There’s coronavirus in the classroom. Why isn’t everyone going home?

Decisions on when to order quarantines or close schools will be made on a case-by-case basis, Tampa Bay education leaders say.
Students make their way off campus after the final bell on the first day of school Monday at Boca Ciega High in Gulfport.
Students make their way off campus after the final bell on the first day of school Monday at Boca Ciega High in Gulfport. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 28, 2020|Updated Aug. 28, 2020

Phones rang across Pinellas County late Monday afternoon, all receiving the same message from the school district.

“Please remember: If anyone in your household has tested positive for COVID-19, no members of your household should come to school until you have received direction from the Department of Health or the School District,” said Sara O’Toole, the district’s health services manager.

“And if your student has been tested for COVID-19, but is awaiting test results, your student and all other members of the household must not come to school until they receive a negative test result.”

The reminder was critical for all families — and not just in Pinellas — as thousands of masked children are returning to their classrooms this week and next during the coronavirus pandemic. But it particularly resonated for those attending Northeast High in St. Petersburg, where a student attended classes all day before getting a call with positive test results.

A quarantine order quickly followed for the students and staff who had been exposed. A separate email alert arrived soon after.

Chatter ensued on social media, where the order of the day was annoyance.

“It’s irritating that parents would send a student to school while they were still waiting for results,” said Julie Campbell, whose daughter, Cassidy, is a Northeast junior. “That just seems irresponsible. You’ve now clearly brought it to school, and there are staff members with underlying medical conditions.”

Questions also cropped up about how decisions get made regarding who gets sent home, and why, when cases are discovered. Why, for example, did a single case at Clearwater High cause no quarantine while a single case at Carwise Middle lead to seven classrooms being told to isolate?

In Pinellas, as with other Tampa-area districts, the answer lies in the details uncovered through contact tracing.

The student at Clearwater High never came in contact with anyone at school, the district reported, while the one at Carwise Middle attended seven classes.

“It’s critical that we know every single place the student has been, including whether or not they’ve been in the media center, whether or not they’ve been in the cafeteria, which hallways they’ve been in,” said Tracye Brown, chief of climate and culture for Hillsborough County schools, which return to classrooms on Monday. “We will look at each situation individually.”

Each local district is defining exposure as being 6 feet or closer to a person with the virus for 15 minutes or longer, a guideline set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But, to allow for flexibility, they’re not setting specific rules, such as closing a school after a certain number of cases arise or a designated percentage of students and staff are exposed, said Ray Gadd, Pasco County deputy superintendent.

”We’re doing it on a case-by-case basis, and it really has to do with containment,” Gadd said.

At the same time, he added, everyone has to be reasonable in their reactions. A student who becomes ill from over-exertion during athletic training is not the same as one who is sick from the virus, Gadd noted. If a child exhibits momentary symptoms from explainable events and quickly recovers, “then they need to come back to school,” he said.

Health department officials play a critical part in determining the response, district officials in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco said. But equally important is the role of students, parents and staff members.

They need to understand that their actions make a difference in how widespread, or how limited, the virus can be in the schools, Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego stressed at a recent School Board meeting.

“For us to be successful, every single person … in this community has got to chip in,” Grego said.

That means staying home if you are running a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher, feel sick, live with someone who has COVID-19, or are waiting for test results. It also means wearing a mask, washing hands and following instructions after you’ve tested positive or been exposed.

In advance of students’ return Monday, the Hillsborough district sent parents a letter explaining the basic quarantine and isolation plans for when incidents arise. The Pinellas district rolled out a chart from the state that details the process it will follow. It also waived its attendance rules for exam exemptions, to eliminate incentives for coming to class when ill.

The Pinellas County school district plans to use this chart to help guide decisions when COVID-19 cases arise in schools.
The Pinellas County school district plans to use this chart to help guide decisions when COVID-19 cases arise in schools. [ Florida Department of Education ]

The Pasco district set up its own one-page chart to help its leaders make decisions.

The districts also have started to release basic information about the cases that are reported, school by school. These include instances where students or staff have not made contact with anyone else.

It’s better to over share, Gadd suggested, than to under report at a time when everyone is anxious and trying to make good decisions.

“We’ll give you all the information we have,” he said. “You make the call.”

Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report.