BACK TO SCHOOL 2021 | Click to scroll down for more
As they prepare to reopen schools, Tampa Bay’s school district leaders face a new set of uncertainties concerning the possible transmission of COVID-19.
They hope they can lessen the risk by encouraging those students who are old enough to become vaccinated. School-based vaccination clinics were held this summer in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Hundreds of students participated and, in some communities, the clinics are ongoing.
But is this enough?
The reality is that, for children under 12, vaccines are not available yet and likely won’t be approved until later this year.
“There will also be a challenge to have a continuity of learning because we don’t have the MySchool Online option,” said Steve Hegarty, spokesman for the Pasco district. Unlike the situation last year, local districts will not offer school-based virtual instruction, which means schools will be more crowded.
Add to these variables the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which did not exist a year ago.
“We are really going to be in new, uncharted territories,” said Thomas Iovino, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.
Area districts sent a strong pro-vaccine message when they teamed up with the health department in the spring and summer to offer vaccine clinics at the schools.
In Hillsborough, 822 students took part. Pasco reported 508 vaccine recipients, although not all were students.
In Pinellas, 84 students were vaccinated early in the summer at three high schools, and more have received their shots in subsequent back-to-school events. The clinics will continue at Boca Ciega, Gibbs, Largo and Pinellas Park high schools through Aug. 10.
Statewide, it is estimated that 31 percent of young people between ages 12 and 18 had been vaccinated as of the end of July. In Pinellas, Iovino said, 49.4 percent have received at least one dose.
The big unanswered question is what percent is an effective safeguard against transmission, given all of the variables at play.
“We would love to see 100 percent vaccinated,” Iovino said. “That would be our ideal goal.”
As with masking, school and health officials are also contending with the political currents that have influenced the issue of vaccines.
While the Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas school districts all said they are encouraging vaccines, Hernando district spokeswoman Karen Jordan said, ”we believe this decision is best made by parents.”
No one in the districts would discuss possible preferences that vaccinated students will receive, with one exception: The quarantines that are expected as students fall ill.
“In line with CDC guidelines, fully vaccinated individuals with no COVID-19 symptoms will not be required to quarantine,” said Tanya Arja, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough school district, a response that was nearly identical in Pinellas and Pasco.
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The students or their parents will be asked to provide proof of vaccination in those cases, she said.
She added: “Individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 90 days and remain symptom free will also be excluded from quarantine.”
As they did last year, school district leaders will stay current on the virus by meeting regularly with state health department officials and area hospitals as the school year gets under way.
More back-to-school coverage
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DISCOUNT DAYS: This year’s back-to-school tax “holiday” lasts 10 days.
MEET THE PRINCIPALS: Many area schools will start the year with new leaders.
BY THE NUMBERS: Tampa Bay’s four public school districts at a glance.