The number of COVID-19 cases in Tampa Bay area schools is beginning to fall, a development that some attribute to mask requirements.
This week’s case total for Hernando, Hillsborough Pasco and Pinellas counties was 3,320, about two-thirds the levels seen on the previous three Fridays.
Case counts have been falling steadily in Hillsborough, which implemented the region’s toughest mask rule on Aug. 19. But not everyone is convinced that masks are the reason.
The Hillsborough School Board debated that question before voting 5-1 Thursday for a 30-day extension of its masking rule, which requires medical documentation for those who opt out.
Board members noted that many variables affect case counts — including the Labor Day holiday, which closed schools on Monday and left less time to report cases, making week-to-week comparisons unreliable. The holiday could have been a contributing factor to unusually low counts in the other districts too. Both Hillsborough and Pinellas showed week-over-week reductions of approximately 35 percent.
The Hillsborough board also discussed the many times in a typical day when students do not wear masks. “The super spreader is lunch,” said board member Nadia Combs. Others noted that children are just as likely to catch the virus at home or out in public, echoing a point made by leaders in Pinellas, where masks are voluntary in schools.
Leaders of the Hillsborough district, however, have noticed a tapering off in the numbers since Aug. 23, when cases peaked at 692. That extraordinary day came four days after the new rules took effect.
Average daily counts are slightly lower this month in Hillsborough than they were in August. In Pinellas, the average counts are slightly higher, although Pinellas overall is reporting fewer cases than Pasco or Hillsborough, considering the size of its population.
It is also possible that the August numbers were so high they had no place to go but down. Regionwide, 34 schools have reported 100 or more cases each so far this school year, with numbers as high as 151 at Pasco’s Hudson High and 145 at Durant High in Hillsborough.
Here is a breakdown, county by county, of the schools that posted the largest numbers of cases this week. These lists do not include private schools, and in two of the districts they do not include charter schools. All cases known to the Tampa Bay Times are captured on our interactive map.
Hernando County: The district is seeing a reduction in cases, from 375 in the week ending Sept. 3 to 185 on Friday. Hernando’s new masking policy went into effect this past week, requiring students and staff to wear masks but allowing them to opt out. Parents need only fill out a form for their children to opt out while the district requires a medical excuse for staff.
The biggest numbers were at Hernando High, which reported 41 cases and has 123 to date, and Explorer K-8, with 21.
There were 19 cases at Central High, 18 at Eastside Elementary, 15 at Winding Waters K-8 and 14 at Weeki Wachee High. There were 10 cases at Floyd Elementary.
Hillsborough County: The region’s largest school district reported 1,348 cases this past week, down from 2,160 the prior week.
East Hillsborough again seemed to have the biggest problem, with Strawberry Crest High reporting 36 cases.
There were 31 cases each at Mulrennan Middle School and Navigator Academy, a charter school. Burns Middle reported 24 cases, as did Durant High. Newsome High had 23 cases, and there were 19 at nearby Randall Middle. There were 22 cases each at Riverview High and Turner-Bartels K-8 School in New Tampa.
Pasco County: The district reported 881 cases this week, a 20 percent decrease from the previous week.
Sunlake High had more cases than any other school with 43. Fivay High had 33, River Ridge High had 32 and J.W. Mitchell High had 27.
Seven Springs Middle School reported 25 cases, Oakstead Elementary had 24 and Cypress Creek High had 23.
Pinellas County: The past week saw 906 cases, with charter schools now included in the count.
Pinellas Park High saw 31 cases while Osceola Middle School reported 30 and Seminole High had 25.
There were 23 cases each at Hollins High and at John Hopkins and Meadowlawn middle schools. Azalea Middle had 18 cases. East Lake High and Fitzgerald Middle School each had 17.
Since school opened on Aug. 10 and 11, the four districts have reported 19,160 cases of COVID-19.