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

Halfway through the school year, cases are more than double those in all of 2020-21. Districts struggle to find substitute teachers.
Students cross Fishhawk Boulevard to Newsome High in Lithia in October 2020. This week, Newsome reported 104 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff as Tampa Bay area schools saw their highest weekly case count since the pandemic began.
Students cross Fishhawk Boulevard to Newsome High in Lithia in October 2020. This week, Newsome reported 104 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff as Tampa Bay area schools saw their highest weekly case count since the pandemic began. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 15|Updated Jan. 17

Public schools in the Tampa Bay area continue to report soaring COVID-19 case numbers, setting a record for the pandemic this past week.

The 7,098 cases reported in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties topped the previous weekly high of 5,420 recorded during the week ending Sept. 3. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, no week has seen more cases in area schools.

The area already was on pace to shatter last year’s case total of 17,242 cases for the four school districts. Just halfway through the 2021-22 school year, the total stands at 38,590.

Related: Contagious omicron variant is straining Florida hospitals

Infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant are causing a large number of absences among both students and staff. They have put a serious strain on the ability of the districts to find enough substitute teachers. The percentage of substitutes filling in for regular teachers, known as the “fill rate,” is down across the area.

In normal times, districts could expect daily fill rates of 70 to 80 percent. In Hillsborough and Pinellas this week, fill rates hovered around 50 percent while Pasco’s rates were around 40 percent.

One of the more short-staffed days was Thursday, when Hillsborough had 1,626 teacher absences but could deploy only 767 substitutes. Pasco schools had 746 teacher absences that day but only 275 substitutes showed up to fill the void.

Earlier this month, Pinellas boosted substitute teacher pay in an attempt to solve the shortage.

In Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco this past week, between 40 and 50 school bus drivers were absent each day.

Around the nation, severe staffing shortages have led some school systems to temporarily close schools or revert to online learning. But the imperative to keep schools open remains strong, especially in Florida, where pandemic restrictions have been dramatically curtailed by state law.

“The increased rate of absences is occurring throughout the district,” Pinellas district spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas said in an email. “There are no plans to move to remote learning or closing sites.”

Here is a county-by-county look at the schools with the most cases:

Hernando County: The district reported 204 cases this past week, nearly doubling its total from the previous week.

Reporting 10 cases was the Support Operations Division, which includes the transportation, food service and maintenance departments. Spring Hill Elementary and Central High reported seven cases each while Explorer K-8 had six. Suncoast Elementary, Weeki Wachee High and the district’s Student Support Division each reported five cases.

So far this school year, the district has reported 2,125 cases.

Hillsborough County: There were 4,181 cases in Hillsborough schools through Friday, up from 2,452 the previous week.

Six schools had notably high numbers, led by Newsome High, with 104 cases, and Sumner High, with 93 cases. Durant High had 79 cases and there were 76 cases at Sickles High. Riverview High reported 65 cases and Coleman Middle School 64.

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Seven schools had 40 or more cases the past week. Martinez Middle and Plant High each reported 43 and Armwood High had 42. There were 40 cases each at Alonso High, Barrington Middle and Farnell Middle.

The district has reported a total of 19,185 cases since the school year began.

Pasco County: The district reported 1,646 cases, up more than 500 from the previous week. Sunlake High led the way with 74 cases.

Three high schools reported more than 50 cases each: Zephyrhills (56), Land O’Lakes (53) and Pasco (51). Five high schools had more than 40 cases. They were Mitchell and Wesley Chapel with 48 each, Cypress Creek (43), Wiregrass Ranch (42) and Fivay (41).

Since the school year began, the district has reported 9,712 cases.

Pinellas County: The district reported 1,067 cases, up from 594 the previous week. About 45 percent of those were from staff members, and the biggest concentration of cases came from locations in the system where adults work.

District headquarters in Largo reported 45 cases and the mid-county Walter Pownall Service Center, home to the district’s warehouse and other departments, had 36 cases.

Osceola Fundamental High led all Pinellas schools for the week with 26 cases, followed by Jamerson Elementary, with 22 cases. James B. Sanderlin K-8 had 19 cases, as did the charter school, Plato Academy St. Petersburg.

Another charter, Academie Da Vinci, reported 18 cases and Dunedin High had 17.

The school year total for Pinellas is 7,568 cases.

• • •

How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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