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Pinellas schools added 500 coronavirus cases over winter break

The numbers were unusually high for the district, making it an outlier in the Tampa Bay area.

Pinellas County Schools reported coronavirus cases in unusually high numbers during the winter break, eclipsing the much larger Hillsborough County district and increasing by 50 percent the case count since students returned in August.

Numbers published Monday showed 506 cases in Pinellas, divided evenly between staff and students, during the vacation period from Dec. 19 to Jan. 2. Tests are not administered in school. But, through the county health departments, they are reported to the districts, which post the statistics on their websites after sending notices out to the school communities.

Twenty-eight of the cases in this group affected employees at the school district’s Largo headquarters and its nearby Walter Pownall Service Center. High schools, as is typical, showed the largest numbers among students and teachers. Topping that list was Clearwater High, which lost choral music teacher Rosemary Caldwell Collins to COVID-19 in December and reported 18 cases. There were 17 cases at Dunedin High and 16 at Seminole High.

Clearwater High School choral music teacher Rosemary Caldwell Collins died on Dec. 22 from COVID-19 complications. The school where she taught reported 18 coronavirus cases during the winter holidays.
Clearwater High School choral music teacher Rosemary Caldwell Collins died on Dec. 22 from COVID-19 complications. The school where she taught reported 18 coronavirus cases during the winter holidays. [ COLIN HACKLEY | Tampa Bay Times ]

It is unclear why so many cases were reported at once, and testing delays might have been a factor.

But the sheer numbers make Pinellas an outlier as COVID-19 becomes increasingly common throughout Florida schools.

The Hillsborough school system, which is twice as large as its Pinellas neighbor, reported 320 cases during the break. Pasco, which is slightly smaller than Pinellas, reported 147 cases. Hernando, which is even smaller, showed three.

The Pinellas numbers also show a dramatic increase since Dec. 18, when the district’s year-to-date total was 967. With the added cases, Pinellas had 1,473 when schools reopened on Monday. That was a busy day as well, with 74 more cases. Many of the 74 were at the same schools as the list of 506.

School officials typically say they are taking strict measures to prevent the spread on campus, and that the contagion usually reflects activity outside school. Throughout Florida there has been an increase in test positivity rates, now measured at 11 percent in Pinellas.

But while the 500-case jump might be an aberration, it is clear that the coronavirus is becoming more prevalent over time in Pinellas schools.

At the start of the school year, Pinellas typically reported 30 to 40 cases in a week. That average climbed into the 50s as the semester wore on. There were more than 100 cases in each of the last two school weeks of December.

Regardless of the cause, teachers have noticed. The “enormous upturn,” as union president Nancy Velardi called it, comes at a time when the district is encouraging thousands more children to return to campuses. That influx makes it harder to maintain social distancing. And it requires more teachers to be on campus instead of teaching remotely.

“If they are insisting on bringing people back who are vulnerable, they have to do much more than what they did before” to protect them, Velardi said Tuesday. The union is putting together a petition to urge the School Board to either provide better safety equipment or consider slowing down the return of students.

The Tampa Bay Times attempted to interview district officials to try and get specifics about their response to the upsurge.

Instead, the district issued a statement, saying it is continuing to adhere to safety protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health and the district’s medical advisory group. These strategies include masks, social distancing, frequent handwashing and the daily disinfection of school buildings.

“These safety practices have prevented widespread secondary transmission of COVID-19 in our schools,” the statement said. “The majority of our cases are coming from outside our schools.”

The district said it will continue to work with its advisory group and follow the safety protocols it has in place. “We encourage families to do the same at home and in their daily lives, and have sent reminders home with this information,” the document said. “Anyone who is not feeling well should stay home and contact their health care provider and this includes anyone waiting on a COVID-19 test result.”

Staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.