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Back-To-School in 2021: More Students in Classrooms, Shorter Quarantines

The side of a yellow school bus
Hillsborough County Schools

K-12 schools across the greater Tampa Bay region have made some adjustments to their policies on coronavirus since the start of the school year.

When schools reopen in January, masks will still be required, and remote learning will remain an option across Florida.

But some school districts now require shorter quarantines, in line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More children are expected in the classroom, with fewer learning remotely, compared to when the school year began in August.

Some schools have made efforts to reduce the number of teachers who are doing concurrent teaching, meaning they lead a classroom in-person and also teach a number of students online at the same time. And students who are struggling with remote learning will be encouraged to return to in-person classes.

WUSF reached out to area school districts to find out what has changed. Here’s what we learned:

Hillsborough County:

Hillsborough County is in talks with the local department of health about potential changes to the 14-day quarantine for anyone who is a close contact of a person infected with coronavirus, and may change to 10 days once school resumes in January.

“We have kept our health and safety protocols consistent since welcoming students and staff back in August,” said HCPS spokeswoman Erin Maloney.

“We have a successful partnership with Tampa General Health (TGH) and USF Health and we continually work with both entities to ensure we maintain best practices.”

At the beginning of the school year, 56% of the county’s students enrolled in in-person classes, while 44% chose remote instruction.

Maloney said figures for January are not yet available.

Pinellas County:

When students began school in August, 60% were in-person and 40% were online.

As of December, that spread grew to 70-30.

The length of quarantine for students or staff exposed to coronavirus has dropped to 10 days as of December 9.

In addition, fewer children are now being asked to quarantine.

A few weeks into the 2020-21 school year, seating charts were finalized and “the Department of Health started a more targeted method for quarantining individuals closest to the contact as opposed to having the entire class quarantined,” school spokeswoman Isabel Macarenas said.

Polk County:

On Dec. 15, Polk County Schools temporarily suspended all student athletics until Jan. 4, 2021, due to an outbreak of coronavirus that began at a wrestling tournament and infected at least 50 student athletes in a range of sports from weight-lifting to cheerleading. Athletic directors across the county are tentatively scheduled to meet Jan. 4 to get an update on the situation.

The percentage of children who enrolled in brick-and-mortar school at the start of the year was 55%, compared to 45% who chose e-school or Polk Virtual School. Since then, more children have returned to the classroom (68%).

Polk County Schools changed their quarantine guidance in early December, calling for individuals who come into close contact with a positive case to quarantine for 10 days rather than 14. More information can be found here.

Two changes to the face-covering policy were made in December: gaiters are allowed but must be at least two layers of fabric, and masks with ports are not allowed. More information can be found here.

Information on testing sites for Polk County school families and staff can be found here.

Sarasota County:

Currently, about 80% of students attend brick and mortar, while 20% are remote.

“We anticipate more brick and mortar students in the second semester as the number of students returning increases weekly,” said Sarasota County Schools spokesman Craig Maniglia.

Quarantine length has changed in accordance with CDC and Department of Health guidelines.

“We are following 10 days for quarantine; but a person could possibly come back after eight days with a negative PCR test on day six of quarantine,” Maniglia added.

Mask-wearing and social distancing protocols remain the same as the start of the school year, except that students are allowed a five-minute mask break while socially distanced outdoors or behind a desk shield.

“We are currently working on a second semester plan that follows the new emergency order from the state Department of Education that strongly encouraging students who are struggling remotely to return to brick and mortar,” Maniglia added.

Manatee County:

When school began in August, 48% of children attended full-time at brick and mortar schools, 29% opted for full-time e-learning and 23% chose a hybrid option that involved two days at school and three days of e-learning.

As of November 30, 70% were full-time brick and mortar; 20% in full-time eLearning; and 7% were in hybrid. The latter option will change in 2021.

“Hybrid learning is being eliminated because we don’t have enough students to fill out classes for it,” Manatee Schools spokesman Mike Barber said.

As to coronavirus protocols, a quarantine time of 14 days is recommended for close contacts of an infected person — with close contacts defined as those individuals who have been within six feet of an infected individual for a cumulative of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, regardless of mask usage — with the following exceptions:

  • If a close contact is asymptomatic and gets a PCR test on Day 6 or later and receives a negative result, they may end quarantine after completion of day 7. Decisions to end quarantine early should not be based on rapid COVID test results.
  • Without testing, a close contact who is asymptomatic may end quarantine after completion of Day 10.

Barber said no other changes are being planned.

“We are not making any real changes because while the number of cases is rising, we are not seeing spread inside our campuses. The cases we are seeing are being brought in from the outside,” he said.

“Our primary goal moving forward is to strongly reinforce the need to stay vigilant with the things we know that work: wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands frequently, and cleaning and sanitizing regularly.”

Pasco County Schools did not respond to WUSF’s request for comment.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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