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Hillsborough will consider stronger COVID rules today as school cases rise

The School Board will debate whether to require masks like some other districts, in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A masked bus driver is at the wheel as students arrive Aug. 10 for the first day of classes at Leto High in Tampa. Hillsborough County school officials are considering changes in COVID-19 protocols as the number of coronavirus cases in schools continues to rise.
A masked bus driver is at the wheel as students arrive Aug. 10 for the first day of classes at Leto High in Tampa. Hillsborough County school officials are considering changes in COVID-19 protocols as the number of coronavirus cases in schools continues to rise. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 18
Updated Aug. 18

After four days of record-shattering COVID-19 counts in Hillsborough County’s public schools, members of the School Board today will search for ways to slow the spread.

Their discussion at the board’s 1 p.m. emergency meeting is likely to include calls for a stricter rule on masks and possibly fewer quarantines of healthy students.

The district’s coronavirus case count as of 7 p.m. Monday stood at 1,277 — more than 10 times the number from a comparable period at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Hillsborough schools logged an unprecedented 487 cases on Monday and another 342 on Tuesday.

Some 8,400 students and 307 employees were either in isolation, having tested positive, or in quarantine, which meant they were exposed to a COVID-19 patient.

Related: Parents, tell us your thoughts as COVID cases rise in Tampa Bay schools

Some district officials downplayed the increase, noting that far more students are on campus this fall than last. That’s because 83,488 students were learning from home this time last year, the district said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. For that reason, the email said, the two years are difficult to compare.

This bar graph from the Hillsborough County school district's COVID-19 dashboard shows the growth in cases over the last eight days. At the top is the number 1,277, indicating the total cases reported since schools reopened on Aug. 10.
This bar graph from the Hillsborough County school district's COVID-19 dashboard shows the growth in cases over the last eight days. At the top is the number 1,277, indicating the total cases reported since schools reopened on Aug. 10. [ Hillsborough County School District ]

District spokesperson Tanya Arja said the cases captured on campuses reflect the virus’ spread in the larger community.

“Our district continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by aggressively applying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health recommended strategies for schools,” she said.

The state department of health has presented its own tally of COVID-19 cases in schools to the Hillsborough County Commission, which also meets today. By the department’s calculations, the average daily case count among Hillsborough students increased fivefold, from 51 in the first week of 2020 to 269 this year. Elementary students showed the most dramatic increase with 117 cases per day in the first week, compared to 13 cases per day last year — an 800 percent rise.

Those numbers do not include the last four days’ surge.

Even before the weekend spike, district leaders spoke publicly about shortages of substitute teachers, bus drivers and other essential employees as so many are in quarantine or isolation.

Board members will arrive at today’s meeting with varying expectations as other districts around the state push back against Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has vowed to keep face coverings optional in schools.

Related: Board of Education criticizes Florida schools over mask mandates, mulls penalties

Board member Jessica Vaughn said Monday that she would favor a tougher masking rule, but at this point that might not be sufficient.

“What I’m seeing is parents are so concerned that they have reached a threshold where they think the mask mandate is too late,” Vaughn said.

“They are asking, can we close schools? Can we switch to e-learning? At this rate we’re seeing the chaos that this is causing within our schools. Even teachers are frantically messaging me and saying this is not sustainable.”

Vaughn has asked for a number of measures, including social distancing in the classroom instead of grouping desks together in pods, onsite coronavirus testing, and incentives for staff to become vaccinated. She also hopes the board can question medical professionals, ideally from an independent entity such as Tampa General Hospital.

Board member Henry “Shake” Washington said the board and district are in a difficult spot. “I am for the welfare and safety of all children, the welfare and safety of all people,” he said. “I believe everybody should mask up. This is not a joke. This is real life. These numbers are horrendous.”

But he also asked: “If a kid doesn’t wear a mask, what are we going to do? We can’t deny him the right to an education.”

Board member Nadia Combs agreed that a tougher masking rule is in order, if only as a temporary measure. She did a survey of the area’s top private schools, she said, and found that most require masks.

But Combs said she also is concerned about the vast numbers of students who have been sent home because of exposure.

“I think we are overly quarantining,” Combs said. “Most of the kids I know who had it are not going into the hospital. There are probably more suicides out there. Kids are not recovering from long-term isolation anxiety. l would say more children are being Baker Acted than winding up in the hospital.”

Today’s meeting is at school district headquarters, 801 E Kennedy Blvd., in downtown Tampa. Limited public comment will be allowed.