When classes dismissed for winter break on Dec. 18, there were 4,781 known cases of coronavirus across the Tampa Bay area’s four school districts.
Three weeks later, that number stands at 6,755. That’s a 41 percent increase, and that time period includes two weeks when school was not in session.
The Tampa Bay Times this week attempted to interview Pinellas school officials about an extraordinary surge during the winter holidays. The district responded with a written statement that attributed the problem to activity outside school walls, and stated that the schools will continue to adhere to safety protocols that medical experts have advised.
At a teachers bargaining session, however, district staff acknowledged that with so much activity, it is hard to communicate quarantine information in a timely manner. Paula Texel, associate superintendent for human resources, said the district is working to involve the Department of Health more directly with the virus response team, and hiring more staff to help the team.
The Times is aware of two teacher COVID-19 fatalities since the school year began: Michael Wanner, a science teacher at Plant City High in Hillsborough County, and Rosemary Caldwell Collins, a choral music teacher at Clearwater High. Teachers’ unions on both sides of the bay have raised concerns about social distancing and protections for staff.
Despite the rising viral numbers, some districts have encouraged distance-learning students to return to school in-person for the spring semester. The Times has requested enrollment statistics when they become available.
A closer look at the past week in each local school district:
Hernando County: While not as prevalent as in counties to the south, cases continue to increase in Hernando, with 54 recorded this week. Another three were reported Sunday, representing the winter break. Winding Waters K-8 had 10 cases this past week. Nature Coast had seven cases, and Central High had six. Powell Middle School and Cocachattee Elementary each had five cases.
Hillsborough County: Since the school doors reopened on Monday, there have been 456 new cases reported in the district. During the winter break, there were 364. The district’s “Don’t Miss Out” campaign is under way, designed to bring back students who left the system for charter or private schools and, in part, to convey the advantages of in-school instruction.
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These schools had 10 or more cases this week: Sumner High, with 15; Plant High, with 12; Alonso High, with 11; Plant City High and Waterset Charter with 10 apiece. The Henderson Hammock charter school had nine cases. Plant was the first school to cross the threshold into more than 100 cases, with 114 to date.
These schools had eight cases each: Blake, Hillsborough and Sickles high schools. Chamberlain and Steinbrenner high schools each had six.
There were 18 cases in the school district’s administrative offices.
Pasco County: There were 225 cases in Pasco this week, after two weeks in December where the numbers were falling. Pasco reported 148 cases during the winter break. The largest number this past week, 12, were in the distance-learning program, mySchoolOnline.
There were 10 cases at J.W. Mitchell High and eight at Sanders Memorial Elementary. There were eight in the transportation department and six in the maintenance department.
These schools had seven cases each: Wiregrass Ranch High, Seven Springs Middle School, and Fivay High. These had six cases each: Raymond B. Stewart Middle, Pasco High and Cypress Creek High.
Pinellas County: Following an alarming 506 cases during the winter holidays, Pinellas reported 248 cases this past school week, the largest number ever. The number of Pinellas cases, measured cumulatively since Aug. 24, has almost doubled since students began their break on Dec. 18.
Leading the list last week was Palm Harbor University High with 15 cases. St. Petersburg High reported 11 cases, and Countryside High had eight. These schools each had seven cases: Garrison-Jones Elementary, Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8, and Morgan Fitzgerald Middle.
The district’s administrative headquarters had six cases, as did East Lake High and Lake St. George Elementary. These schools had five cases each: Boca Ciega High, Carwise Middle, East Lake Middle, Lakewood High, Pinellas Park High and Seminole High.
The total for the week, across the four counties, was 983, following 1,021 that were reported over the winter break. The grand total of 6,755 student and staff cases since the school year started includes only a few private school cases, as private schools are not required to issue notices that become public records. In some school districts, the reports do not include all charter schools either.
Staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.