TAMPA — Teachers at Pierce Middle School learned this week that a coworker tested positive for COVID-19 after coming on campus Friday to prepare for the upcoming school year.
They did not hear that news from the Hillsborough County school district, nor from principal Pablo Gallego. It came in an email Tuesday from social studies teacher Aron Zions.
“I believe Mr. Gallego followed the proper protocols,” Zions wrote, noting that Gallego informed his superiors. “But after that the system failed. We, the staff, should have been notified. The impacted areas should have been cleaned. ... We are supposed to have open communication and err on the side of safety.”
Zions, who holds a leadership position in the teachers union, said before he called the Tampa Bay Times, he asked Gallego to quickly disclose the COVID-19 case to the staff so they could do what they felt was best to protect themselves and their families.
He shared this text Tuesday afternoon from Gallego: “Nothing is changed. I believe it is not necessary to bring panic to the rest of the faculty. Other people have situations that are private and don’t get blasted out. You do what you think you need to do.“
The district is standing by Gallego and stating that the principal did not know about the positive test result until Tuesday. But the situation raises broader issues that officials must contend with as they contemplate resuming in-person classes on Aug. 24: How far should schools go to disclose COVID-19 within their walls? And how quickly? The School Board will revisit the district’s reopening plan during a meeting at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
Gallego, 46, was named acting principal, then principal of Pierce after a rough patch in which the school went through a rapid turnover of leadership. He is, by many accounts, a popular principal. The most recent faculty survey showed 81 percent of teachers consider Pierce “a good place to work and learn.” Gallego did not return emails from the Tampa Bay Times, allowing district spokeswoman Tanya Arja to answer questions on his behalf.
Zions, who said he respects Gallego, recalled that he first learned about the teacher with COVID-19 on Tuesday morning from another teacher. All three worked in the same part of the building, Zions said. He remembers thinking the teacher “could have been in my room” on Friday, the first day of teacher planning.
“We could have been walking up and down the halls together,” Zions said. “That teacher shares an air conditioner with at least six other people.”
He said he approached Gallego mid-morning. He said Gallego acknowledged the coworker had COVID-19, but noted that 72 hours had passed since the person, who was not at Pierce Monday and is now quarantined, had been on campus. That would indicate the room was no longer contaminated.
Zions said he tried to get Gallego to send out an announcement. By his telling, the principal seemed to believe he was not supposed to. So Zions sent his own email Tuesday evening.
Teachers and administrators discussed the matter at a meeting Wednesday. Zions was no less satisfied.
“They’re telling us today you must have spent 15 minutes of unmasked, close proximity before you can catch the disease,” he said. “Our science people are saying, ‘Whoa whoa, time out!’ But this is what we’re being told.”
Arja said Wednesday that no one at Pierce knew about the confirmed COVID-19 case until Tuesday. She said Gallego’s responsibility then would be to notify those who had had direct contact with the employee, which he did. “It was two or three people” in addition to the front office staff, she said. The employee “wore a mask and was socially distanced” from the others.
Telling the rest of the staff would logically come later, Arja said, perhaps at the Wednesday meeting.
Arja said principals are aware of their responsibilities in case of a COVID case. They have followed those instructions in recent months as skeletal staffs have been on campus, handling administrative duties and summer programs. She shared an instructive chart that includes notifying everyone at the school. But the chart does not include precise timelines.
Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers’ union, said she has fielded numerous COVID-related phone calls since Friday. Some principals appear more forthcoming about staff cases than others, she said. Sometimes teachers learn about the illness when they see cleaning crews in protective garments. “The tie-back suits are kind of a giveaway,” she said.
Although the union is advocating for an all-virtual opening, Baxter-Jenkins said she does not want to be unfair to the principals or district leadership.
“I think they are struggling through this like everybody else,” she said. “We have a country that hasn’t done what is needed and a state hasn’t done what is needed. Now we are forcing people into a scenario where there is close contact, closed and crowded spaces, and we expect that not to blow up. And that is a ridiculous expectation.”
She and Zions agreed that without full disclosure, administrators will erode teacher confidence in a time when many are already apprehensive.
“It stinks when you don’t get pencils and folders, but that’s not a life or death or a health issue,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “It’s an aggravation and money issue. This is a very different scenario. I think it just convinces people that this is not a safe scenario.”