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Tampa Bay area school officials are urging COVID caution with students set to return


COVID-19 protocols are somewhat relaxed, including optional masks, but school districts in the seven-county region suggest students who are experiencing symptoms should stay home.

Students in seven public school districts across the greater Tampa Bay region will be returning to class next week, even as COVID-19 cases continue to emerge.

And while districts are relaxing COVID-19 protocols somewhat — including the optional wearing of masks — officials are stressing one important point to ensure the safety of students and staff.

If your children are feeling sick, don't send them to school.

“That was good advice five years ago, and that will be good advice five years from now, whether COVID is a reality or not,” Pasco County Schools spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

The Florida Department of Education updated its guidance in February, and now says students who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for five days, while healthy students do not need to quarantine.

Several school districts across the greater Tampa Bay region follow that guidance, but students in Sarasota and Pinellas counties will not be required to quarantine.

“We need to get students back into school,” Hegarty said, “We’re hoping to have a much more normal school year, and full speed ahead, we hope that there is significant change in the loss of instructional time we’ve experienced for the last two years. It’s been really significant, so we’re hoping for the best this year.”

Hegarty said students who feel sick should stay home until they test negative or are symptom-free.

Florida Department of Health

Here is a county-by-county breakdown in the region of COVID-19 protocols for the 2022-23 school year:

Hillsborough County Schools

The school district is following the Department of Education's guidance and will require students who test positive to isolate for five days, according to spokeswoman Erin Maloney. They can also return to school if they are fever-free for 24 hours following a negative test.

She also urges parents to check on their children's symptoms, and to keep them home if they're not feeling well.

Pinellas County Schools

According to the Pinellas County Schools' COVID-19 FAQ webpage, the district will no longer be tracking COVID-19 test results, nor will it be in contact tracing in the upcoming school year.

The district will no longer provide quarantine guidance but will instead encourage parents to listen to their students' health care providers in deciding whether they should stay home from school.

Sanitation and ventilation practices will continue in the 2022–23 school year,, but district spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas confirmed that masks will be optional.

Pasco County Schools

The district is following the state's guidance and will require students who test positive to isolate for five days. They can also return to school if they are fever-free for 24 hours following a negative test.

Pasco has archived its COVID-19 Case Each Day webpage, and according to Hegarty, the district will no longer be “prominently displaying the number of cases every day.”

Hernando School District

According to the district's COVID-19 information webpage, students can return to school after five days if they are fever free for 24 hours. Those who are exposed to COVID-19 but do not test positive or show symptoms are not required to quarantine, and under no circumstances are teachers, faculty or students required to wear masks.

Polk County Public Schools

To further ensure the safety of students and staff, spokesman Kyle Kennedy said, the district is keeping up with its cleaning and sanitation procedures from the past couple of years, and ultraviolet filtration systems were installed in the classrooms for added protection.

He reinforced there would be no mask mandate.

“Anyone with COVID or COVID-like symptoms will have to stay home,” Kennedy said. “But they can return when one of three requirements is met: you can provide a negative test and no symptoms, if you have a doctor’s note, or it’s been at least five days since the onset of symptoms and you haven’t had a fever for at least 24 hours without using medication.”

Sarasota County Schools

According to the district's updated COVID-19 information webpage, there will be no contact tracing for COVID cases, and the district will no longer track positive cases or update its COVID dashboard.

The Sarasota Department of Health recommends families follow the state Department of Health's guidance, but the school district cannot force anyone to isolate themselves from work or school.

The webpage says that COVID-19 will be “treated like any other illness,” and that if someone is sick, they should “stay home from work/school.”

School District of Manatee County

While masks will be optional, school district spokesman Mike Barber said students returning after a positive test should “wear a mask for the first few days that they’re back.”

Barber said students and faculty who were sent home because of COVID symptoms cannot return to school until they have a negative test or are symptom free.

When it comes to being sent home for COVID, Barber said: “We’re not going to know all the time if somebody is positive — the parents have ultimate control over their kids. What we do have control over is if anybody shows up to our campuses, whether it’s a student or employee, and they have COVID-related symptoms, then they go home.”

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Sarah Petrowich