What happens if a teacher or student tests positive for COVID-19? The whole class, and all those in contact with the positive case, will be asked to quarantine for 14 days, the Pinellas County School Board said Tuesday.
That means dozens, even hundreds of students and staff, could have to stay home from school once brick-and-mortar education starts later this month. Already, 925 students, teachers, and staff in one Georgia school have been asked to quarantine a week after schools reopened there.
“Sometimes I feel like there is this magical thinking that (COVID-19) is going to go away, or it is not really going to have an effect because we opened a safe school, but even - no matter how safe the building itself is - people are still coming into the building with COVID,” said Pinellas County School Board member Nicole Carr.
Sara O’Toole, managing officer of Pinellas Schools student health services, said “preventing people who are ill from coming to work, or students who are ill from coming to school is the best thing that we can do to prevent the spread within schools or teachers.”
Flow charts displayed at the meeting by O’Toole showed how principals would be notified of a positive case, and the Department of Health would contact trace and notify all those who were in class with the affected person.
In elementary school, that means typically 15 or more children who are physically in the class would be required to switch to remote schooling from home for 14 days.
In middle and high school, this quarantine number gets much higher if a teacher tests positive, because they often lead six or more classes each day.
If a student tests positive for COVID-19, quarantine orders could extend far beyond the classroom.
“The Department of Health will also do contact tracing on all the identified contacts outside of the classroom,” said O’Toole.
“If they ride a bus, that's going to be affected. If they play sports, that's going to be affected. If they do any other extracurricular clubs or things like that. All the areas of the school day that the student touches are going to be affected in some way shape or form.”
Families who have been pressing school officials for the choice to send their children to brick-and-mortar schools “might get a phone call that their child would need to be quarantined and it is a lot of rearranging to do in a last-minute scenario,” said board member Lisa Cane.
“I feel like we need to clearly and transparently over-communicate that to parents who have chosen that option that so they don’t believe that ‘I have made this choice and I can go to work and I don’t have to worry about it now,’” she added.
Any school employee who has a family member at home who tests positive for COVID-19 will also be required to quarantine at home for 14 days.
During the daylong workshop Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to proceed with reopening plans for August 24, despite members voicing concerns about the safety of doing so in the midst of a pandemic.
Some admitted to sleepless nights, but they did not appear inclined to follow the path of neighboring Hillsborough County, where the board voted last week to delay in-person classes by four weeks after hearing from a medical panel that transmission of the disease in the community was still too high.
That vote set off a clash with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and Hillsborough risks losing funding if it fails to comply with his order to reopen brick-and-mortar school buildings by the end of the month.
A mask policy was also part of Pinellas' approved plan, requiring every student to have a face covering or mask with them at all times, unless they are given a medical exemption by a doctor. Masks with exhalation valves are not allowed.
Buffs, neck scarves or gaiters are included as acceptable face coverings, despite recent research that suggests these thinner coverings are not as effective as multi-layer cloth masks.
School board members said the mask policy is designed to align with CDC guidelines and will change according to the federal health agency’s decisions going forward.
Rapid testing is also key to school reopening, and Pinellas Schools Superintendent Michael Grego said he is working on ways to get faster tests for schools.
“We don’t relax because all of a sudden yesterday or two days ago the positivity rate was under four percent and now the rolling seven day average is under five percent - we don’t relax. We have to stay the course.”
Health and medical experts agree that the rate of positive coronavirus tests in the community should be between three and five percent before schools can reopen safely.