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Tampa Bay schools plan no major changes to COVID rules as classes resume

Florida law limits actions school districts can take as students return from winter break.
 
A masked school bus driver is pictured at Leto High for the first day of school in Hillsborough County on Aug. 10, 2021. Under a new state law, masks will continue to be encouraged, but not required, in area public schools.
A masked school bus driver is pictured at Leto High for the first day of school in Hillsborough County on Aug. 10, 2021. Under a new state law, masks will continue to be encouraged, but not required, in area public schools. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 3, 2022

Despite a rise in positive cases associated with the COVID-19 omicron variant, Tampa Bay area students and school employees will not encounter any major changes in virus-control requirements when they return to classes Tuesday.

Unlike districts in other parts of the state, the Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas school districts have left their first semester rules substantially intact.

They intend to “encourage” the wearing of masks, though none has planned to require face coverings for adults on campus, as have districts in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and a handful of others. The Legislature outlawed mandatory masking of students when it met in a November special session.

Related: FDA expands Pfizer boosters for kids 12 and up as omicron surges

The districts indicated they would follow the latest coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, which have cut recommended isolation time for people with positive test results from 10 days to five.

“We also continue to work with the Health Department” on responding to cases, said Pinellas district spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas, echoing statements from her counterparts in neighboring counties.

According to the most recent state report, Florida saw an average of 42,600 infections per day from Dec. 24-30 — a 138 percent increase from the previous week and far more than the 25,000 daily average seen during last summer’s surge of cases from the delta variant.

At the same time, children and young adults remain the least-vaccinated age groups in Florida. Among 5- to 11-year-olds, 15 percent were vaccinated, according to the report. Among those ages 12 to 19, 58 percent were vaccinated.

Some parents have urged Hillsborough School Board members to defy state leadership — as the board did in the fall — and impose another mask mandate.

Related: Florida schools to resume classes with omicron surging

On Facebook, board member Jessica Vaughn made clear that such a move was unlikely.

“The law is very clear on this,” Vaughn told one constituent. “If we tried to mandate masks, they could remove us, make sure there isn’t a ban and replace us with people who don’t even believe COVID19 exists.”

Nadia Combs, the board’s chairperson, said the outcry has been mild. “I’m surprised I haven’t heard from more people,” she said Monday. One parent suggested that students be tested for COVID-19 weekly, but “we don’t have the infrastructure, or the availability of tests” to do that, she said.

Combs said she believes parents are less fearful than they were during prior surges, partly because so many have had the virus without major effects.

“I must know 30 people who had it over the holidays,” she said. “I think people just realize that they will have to make some personal decisions based on how they feel.”

Reaction was similar in Pasco County. School Board member Megan Harding said she had heard from a couple of constituents, and those were to ask about plans rather than to demand action.

“They know the governor has said what we can and cannot do,” Harding said.

The districts have sent updated information to families and employees, letting them know what steps will be taking place. In a recorded call to Pinellas homes, for instance, superintendent Mike Grego stressed “enhanced ventilation and sanitation, increased emphasis on hand washing, nurses in every school and social distancing to the greatest extent possible.”

A memo to Pasco district employees highlighted an updated health self-screening survey to use in deciding whether to come to school each day. It reminded staff that they are eligible for COVID-19 leave time for quarantines, if vaccinated — an issue that remains unsettled in Pinellas County, where an agreement with teachers has lapsed.

Pasco’s memo also noted the availability of free rapid testing. District spokesperson Steve Hegarty said the line for tests was backed out of the district parking lot to U.S. 41 on Monday.

In a letter to parents, the Hillsborough district reminded parents that health experts encourage wearing masks indoors, washing hands often and disinfecting surfaces routinely. Air flow systems inside schools and other district buildings were turned on Sunday to ensure proper circulation, the notice said.

The region’s Catholic school system also planned to stick to its first semester plans for controlling COVID-19.

“As of now, we are maintaining our current protocol, which is a mask requirement for all students but allowing for a parent opt-out,” said Chris Pastura, school superintendent for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which enrolls about 13,000 students in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

“We met with all administrators last week and discussed the challenges of the omicron variant,” Pastura said. “We’re evaluating the situation on a week-to-week basis.”

The Catholic schools of the Miami and St. Augustine dioceses also have imposed mask mandates for indoor activities.

One big question remained: How many people will not show up for work or classes because of infections, further disrupting lessons.

Combs, the Hillsborough board chairperson, said she was concerned about labor shortages in the coming weeks.

As of Monday mid-morning, the district was aware of 2,581 instructional absences for the remainder of the week and had filled 80 percent of those shifts with substitute teachers.

The Pinellas and Pasco districts did not provide specific numbers, but officials said they had no immediate concerns about overwhelming vacancies in classrooms or other key spots.

“I have not heard anything about the virus surge as it relates to employee callouts,” said Don Peace, United School Employees of Pasco president.

Shortages continue to plague schools regardless of the possibility of quarantines, he noted.

The situation could worsen, said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi.

“A bunch of people spent the past two weeks looking for alternate employment,” Velardi said. “Whether or not they get it remains to be seen.”

Staff writer Divya Kumar contributed to this report.