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School Reopening Plans Not Clear On Coronavirus Outbreak Closures

When a student does test positive for COVID-19, plans call for each school district to oversee contact tracing with guidance from the Florida Department of Health. The student's classmates may have to quarantine at home.

Most Florida school districts will reopen with some students learning from home and others learning in person.

But what happens when the coronavirus spreads through a school? Most reopening plans don’t address that, or do so vaguely.

Most schools reported between about 60 and 70% of parents and students opting for in-person instruction at brick and mortar schools. All schools per a state executive order must be open for in-person learning. 

When a student does test positive for COVID-19, plans call for each school district to oversee contact tracing with guidance from the Florida Department of Health. The student's classmates may have to quarantine at home.

But the plans are unclear on what constitutes an outbreak. That's left to the health department, which released a statement saying a single case could be considered an outbreak, but didn't say how many cases might close a school.

Full statement:

An outbreak is more illness than expected. For a disease like COVID-19, where no cases should be detected, only one confirmed case would be considered an outbreak. If the Department receives information regarding a case in a school, we will conduct a thorough investigation to determine who should self-isolate or be quarantined to prevent any further spread of the disease. Additionally, the investigation will identify any areas requiring cleaning and disinfection. This information will be provided to school leadership and school district staff and used to determine if a school can safely remain open and properly staffed. Anyone exposed to a case of COVID-19 would be expected to quarantine for 14 days following exposure. The Department is working with the school district to explore methods for testing students and staff at schools. Testing is available in Hillsborough County at all community test sites. 

Stephen Hegarty, a spokseman with Pasco County Schools, said variables such as close contact and masks will determine who quarantines.

“We are not going to be in the habit of closing schools, but if certain variables go the wrong way, then if we're forced to close a school for whatever period of time, we might only close the school for a day or two, or maybe the weekend would suffice for us to clean the school," Hegarty said. "And then whoever was infected would remain home. Once we've cleaned the schools, we could bring the students back."

He says a large outbreak could close a school for longer. Classes would pivot to online similarly to the way they did earlier this year during the initial school closures.

Meanwhile, teachers unions across the state are still pushing for schools to start online.

Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said it’s not a matter of if an outbreak happens, but when.

"We're going to have a problem with getting substitute teachers and delivering instruction in an inconsistent format in terms of going from brick and mortar to e-learning is going to be much more difficult than say, starting the school year with all the learning until we know it's safe enough to go back," Kriete said."

Kriete worries that social distancing will be impossible to practice and enforce in small classrooms and hallways, even with protocols in place that limit social gathering, sharing supplies, and riskier extracurriculars, such as contact sports.

Links to the Tampa Bay area’s full school reopening plans:

Hillsborough County

Pinellas County

Pasco County

Hernando County

Polk County

Sarasota County

Manatee County

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.