Covid cases in the Pinellas school system have risen rapidly since the first day of classes, with a coalition of concerned parents, health experts, and educators holding a press conference Monday morning in support of a mask mandate.
As first reported in the Catalyst, Pinellas County Schools (PCS) had 37 employees and 72 students test positive for Covid-19 on the first day of the new school year, with 204 cases confirmed over the first two days back. Wednesday, Aug. 11, marked the first day of classes for Pinellas students, and during the first week of school, PCS reported 629 positive cases.
Out of the 629 positive cases through the first week, 461 were students, and 168 were school staff. The number of infected students has risen sharply since school began. PCS reported 72 positive students the first day back, 76 the second day, and 104 students tested positive after seven days. On Thursday, the eighth day of classes and the last day that data is currently available, 150 students tested positive.
Isabel Mascareñas, Public Information Officer for PCS, did not say if those numbers were higher or lower than expected. She told the Catalyst that “we expected the number of cases would mirror what is happening in the community.”
PCS does not report the number of people in quarantine or isolation on their website. However, Mascareñas told the Catalyst that from Aug. 11 – Aug. 19, 2,757 people in the school system were in quarantine or isolation. Of those, 2,343 were students, and 412 were staff members. People who test positive for Covid are said to be in isolation, while those who have had close contact with a positive case are in quarantine.
People who have been directly exposed to the virus – but are either fully vaccinated or have been previously infected in the last 90 days – are exempt from quarantine. During the first week of classes, 61 people were exempt. Mascareñas said PCS has enough substitutes readily available to cover the loss of teachers, and “at this time our classrooms are covered.”
“A substitute teacher follows the classroom teacher’s lesson plan to help keep students on track academically,” she said.
As of Thursday afternoon, Mascareñas said there have not been discussions to change PCS Covid protocols but added, “Pinellas County Schools frequently monitors and reevaluates the district’s Guiding Practices and Protocols to best fit the needs of our community.” At the Aug. 9 workshop, before the school year began, it was decided that a mask mandate with an opt-out clause would place an unnecessary burden on teachers, and the district would continue to “strongly encourage” all students and staff to wear masks. A regularly scheduled board meeting is set for Tuesday, Aug. 24.
On Monday, a day before the scheduled board meeting, a coalition of parents, health experts, and educators from Pinellas County will hold a press conference in support of a mask mandate. The coalition is demanding that PCS implement the mandate for 60 days to curb the spread of the virus. They are also asking for transparent and timely reporting of all classroom Covid exposures to parents, staff, and the public.
This comes after the Hillsborough County School Board held an emergency meeting Wednesday to enact a more stringent mask mandate for students and staff. Hillsborough County previously had a mask mandate that allowed parents to opt-out, complying with the executive order issued by Governor Ron DeSantis. In a 5-2 vote, the school board decided on a 30-day mandate with only a medical exemption. The district could now face penalties from the state, including the possibility of losing funding and removal.
PCS releases numbers for staff and students who have tested positive the following afternoon. As of Monday morning, Thursday’s positive count is the latest data available – with 18 employees and 150 students testing positive. No individuals were exempt from quarantine