Belleair Elementary barely had any known coronavirus cases in the first half of the school year.
But with 41 percent more students attending in person than when the school year began, that has changed. The Clearwater school reported six cases in January alone, almost doubling the total since classes started in August.
As the case count in Tampa Bay area public schools nears 9,000 over the last five months, consensus on whether campuses are safe is hard to find.
Some see danger ahead as vaccination efforts stall and more contagious strains of the virus start to take hold. Others say the number of cases is manageable in a region with some 400,000 students enrolled in public schools.
At the same time, large numbers of students are strapping on masks for the second semester and leaving virtual learning, with its many limitations. And advocates of in-person learning have found new encouragement from a report released Tuesday by government researchers that says school-based transmission of the virus is rare.
Early in the school year, the Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough county districts reported that between 57 and 61 percent of their students were attending in person. Now those percentages range from 70 in Hillsborough to 77 percent in Pinellas.
Teachers say the students’ reasons for coming back to campus vary — from a desire to be among friends, to a lack of structure at home that is leading to disappointing results. Child care issues are prompting many families to send younger kids back to campus.
The class-size changes are more dramatic in some schools than others. And, in some cases, the coronavirus statistics are dramatic as well.
At Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, the percentage of in-person learners climbed from 51 to 76 between Sept. 14 and Jan. 21, according to data released by the Pinellas school district this past week. Earlier in the year, the school was reporting between 1 and 3 COVID-19 cases a month. So far in January, there are 15.
“I just keep getting these phone calls about another case of COVID-19, and then another,” said Mandy Minor, who has a child who is distance-learning from Gibbs. “They were never equipped for this sort of thing to happen.” And Minor said that, based on video images she has seen of the classrooms, many students appear to be acting as if there is no pandemic at all.
At Boca Ciega High in Gulfport, the in-person percentage has grown from 46 to 75. In January alone there were 24 reported COVID-19 cases at the school, up from a year-to-date total of 20 when students returned from winter break.
Cases also increased sharply at Hillsborough’s Tampa Bay Technical High, where the in-person population nearly doubled, from 787 students to 1,310. The total number of COVID-19 cases now stands at 24, up from the nine reported after winter break.
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But the numbers do not reveal where those students and employees picked up the coronavirus. At-home cases are not included in district reports, which means they could just as likely have caught the illness from a family member, at a party or virtually anywhere.
Isabel Mascareñas, the public information officer in Pinellas, noted COVID-19 symptoms can begin anywhere between two and 14 days after exposure to a positive case according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The increase in positive COVID-19 cases since students returned to class this month are mostly due to exposure that took place during the winter break,” she said.
This past week, a group of public health and hospital officials who have been advising Pinellas schools during the pandemic recommended not changing the safety protocols already in place, Mascareñas said, “because they are working.”
School officials on both sides of the bay have long insisted that COVID-19 is more likely to spread in homes and other public places than on campuses, where they have imposed masking requirements, deep-cleaning protocols and other medically recommended precautions.
Now they are pointing to a recent report from the CDC, which cited a study performed in rural Wisconsin in the fall.
The study involved 4,876 students and 654 staff at 17 schools. Masking was required and teachers reported that compliance was high.
“Among the 191 cases identified in students and staff members, one in 20 cases among students (a total of seven) was linked to in-school transmission,” the CDC wrote. Four of the cases were at a single school. And “no infections among staff members were found to have been acquired at school.”
According to the CDC, the findings suggest that with proper mitigation strategies, K–12 schools can operate in person with minimal spreading of the virus. “Despite widespread community transmission, COVID-19 incidence in schools conducting in-person instruction was 37 percent lower than that in the surrounding community,” the agency said.
However, the report described seven limitations in the study. Among them: Information about masking compliance was based on teacher interviews, and only half the teachers opted to participate, making that data unreliable. Also, the mostly white, largely rural populations examined in the study were not as diverse as the Tampa Bay area.
Locally, some teachers fear that as schools attract more in-person students, more crowded conditions will make them less safe. Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis acknowledged as much at a recent School Board meeting, saying “it creates challenges ... in our common areas, whether it’s in our hallways, in our lunch rooms, in our classrooms.”
Teachers will work to keep students apart, he said, but it will be difficult.
In Pinellas, the teachers union has been advocating consistently for safer work conditions, from better quality masks to a less intimidating work environment, so employees feel free to voice their concerns.
“Social distancing across the board is not consistent,” Pinellas Park High School media specialist Ginger Brengle told the Pinellas School Board at Tuesday’s meeting. “There are some schools that are doing a fantastic job at keeping our students apart, and others that aren’t doing a thing.”
She added that the safety zone that is supposed to separate classroom teachers from their students is a flawed concept. “Not all teachers stand up front and lecture,” she said. For special education teachers, “there’s no bubble.”
Despite those statements, Mascareñas insisted the influx in Pinellas is completely manageable.
“It’s been gradual,” she said. “And when it’s gradual, it’s easier to accommodate and make adjustments.”