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Schools sow ‘confusion and chaos’ by stopping COVID calls home, teens say

The lack of information causes anxiety, unnecessary testing and absences, students tell the Pasco School Board.
Teens move between classes on the first day of school at Sunlake High in August 2021. Sunlake students are among those asking Pasco County officials to resume the practice of calling families with information on COVID-19 cases in schools.
Teens move between classes on the first day of school at Sunlake High in August 2021. Sunlake students are among those asking Pasco County officials to resume the practice of calling families with information on COVID-19 cases in schools. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 19

LAND O’LAKES — A group of Pasco County teens doesn’t like the school district’s approach to informing families about coronavirus cases at their schools.

The system, which no longer includes phone call alerts about potential exposures to the virus, is “critically insufficient,” Sunlake High senior Emma Cohen told the School Board on Tuesday.

Cohen, joined by students from two other county high schools, urged the board to resume daily calls to advise families when someone in their class or school reported a positive case. The district stopped that practice in the fall, instead referring people to its online dashboard to find out about the latest COVID data in their schools.

With the highly contagious omicron variant, the number of cases — and absences — has rapidly increased across the Tampa Bay area and state. Last week’s count of nearly 7,100 cases in area public schools was the highest since the pandemic started.

The Pinellas County school district has a procedure similar to Pasco’s in place, though it sends letters with the Department of Health to students suspected of direct contact. Hillsborough County schools continue to make phone calls to homes.

Related: Tampa Bay schools report 7,100 COVID cases for the week, a pandemic record

The Pasco teens said the lack of information about absent classmates fuels anxiety about their own health and safety.

“When someone is out, people automatically assume COVID and get worried if they were exposed,” said Amanda Hiatt, who also attends Sunlake.

As a result, Hiatt said, many students self-isolate or miss school to get tested.

“It’s created a lot of confusion and chaos,” said Greta Moran, a Land O’Lakes High senior. The situation is “contributing to an environment that’s not as safe as it could be.”

Education suffers as a result, added Mina Alkhazraji, also a Land O’Lakes senior. She noted that when she missed school because of the coronavirus, she watched teachers struggle to accommodate both in-person and at-home students.

“Teachers become unduly stressed as they work to help all students,” Cohen said, calling the scenario a “massive problem” that stretches beyond the virus to its effects.

Pasco district spokesperson Steve Hegarty said the district stopped the phone calling at the middle and high school level because the contact tracing had become so extensive and time consuming, and multiple calls were going to homes daily.

Some parents made it clear, he said, that they were tiring of the numerous calls.

After the change, “we did not hear of any significant pushback,” Hegarty said.

Now, though, the students are saying the model is a problem. Some of their parents told the board they wouldn’t mind getting the calls again.

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“If the phone calls came back … It’s going to remind us what symptoms to look for and when we need to worry about getting tested,” Sunlake parent Jessica Hutchinson said. “I think they do good. I think that repetition is helpful.”

School Board chairperson Cynthia Armstrong said she welcomed the student input. Because the issue surrounds daily procedures, Armstrong said the administration, rather than the board, likely would tackle the request.

Hegarty, whose office coordinates distribution of district COVID information, said he was waiting to receive additional information from the students. The administration will review any ideas it receives and will take them into consideration, he said.

He did not anticipate a full return to calling, though, noting the time demands such an endeavor requires.

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