Back to school 2021: In Tampa Bay, classes to start with fewer restrictions

Masks will be voluntary. Sports and other activities will return. But the coronavirus remains a threat for younger kids who still cannot be vaccinated.
A discarded mask in Tampa. Once prevalent and required in area schools, face coverings will be voluntary when the 2021-22 school year begins, unless conditions change.
A discarded mask in Tampa. Once prevalent and required in area schools, face coverings will be voluntary when the 2021-22 school year begins, unless conditions change. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published July 31, 2021|Updated Aug. 2, 2021

BACK TO SCHOOL 2021 | Click to scroll down for more

From Weeki Wachee to Wimauma, families and staff are gearing up for a nearly normal school year.

It’s too early to declare the schools coronavirus-free, and it would be unrealistic to expect all traces of the pandemic to be eradicated before classroom doors open. While teachers and older children can be vaccinated, the youngest of students will be vulnerable to COVID-19, if they have not already been infected.

Despite that reality, school leaders in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties say they are restoring most of the routines students enjoyed before the pandemic of 2020.

Schools and buses will be cleaner, thanks to practices they introduced when students returned to school a year ago.

But most restrictions will be lifted, allowing children to learn without required face coverings and enjoy the extracurricular activities that make school fun.

These include sports, which were severely limited at the beginning of last year. “Sporting events will welcome fans at full capacity,” said Isabel Mascareñas, spokesperson for the Pinellas County School District.

Visitors will also be allowed into schools, although in some districts, they will be asked to schedule their visits ahead of time.

The start of the 2020-21 school year was fraught with heated arguments about whether it was possible to reopen without spreading the sometimes deadly COVID-19. School leaders worked with medical professionals to mitigate the risk by enhancing sanitation and imposing social distance in the classrooms and common areas.

The result: With close to half of all students learning remotely at the beginning of the year, coronavirus case counts were relatively modest. Tens of thousands returned to in-person instruction in the months that followed. But, while some of the area’s largest high schools recorded 100 or more cases over the course of the year, most schools reported much smaller numbers.

The total at year’s end was about 17,000 cases, including adults, at schools with a combined population of nearly a half-million.

This year, with vaccines available for all adults and children over 12, fear of contamination has subsided.

Face coverings will be allowed and, in some districts, encouraged indoors. But the masks will be strictly voluntary in all area schools.

As schools stocked up on student masks last year, some will be able to offer those masks to students who ask for them.

“We have a supply of masks and other PPE available at every school and on all school buses,” said Tanya Arja, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough school district.

Schools will make some use of the plexiglass shields and other safety equipment that they purchased last year for social distancing purposes. The shields will remain up in Hillsborough’s cafeterias and other common areas, Arja said. Elsewhere, as with the masks, the use of those shields will be voluntary.

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Students can expect opportunities to socialize and eat lunch together. “From the very beginning, we were clear that social distancing was not always feasible in the school setting,” said Karen Jordan, district spokesperson in Hernando County.

“However, some of the protocols that were put in place this year — such as one way hallways — may remain.”

All four districts offered multiple forms of instruction last year: Traditional in-person classes, virtual school, and a school-based hybrid that allowed children to learn at home, but on the same schedule as their in-school classmates. The hybrid required some teachers to serve virtual and in-school students simultaneously, which proved difficult and stirred up resentment in the ranks.

For this year, area districts are mostly forgoing school-based virtual instruction and simultaneous instruction. Instead, those families who do not feel ready to send their children to school can take advantage of the long-established virtual schools.

Officials said they do not intend to retreat from the new cleaning protocols in the schools or on the buses.

“The district also purchased additional cleaning tools, such as electrostatic cleaners, that will continue to be used,” Jordan said. “And some of the procedures that were added during this past year will remain.”

Anticipating the need for contact tracing, Arja added, “we will continue to direct bus drivers to maintain bus seating charts.”

Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis acknowledged that the COVID-19 situation will require flexibility, along with continued collaboration with medical experts until and beyond the first day of school.

“As of right now, masks are optional,” he said. But “we’ll continue to watch that process. If there is a spike in any way, shape or form, then we’ll come back to reconsider if adjustments need to be made, especially for those who don’t have the ability to be vaccinated.”

If parents are concerned, he said, one thing they can do is continue sending their children to school with face coverings. “Wearing the mask protects that learner from others,” he said.

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More back-to-school coverage

GETTING A SHOT: Most area school districts send a strong message to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

LESSONS LEARNED: The pandemic forced schools to take a more digital approach. Some of it will stay.

HOW WE’RE FEELING: Tampa Bay parents and kids talk about the school year ahead.

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.

GETTING READY: From supply giveaways to festivals, a look at back-to-school events around the area.

SIGNING UP: Registering a child for school for the first time can involve many steps. What you need to know.

MARK THE DATE: Highlights of the 2021-22 school year in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tampa Bay’s four public school districts at a glance.