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COVID case counts far ahead of last year in Tampa Bay schools

Close to 1,000 cases were reported in the first week of classes and thousands are already quarantined.
Students congregate outside the main entrance before the first bell at Clearwater High on the first day of school Wednesday. Pinellas County recorded 204 COVID-19 cases in schools on the first two days of the year, up dramatically from the start of last school year.
Students congregate outside the main entrance before the first bell at Clearwater High on the first day of school Wednesday. Pinellas County recorded 204 COVID-19 cases in schools on the first two days of the year, up dramatically from the start of last school year. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 14

The resurgent coronavirus is quickly showing up in Tampa Bay area public schools, far exceeding last year’s levels as classes get underway, according to official tallies.

In the first week of the new school year, the Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando county school districts reported 961 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff. That’s dramatically higher than the 116 cases the four systems recorded during the first two weeks of last school year.

It was not until mid-October — eight weeks after classes started — that the districts passed the 1,000-case mark last year.

Roughly 400,000 students returned to campuses across the region this past week, with classes starting Tuesday in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando, and on Wednesday in Pinellas. Many children wore masks, and many did not, as they arrived amid a tense public debate over whether Florida should mandate face coverings to help slow a stubborn rise in infections.

Pinellas counted 203 cases on Wednesday and Thursday, with Friday’s numbers yet to be released on Monday. This time last year, the district had reported 16 cases. After two weeks, the total stood at 41.

In Hillsborough, officials reported 475 cases for the first four days compared to 41 for the first five school days of 2020.

Pasco County reported 191 cases this past week, compared to 29 cases in the first two weeks of last school year.

And 92 first-week cases were reported in Hernando County, the area’s smallest district, which last year got through many weeks with one or two dozen cases.

One clear factor in the upsurge is the much larger number of students who are learning on campus. Last year, roughly half began the semester in distance learning arrangements through their schools, an option no longer allowed or funded by the state.

Students are closer together now, and no longer universally masked, as communities battle the delta variant, a far more contagious form of COVID-19 than was circulating last year.

Officials also say it is important to remember that their COVID-19 statistics, while captured in school, reflect activity in the community. They note that students whose cases were recorded last week had not been on campus long enough to catch the virus there.

Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis, right, gives a fist bump to James Braden before on the first day of school at Sessums Elementary in Riverview.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis, right, gives a fist bump to James Braden before on the first day of school at Sessums Elementary in Riverview. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

“Parents should not send students to school if they have symptoms,” Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis said Thursday during a School Board discussion about the disruption the virus is causing for yet another year.

“This is why we have quarantine,” he said. “If it’s the first three days, they didn’t catch COVID in our schools. If they had stayed home, then we would quarantine no one.”

Davis told the board that nearly 3,000 students were missing school as of Thursday. By the next day, the numbers were still rising.

“As of this morning, 2.15 percent of our student population (4,477) are either in isolation due to a positive case or in quarantine due to exposure,” district spokesperson Tanya Arja said Friday.

That included students “who tested positive or were exposed to a positive case off campus and did not attend school yet,” she said. “We also have 289 staff members, or 1.27 percent, in isolation or quarantine.”

Estimates vary widely on how many students are wearing masks. The district reported Thursday that it had collected 28,000 parental opt-out forms, which Hillsborough requires if a student is to go unmasked. That is roughly 14 percent of all enrolled. In the other three area districts, no opt-out forms are required.

Staff shortages are creating another set of problems. Davis acknowledged there are not enough substitute teachers to cover for sick employees. Chris Farkas, chief of operations, said bus drivers are in such short supply that “everyone that can drive a bus that works in the district office of transportation is driving a bus.”

So far, school districts are staying close to the reopening plans that they published earlier this month, which in many ways are similar to last year’s plans.

They are continuing to emphasize personal hygiene and building sanitation. Some schools are continuing to limit the use of bookcases and other furniture in classrooms, and spreading out desks as much as possible. Contact tracing and quarantine decisions are being left to Department of Health workers.

Below is a county-by-county look at schools that recorded five or more cases this past week:

Hernando: The largest numbers were at Explorer K-8 School, with 11 cases, and Winding Waters K-8, which had 10. Hernando High reported eight cases. Nature Coast Technical High and Weeki Wachee High each had five.

Hillsborough: In the first four days of school, 18 COVID-19 cases were reported at Pepin Academies, a charter group that serves learning-disabled children and has weathered problems with the virus throughout the summer.

There were 10 cases each at Durant and Riverview high schools. Plant High, one of the district’s hot spots for coronavirus last year, had nine.

Gaither and Newsome high schools each had eight cases, as did Mulrennan Middle School. There were seven at the Hillsborough Academy of Math and Science.

Six cases each were reported at FishHawk Creek Elementary, Freedom High, Grady Elementary, Greco Middle, Lutz K-8, Mabry and Miles elementary schools, Sickles and Sumner high schools and Woodson K-8.

These schools had five cases each: Alexander Elementary; Blake High; Burns Middle; Cimino, Heritage, Hunter’s Green, Lanier and Pride elementary schools; Strawberry Crest High and Yates Elementary

Pasco: Eight cases were reported at Wiregrass Elementary, which led the Pasco County reports.

Fivay, J.W. Mitchell and Land O’Lakes high schools each reported seven cases.

Anclote High, Cypress Creek High, Denham Oaks Elementary and Quail Hollow Elementary had six cases each.

And these schools had five cases each: Charles S. Rushe Middle, Cypress Creek Middle, Sanders Memorial Elementary and Sunlake High.

Students at Sunlake High arrive for the first day of school in Pasco County on Tuesday.
Students at Sunlake High arrive for the first day of school in Pasco County on Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Pinellas: Eight cases were reported at Dunedin High and six at Dunedin Highlands Middle.

Orange Grove Elementary and Palm Harbor University High had six cases each, while Richard O. Jacobson Technical High and Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary had five cases each.

• • •

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