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COVID Forces Hillsborough Schools to Quarantine 8,707, Set Emergency Meeting

The Hillsborough County School Board will discuss ways to curb the spread of the virus in schools.

The number of students and staff who are in quarantine or isolation due to exposure to coronavirus in Hillsborough County Public Schools soared to 8,707 Tuesday, or about 4% of the nation’s eighth largest school district, officials said.

The surge in cases — and what can be done to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, including the possibility of mandatory face coverings for all students and staff — will be discussed at an emergency school board meeting Wednesday from 1 to 3:30 p.m.

A total of 8,400 students and 307 employees are in isolation or in quarantine as of Tuesday morning, according to school spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

Isolation refers to people who have tested positive for coronavirus, and quarantine refers to those who have had close contact with a positive case.

Hillsborough County implemented a mandatory mask policy that allows parents to opt out by filling out a form. A medical note is not required.

Last week, Superintendent Addison Davis said about 14% of the district had opted out of mask-wearing.

Schools in Florida are barred from implementing mandatory mask policies, under an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and parents’ right to make health decisions for their children is enshrined in a state law signed this year, known as the "Parents Bill of Rights."

However, legal challenges are being mounted to those state-level bans, as lawyers argue that locally elected school boards have the authority to make decisions for their own districts, and are obligated to provide a safe learning environment for children.

Across Florida, cases of the coronavirus are higher in the first week of school than last year as the highly contagious delta variant spreads. Schools are also more crowded, since remote learning is no longer being offered.

“It is difficult to compare the start of this school year with that of the first weeks of school last year because there were 83,488 students that opted for eLearning and were not on campus,” Arja said.

“The state did not approve funding for eLearning this year.”

Quarantine numbers have risen steadily in recent days, going from fewer than 3,000 on Thursday to more than 6,000 Monday and more than 8,700 by Tuesday.

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