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More than 200 coronavirus cases found in Hillsborough schools this year

Most were school employees who likely contracted the virus from other locations. Five were students.

TAMPA — More than 200 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Hillsborough County Public Schools this year, district leaders acknowledged late in the week.

Five of the patients were students. And, from what district leaders have determined, some of the employees who had the disease were ill when they first came to work, suggesting they contracted it someplace else.

That number of positive cases — 206, to be exact — was included in an email that superintendent Addison Davis sent to School Board members on Thursday, answering a variety of questions they had asked him. Most of the questions were related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

That particular paragraph has been photographed and circulated throughout the community. School Board member Karen Perez posted the statistics on her Facebook page, along with this comment: “This before we even open our schools to students ... now understand why this WILL impact your students and families.”

Perez was one of two board members — the other was Tamara Shamburger — who cast dissenting votes when the board on Thursday approved a reopening plan that will allow roughly half the district’s students to learn in traditional school buildings, beginning Aug. 24.

Related: Hillsborough decides, for now, to reopen schools on Aug. 24

So far, about 63,000 have chosen the option to return to campuses and learn in person. More than 64,000 have signed up for two types of distance learning, and school administrators are now trying to get answers from 62,000 students whose parents did not yet indicate their preference.

Critics of the reopening plan say it is too dangerous as the pandemic continues to rage, and wanted an all-virtual start of school.

The district, like others around the Tampa Bay area, has pledged to pursue contact tracing and notify all who could be affected when a COVID-19 case is reported. Parents, they say, can expect to receive emails, texts and robocall notices. The district will conduct the notification and tracing in partnership with the Hillsborough Department of Health.

What’s unknown, at this point, is how many children and adults will come to school with COVID-19 and, more alarming to critics of the reopening, how rapidly it will spread through the buildings.

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Friday that the 206 described in Davis’ email are not any kind of indication of future spread. Throughout the county, there have been 26,037 cases since March. Schools were open in the summer months for voluntary pre-kindergarten, child care, construction and renovation, administrative and cleaning functions.

Arja described these steps when COVID-19 is uncovered:

“Our district employs contact tracing to identify any other employees that may have been exposed to that employee. Our teams disinfect all areas where the affected employee worked, using an approved chemical and a fogging mist machine to deep clean the area. As soon as this process is finished, workers may return back to the area. The type of cleaning we conduct includes anything from one office space to a wing of a building where the individual may have worked.”

Arja added that “no school has been closed due to any positive COVID-19 cases this summer. ... In some cases, these employees who tested positive had not been in the building for two weeks prior to testing positive.”