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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida can help. Our responsibility is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Masks Optional, But Tampa Bay Area Schools Adopt Other COVID Protocols

Among them: People with flu-like symptoms should stay home, simultaneous online instruction will no longer be offered, and quarantine policies are eased for those vaccinated.

Florida school districts have scaled back their coronavirus policies, recommending masks but not requiring them, just as the state is experiencing a surge in hospitalizations and casesdriven by the highly contagious delta variant.

Despite federal health authorities guidance that schools should require masks for students and staff this fall, Florida’s governor has signed an executive order banning schools from mandating face-coverings in favor of encouraging parents to make a choice.

“We're moving from a situation where, basically the district and the Department of Health were pretty much in control of mitigation efforts, to more of a move where parents will be more in control of those decisions,” said Manatee County Schools spokesman Mike Barber.

When schools reopen, there will be no concurrent learning -– whereby a teacher led class in person and also via Zoom or another online platform, so students at home could follow along. Longstanding virtual instruction options, including Florida Virtual School, will still be offered.

With vaccines available for those 12 and up, quarantine policies are evolving. People who are vaccinated and exposed to a positive case may not be required to isolate or quarantine unless they become symptomatic.

Some schools are asking staff and students to stay home if they exhibit any symptoms similar to coronavirus, including sore throat, sniffles, headache, fever, body aches and cough. But enforcement could be difficult, since the “Parents Bill of Rights,” which DeSantis signed into law earlier this year, bars any educational institution from requiring documentation of vaccination or post-infection recovery for attendance or enrollment.

Here’s a rundown of the main coronavirus mitigation policies at area public schools, with links to each district's website for more information.

Hillsborough County Schools

  • Masks optional
  • Quarantine policy: Individuals determined to be close contacts will quarantine for 10 days if they remain symptom free per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Florida Department Of Health recommendations OR 7 days if a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on day 6 or later is negative and they remain symptom free.
  • Vaccinated people and those who have tested positive in the last 90 days do not need to quarantine. Students who were within three to six feet of an infected student where both students were engaged in consistent and correct use of well-fitting masks will be excluded from quarantine.
  • Coronavirus protocols: encouraging frequent handwashing, sanitation stations in each classroom, controlled movement when possible, social distancing when possible, online COVID dashboard to notify people of cases and exposures.
  • Remote learning available through Hillsborough Virtual K-12.

Manatee County Schools

  • Masks optional
  • Students and employees who are symptomatic with flu-like symptoms “cannot attend their school or report to their job site,” according to the district website. "Anyone with flu-like symptoms will be sent home," said district spokesman Mike Barber.
  • Updates to air filtration systems will continue, along with thorough disinfecting of all schools.
  • Remote learning instruction will be provided through Manatee Virtual School, a more localized version of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which is also an option.
  • Quarantine policy will coordinated with Manatee County Department of Health, in accordance with CDC guidance. "Anybody who seems to have exposure that needs to be quarantined, will be identified and notified through the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County or the school district," said Barber. Parents will be notified of cases in their child's classroom. If they haven't been told to quarantine by health officials, and if their children are symptom-free, they may still attend school.

Sarasota County Schools

  • Masks optional
  • All extracurricular activities will be allowed
  • Volunteers will be allowed in classrooms, no proof of vaccination or mask required.
  • According to spokeswoman Kelsey Whealy: “Social distancing cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on the number of students and staff in any location at a given time. We will continue to follow DOH guidelines utilizing their current quarantine procedures. Classrooms, as well as high traffic areas and touchpoints, will continue to be cleaned regularly, as they were throughout this past year.”
  • Fully vaccinated students, who are not showing symptoms, do not have to quarantine if exposed to a positive case. Those who have tested positive in the last 90 days do not need to quarantine.
  • No remote, concurrent learning. “If a student misses class for an extended amount of time schools will arrange for parents/guardians to pick up any materials (i.e., textbooks, workbooks, etc.) that teachers deem necessary for instruction. Personalized learning packets will be available for elementary students, and Blackboard, Microsoft TEAMS, or other digital platforms will be used for middle and high school students,” said Whealy.

Pinellas County Schools

  • Masks optional but strongly recommended
  • In-person family engagement meetings will resume. Opportunities for on-campus visitors and volunteers should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
  • Remote learning available through Pinellas Virtual School, including a program called Live! K-5 which gives elementary students 2.5 hours of daily live instruction in core subjects like math, science and English, along with an hour of live social studies per week. There is no live option for middle or high school age students.
  • Those fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine unless they show symptoms.
  • A district dashboard of cases will updated weekly.

Polk County Public Schools

  • Masks optional but strongly recommended
  • Schoolwide notifications will go out when positive cases impact a campus.
  • Students and staff with COVID-like symptoms are asked to stay home until 10 days have passed, they are fever free for 24 hours without medication and their symptoms are improving. They will need to provide signed medical clearance upon return. A person with known exposure to someone with COVID must provide proof of a negative COVID test, be 24-hours fever-free without medications, and symptom-free. (At-home tests are not accepted.)
  • Face coverings not required in PE

Pasco County Schools

  • Masks optional. Students and staff will be asked to use a health screener each day before school, located at the top of each school website.
  • Enhanced cleaning in school will continue
  • Students and staff experiencing COVID-like symptoms are asked to stay away from school until a PCR test (which is more accurate than a rapid test) shows coronavirus was not detected, medical documentation shows verification of an alternate diagnosis and at least 24 hours have passed since the last fever without using medications AND symptoms have subsided.
  • Quarantine policy will be decided on a case-by-case basis with the Department of Health.
  • Some live instruction through Pasco e-school virtual model (mySchool online will no longer be offered).

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.