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Coronavirus: Hundreds Test Positive In First Week Of School Across Tampa Bay

In Sarasota County, actual case counts are almost four times higher than the district's COVID dashboard shows, according to school board Chair Shirley Brown.

Even though classes just started last week, schools in the greater Tampa Bay region have already seen hundreds of students and staff test positive for coronavirus, and thousands of people are isolating due to exposure or illness.

The numbers were generally between 10 times to 20 higher than the cases that were counted in the first week of school last year, and in Sarasota County, school board Chair Shirley Brown said the numbers reflected on district dashboards are far below the actual case count.

"It’s actually worse than what our dashboard shows because we are having trouble keeping up with data entry," Brown said in an email to WUSF on Sunday night.

By Sunday, 261 students in Sarasota County schools had tested positive in the first week. According to the school district’s COVID dashboard, 194 students were in isolation on Sunday.

A case count of 261 is already more than 20 times higher than last year, in a district that contains about 45,000 students. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported there were just 10 cases of COVID in the county’s schools the first two weeks last year. But Brown said that's not even the full picture.

"We (have) 818 names on a report but I don’t know if (they are) staff or student or charter school student," Brown added. "We may actually come close to last year's numbers before the end of August."

Brown said she has asked staff to "put a priority on data entry" so that the updated numbers are available before a school board workshop to discuss safety protocols on Tuesday.

Elsewhere, in the nation's eighth largest school district, Hillsborough County reported 435 students — up from 41 in the first week of school last year — and 228 staff had tested positive for coronavirus.

About 2,900 were in quarantine as of Thursday, with no way to remotely access their classes, school board member Karen Perez said at a meeting that evening.

"How are these 2,000 — almost 3,000 — students receiving their lessons? How are they being contacted to get their reading, their math, their lessons completed?" she asked.

By the weekend, those numbers were higher: nearly 4,500 students were in quarantine, or 2 percent of Hillsborough’s 193,000 students, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Last year, school officials said 10 to 15 percent would have to be out to consider closing a school, Superintendent Addison Davis said Thursday.

Bus drivers, who are already in short supply, were also seeing staffing shortages due to sickness.

"We have 18 drivers that are in quarantine. And that's without any absenteeism. I mean, that's about more than double what we're normally at this point of the year," operations chief Chris Farkas said Thursday.

Pinellas reported 152 cases among students, and 79 among staff.

Manatee County reported 182 students tested positive last week, and announced random temperature checks for students.

Masks remain optional across the region, due to an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that bars schools districts from issuing mandatory mask policies without parental exemptions.

Hillsborough requires parents to complete an opt-out form so that their children don’t have to wear a face covering. District officials said about 14 percent of students had turned in an opt-out form.

The Manatee County School Board is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting at 9 a.m. Monday to discuss implementing a mask mandate with an opt-out for students.

The Florida Education Association is tracking cases statewide, and said 4,148 Florida Pre-K-12 students and staff have tested positive for coronavirus since Aug. 1.

Three children in Florida and 15 educations have died from COVID-19 since July, according to the Southeast’s largest labor union.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

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