government Tuesday but said it’s still subject to change.

Certain told The Alligator that the school board’s current situation is a balancing act because it’s trying to minimize the public health risks associated with reopening while complying with state mandates.

“The committee will be key for us because if we depend on the recommendations from medical staff and we close schools, then we are still in compliance with the executive order and will not lose state funding,” Certain said.

Johnson said the school board was in contact with two members of the advisory committee before the pandemic. During the pandemic, school board members remained in contact with the county health department as well as medical officials from UF, who approved each draft of the board’s reopening plans, Johnson added.

Dr. Kathleen Ryan, an infectious diseases specialist and professor at UF College of Medicine, is one of the committee’s members who has worked closely with ACPS.

“The School Board of Alachua County and the Alachua County Health Department are wrestling, as everyone else is, with the issues surrounding school reopening,” she said.

The committee will expand perspectives on county and school issues to include several experts with diverse academic backgrounds, ranging from public health consultants to specialists in emerging pathogens and pediatric medicine, Ryan said.

Ryan added that the committee will help the school board create protocols for school nurses when students come to the clinic, as well as what to do when a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.

“Our role is to mitigate risks associated with school reopening to make sure as much as possible that teachers, administrators, and staff are safe,” Ryan said.