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COVID cases in the classroom continue to be an issue

Hundreds of kids in Tampa Bay continue to quarantine because of virus exposures in their classrooms.

TAMPA, Fla. — Hundreds of kids in school districts across Tampa Bay are learning in quarantine each day, asked to stay home after exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID. 

What does that process look like? How are teachers making sure their kids don't fall behind?

For Lola Potter, her first day of fourth grade at the Rampello Downtown Partnership K-8 Magnet School looked like things were getting back to pre-pandemic times as the 9-year-old headed back into the classroom.

Then the family got a phone call, and it was back to work from home.

"She attended school, I believe every single day last year, we had no problems and then this year, we made it I think it was two and a half weeks in when she was exposed when we got the notice she was exposed," Erin Potter, Lola's mom, explained.

Erin says she got a call from the school and a letter giving them two options: quarantine and return on Day 8 or on Day 5, get tested and come back with negative results from a PCR or rapid/antigen test.  

"We only ended up having to do virtual school from home for three full days because of the weekend," Erin said.

The shorter quarantine periods this year mean less classroom time students who are exposed potentially miss.

Jennifer Sparano is the Hillsborough County school district's COVID commander. The district, not the health department, has the role of contact tracing and quarantining students and staff exposed.

"It takes time. Each positive case takes up to three hours," Sparano said. "Basically what it looks like is reviewing seating charts and interviewing older students and the parents of younger students to make sure that we identify who their close contacts are when you know when and if they test positive."

The key to contact tracing these cases really lies in the seating charts that teachers provide.

If all students are wearing masks and one tests positive, only those seated less than 3 feet away have to quarantine. Seating charts are critical components in the tracing process. 

10 Investigates heard from an educator at an elementary school who got messages urging teachers to update digital seating charts with names and distance apart saying it was the one thing slowing down the process. This same teacher says in some cases entire classes are being quarantined. 

"We are definitely limiting the spread through our contact tracing and quarantine procedures. And the evidence that comes through when a student who takes a test on Day 5, tests positive, we know that we identified the correct student based on exposure, and we've prevented that spread to other students," Sparano said.

10 Investigates reached out to all school districts in the Tampa Bay area to find out how they are handling contact tracing and contacting parents and guardians of impacted students.

Here are the responses we received:

Citrus County: 

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? School administration, along with our district student services center.
  • Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? School administration
  • Are schools still quarantining students on campus if there is a confirmed case? Yes

Hardee County:

No response

Hernando County:

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? This year, our school administrators are doing the contact tracing to improve accuracy over sending seating charts to the DOH.
  • Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? The school notifies families.
  • Are schools still quarantining students on campus if there is a confirmed case? Yes, we are quarantining those that meet the quarantine requirements based on the DOH guidelines.

Highlands County:

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? A team at each school typically involving either the principal or assistant principal. It varies per school the specific individuals.
  • Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? We try to communicate with each parent by way of a phone call.

Manatee County:

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? Florida Department of Health-Manatee
  • Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? Florida Department of Health-Manatee 

Pasco County:

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? Joint effort by the school district and Department of Health.
  • Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? We changed our approach. It had been handled at the district level. We were trying to free up the schools from that responsibility. As of Friday, we put the responsibility back on schools, and the notifications are more timely.

Pinellas County:

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? Each school has a COVID designee who works to identify any close contacts.
  • Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? Families whose students are deemed a close contact, and subject to quarantine, are contacted via letter/email/phone call from the school.
  • Are schools still quarantining students on campus if there is a confirmed case?  All confirmed positive cases are investigated and impacted families are notified.

Polk County:

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? Polk County Public Schools serves in a supporting role for the contract tracing efforts of Florida Department of Health in Polk County. School staff help by pulling information (class lists, bus seating charts, etc.). 
  • Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? Our schools also assist with efforts to call those who must quarantine. Each school designates whatever number of staff members are necessary to get these tasks accomplished.

Sarasota County:

  • Who does contact tracing at schools in the district? DOH does contact tracing. School & district staff assist the DOH contact tracing efforts by providing information like seating charts and schedules to help with the overall process. Again similar to last year, the DOH determines quarantining and isolation guidance as well.
  •  Who contacts guardians when there is a positive COVID case on campus? DOH notifies