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Tampa Bay area public schools see surge in COVID cases

Local districts reported 4,200 cases in the first week of the spring semester, up from a low of 120 weekly cases earlier in the school year.
Raymond Sanchez uses an electronic whistle while helping students cross the street outside Barrington Middle School in Lithia in September 2020.
Raymond Sanchez uses an electronic whistle while helping students cross the street outside Barrington Middle School in Lithia in September 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 8
Updated Jan. 8

Students and staff returning to school the past week brought COVID-19 with them, revealed in the kind of statistics not seen since the delta variant days of September.

In the Tampa Bay area, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties reported more than 4,200 cases for the week. The numbers had begun creeping upward in December, from a low of about 120 a week.

Reporting of cases has been irregular, leaving it unclear how widespread the virus really is. In Hillsborough, Sumner High reported 62 cases while Steinbrenner High — a campus that led the region for much of the last school year — reported none at all.

Related: Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego to retire

Also hard to measure is the relationship between COVID-19 and the past week’s student and staff absences. Tanya Arja, spokesperson for the area’s largest district in Hillsborough, said between 10.8 and 12.6 percent of students were absent on Tuesday, varying by grade level. That works out to roughly 20,000 students. But on that day, there were only 215 reports of students with COVID-19.

The others who missed school could have had other illnesses. Their parents might have wanted to avoid exposing them to the virus. “Or they might not be back yet from their vacation travel,” Arja said.

Staff absences, measured by requests for substitute teachers, rose as high as 1,500 among instructional employees on Friday. Some of those requests reflect existing vacancies. More than 900 teachers already have asked for substitutes for the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.

The district has been able to fill about half the shifts through its contractor, Kelly Educational Staffing. The rest are being handled by school personnel, including teachers who are paid extra to teach during their planning periods.

Without the ability to mandate masks or quarantine healthy children under a new Florida law, the schools are addressing this phase of the pandemic by encouraging social distancing where possible, face coverings and hand-washing.

Here is a county-by-county breakdown of the total case counts, listing schools with the largest numbers:

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Hernando County: From a low of five cases in the week ending Dec. 3, the district reported 103 cases last week. Central High had the most with 15. Explorer K-8 had 12, Nature Coast Technical High and Westside Elementary had seven cases apiece, and Deltona Elementary had six. The district has reported 1,921 cases of COVID-19 since the school year began.

Hillsborough County: Known cases totaled 2,452 for the just-completed week. By comparison, the district reported 604 for the entire month of October. Topping the list was Hillsborough’s newest school, Sumner High, with 62 cases.

There were 54 at Sickles High, 50 at Newsome High, 42 at East Bay High and 38 each at Armwood and Tampa Bay Technical high schools. Mabry Elementary had 36 cases.

Since the school year began on Aug. 10, Hillsborough has reported 14,940 cases.

Pasco County: The district reported 1,090 cases. Wesley Chapel High had the most with 45, followed by Land O’Lakes High with 43. J.W. Mitchell High had 39, Cypress Creek High had 37, Wiregrass Ranch High had 35 and Pasco High had 33.

The school year total in Pasco is 8,066 cases.

Pinellas County: The district, which is half the size of Hillsborough and larger than Pasco, showed a relatively low case count of 594 for the week.

Fifty-nine of the Pinellas cases were in the administrative headquarters in Largo. Another 32 were at the Walter Pownall Services Center, also in Largo. Douglas Jamerson Elementary, Osceola Fundamental High and Dunedin High had 11 cases. Pinellas Park and Seminole high schools had 10 each, while nine cases each were reported at Countryside High, Pinellas Technical College Clearwater and Safety Harbor Elementary.

To date this school year, Pinellas has reported 6,900 cases.

Areawide, public schools have reported 31,827 cases.