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Tampa Bay schools exceed 1,000 coronavirus cases since classes started

Weekly case counts are on the rise, with Newsome and Plant high schools showing the highest numbers so far.

More than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among students and staff in the Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas county schools since students returned in late August.

Hillsborough County, which operates the largest school district by far, has recorded 516 cases since Aug. 31, when students there returned to class.

There have been 225 cases in Pasco and 51 in Hernando. Pinellas has seen 211 cases, including some in private schools that were reported to the Tampa Bay Times, independently of the district lists.

Putting the numbers in perspective: The four districts have a combined student enrollment this year of 411,598, with between 30 and 40 percent of students learning remotely, depending on the community. The cases, which are all self-reported, include some students who are in virtual school.

The busiest COVID-19 sites are high schools: Newsome High in Lithia and Plant High in Tampa, with 25 and 21 cases respectively, and Nature Coast Technical in Brooksville, with 14.

All four districts offer various forms of instruction to allow families to navigate the coronavirus pandemic. Students can learn in person, remotely through their schools, or remotely through virtual schools that operate in franchise arrangements with the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School.

Public schools have been practicing what they describe as “surgical” quarantines when there is a case, sending only some students and teachers home to self-isolate after an infection has been confirmed. In charter and private schools, administrators sometimes close the entire campus temporarily.

Confirmed cases are a matter of public record because all four districts use schoolwide notifications, which are public documents.

Quarantine information is a different story, and its availability varies from county to county. Pasco is releasing quarantine statistics in great detail on its public dashboard. So far, Pasco’s cases have affected 3,096 students and 323 employees.

Pinellas releases generalized quarantine information, such as “seven partial classrooms” or “one partial bus.”

Hillsborough’s dashboard included quarantine information for about a month, but that feature was disabled recently.

If other districts are acting similarly to Pasco in how they handle quarantines, then based on relative population sizes, more than 17,000 students and employees have been affected directly by the 1,000 cases. Others have been affected indirectly, as staff have had to cover for each other.

It is also impossible to know, from the reports, how many students are infected but showing no symptoms. On any given day in Hillsborough, for example, there are nearly as many staff cases as student cases. But students outnumber staff by about 9 to 1.

A sample COVID-19 dashboard report from the Hillsborough County School District. Light blue represents staff cases while dark blue represents students. They are roughly the same, even though students outnumber staff by about 9 to 1. [ Times staff ]

If current trends continue, the numbers will grow rapidly in coming months as the weekly totals have increased nearly every week, sometimes by as much as 20 percent.

Those weekly totals, beginning with the first week when all four districts were open are: 99, 124, 144, 164, 159 and the most recent, 189. So far, midway through this week, there have been 97 cases.

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