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TAMPA — Farnell Middle School in the Westchase area was closed Thursday, two days ahead of Spring Break, as a precautionary measure after officials learned that someone at the school spent time recently with a coronavirus patient.
The individual with coronavirus does not attend or work at the school, and the diagnoses happened in another county. However, the two had close contact in the last six days. The school district said it acted “in an abundance of caution,” making Farnell the first local public school to close in response to the global health crisis.
Workers from the EnviroSanitize firm got to work scrubbing down the 21 buses that serve Farnell and Bryant Elementary School next-door.
The district announced the Farnell closure before dawn, hoping to reach all 1,373 students in time. Two students showed up at bus stops anyway. They were taken to school and given breakfast in the cafeteria — which had been specially cleaned and disinfected for this purpose — while they waited for their parents to pick them up.
“This decision is based on children,” incoming superintendent Addison Davis said at an early morning news conference, emphasizing that there is no indication that anyone at Farnell actually has the virus. “It is a precautionary measure.”
Not long after, the private Tampa Preparatory School closed its doors to students and said it will not provide instruction on campus until March 30. The Tampa Prep students are expected to resume their studies March 24 online.
For the rest of the district, Davis asked for more precautionary measures from families who plan to travel. If they are to leave the country, he asked that they contact the health department about self-isolation periods when they return.
The district is also working on contingency plans, should things worsen over the next week. “This team in Hillsborough has been fantastic,” he said. “We have created an extensive plan in case we have to move to e-learning.”
Since the coronavirus became an issue, district officials have been working on a number of fronts to prevent the spread and prepare for possible closings.
Multiple hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed in the schools and on the school buses. Schools have received antibacterials wipes for the classrooms and additional supplies of soap and paper towels, which often run short.
Davis said the schools have reconfigured their nursing stations with one side for students who are well and another for those showing flu-like symptoms.
But questions remain, not just at Farnell, but at all of the public schools, if the illness continues to spread.
While attendance policies have not changed, Davis said the organization will work with families to balance their health concerns with the need to keep instruction on track.
Already, the district has added links to its website to Edsby, the communication system used by middle and high school teachers; and Clever, which links to platforms that elementary schools use. The plan, should conditions worsen, is to beef up the content available on those platforms. Surveys are under way to help families obtain digital devices and WiFi access if they are in need.
District leaders are also looking for ways to continue the free lunch program for the nearly 130,000 children who depend on it.
“As always, it’s the parents’ decision whether or not to send their children to school," Davis said. "And it’s our job to create the best environment for that learning to come, and give them comfort that we’ve done everything we can to create the best environment where they feel safe to send their child to school.”
Should parents at any school feel the need to keep their children home, he said, it will be important to consult with a doctor or the health department; and to make sure there is ongoing communication between the family and the school.
At Farnell, he said, “we are going to do everything we can to prepare this building for students to come back” on March 23. If it’s not ready, “we will articulate that openly.”
Sending students to another building is not an option, he said. “One thing we don’t want to do is take the individual who may have been subjected to this person [who has coronavirus] and have them go to another school, and for that to grow legs.”
District officials provided detailed information later in the day about the cleaning protocol they are following at Farnell.
Ar 9:45 a.m., after the two students had left, they turned off the air conditioning system with plans to leave it off for 24 hours so particles in the air can settle. That step is followed with a “hot thermal fog” to pull down any particles from high places, such as the ceiling, that workers will not be able to reach.
Next, the cleaning crews wipe down all surfaces with chemicals that are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. The air conditioners remain turned off for another 24 hours after that. Under normal circumstances, people would then be able to re-enter the school.
But the plan, for now, is to keep the doors closed until March 23.
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