Pinellas schools respond to coronavirus with more ‘surgical’ quarantines

A student case of COVID-19 affected two classrooms at Thurgood Marshall Middle School.
Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School at 3901 22nd Ave. S in St. Petersburg.
Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School at 3901 22nd Ave. S in St. Petersburg. [ Times (2006) ]
Published Sept. 8, 2020|Updated Sept. 8, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County school district has revised the way it conducts quarantines after a confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus.

The change surprised some teachers at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, where there was confusion after a case was confirmed Friday. Teachers thought there would be large quarantine, then left for the holiday weekend without knowing what the response would be.

In a notice on Tuesday, the district confirmed the Marshall case and announced a new, “more surgical selection process for determining which students need to quarantine.” Two classes at the school are affected, the notice said, and the new process will be “implemented across the district, to the greatest extent possible.”

The operative word is “surgical,” a word used by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran as they urge school leaders to be thoughtful about school and even classroom closures.

Since the Tampa Bay area’s four school districts reopened to students in August, 117 cases have been confirmed.

But those numbers don’t tell the full story. Pasco County, the only one of the four that includes quarantine statistics on its online dashboard, reported as of early Tuesday that 588 students and 66 employees were affected by the 32 cases confirmed since Aug. 24. And Pasco’s students represent just 18 per cent in the four-county area.

Corcoran, in conference calls, webinars and printed materials, has urged school districts to make school closing decisions in collaboration with both health officials and the Department of Education.

The general thinking is that to be at risk, a student or employee needs to have spent at least 15 minutes with the infected person, at a distance closer than 6 feet.

School district spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas referred questions about quarantines to Thomas Iovino of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, which takes the lead on contact tracing and quarantine procedures.

County health departments report ultimately to DeSantis, who has pushed hard to open schools and keep them open. Despite the chain of command, Iovino insisted the focus of his agency’s work is public safety.

But teachers union president Nancy Velardi said she has seen a steady shift from larger to smaller quarantines, and she believes it is motivated by the desire to keep schools open at all costs.

“When we first started, before we reopened, the Department of Health was saying that with even one case in a school it had to shut down,” Velardi said, referring to middle and high school.

“That was the rule. I know that our district was very freaked out by that. But then all of a sudden that changed. Then it was a line of classes, and now it’s changed even further to be only specific people in the class."

Mascareñas said that in all the meetings she attended, “I have never heard of shutting down an entire school for one case.”

Iovino, while not able to speak to the prior conversations between his office and the school district, did acknowledged the newer, more deliberate process of determining risk.

“Instead of the original way it was being done, where we might say the entire class needs to isolate, we are taking a look at where that student sat in the classroom,” he said.

“If I am sitting in the front right corner and you are sitting in the back left corner, 25 feet away from me, I’m not going to be infected by you. This isn’t airborne. It’s droplet spread. So instead of isolating everybody who is in this location, it’s everybody who is in this location within a certain set of parameters."

Velardi said she has struggled to get clear information about quarantine parameters, and meets with resistance when she asks hard questions.

“The attitude is always, we’re trying to start trouble,” she said. “But our job is to protect our teachers, who then protect our students. That is what our job is. I don’t think that makes us the bad guys.”

Susan King, who teaches gifted students at Thurgood Marshall, is also concerned.

King said she was at a virtual faculty meeting on Friday, after the case had been confirmed, but before the ultimate decision about who to quarantine. At first, she said, teachers thought it would be 80 students and eight adults. But officials ordered a lesser course of action. King passed much of the holiday weekend without word about how the school would respond.

Back at work on Tuesday, King said, “teachers are stressed. They are scared.” Counselors and assistant principals are filling vacancies, she said. She does not blame her administration. “They’re doing the best they can.”