Teachers sued, parents marched, and on both sides of last year’s school reopening debate, there were dire warnings.
To some, Florida’s decision to reopen school buildings meant a death sentence for adults and perhaps even children. To others, it would have been child neglect to keep the schools closed as parents went out and earned their living.
In the end, despite altered routines and daily contact tracing, COVID-19 levels in Tampa Bay area schools were considerable but not catastrophic.
The Tampa Bay area has more than 400,000 public and charter school students. Its four school districts employ more than 50,000 adults, adding up to nearly a half-million people.
At the end of May, the Tampa Bay Times had counted under 18,000 cases in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. That works out to one infected person for every 27 people over the 10-month school year.
The worst moment came during the week ending Jan. 8, when the four districts reported a total of 1,047 cases as students and teachers returned from winter break.
A population highly politicized over COVID-19 can now debate: Were the numbers as low as they were because of safety precautions such as masking and social distance? Or, as critics of anti-coronavirus measures maintain, is it because COVID-19 is not a big problem for children?
“There was never a danger,” says Bert Carrier, an attorney in St. Petersburg. “There is no boogey man and there never was.”
Carrier represents Kari Turner, a Pinellas parent who was charged with trespassing and resisting an officer after a scuffle over masking during a Pinellas School Board meeting.
He said public school leaders are now seeing a windfall in federal funding to pay for the expenses they incurred in computers, cleaning equipment and remedial instruction, but that the threat was always exaggerated.
“The further we get away from this, it becomes more and more embarrassing for the people who were really pounding the drums,” he said.
Others insist things could have been far worse, and that safety measures — as imperfect as they were — protected student health and saved lives.
In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, committees of medical professionals advised school district leaders on how to maintain a clean environment and what routines should be altered to minimize interpersonal contact. Invariably, when infection numbers rose, school leaders said the disease was being transmitted at home and in the community, and very seldom at school.
Tracye Brown, who oversaw much of Hillsborough’s COVID-19 activity as Chief of Climate and Culture, said the district invited health officials on tours whenever a school saw a spike in cases, to make sure the schools were not being sloppy. Invariably, she said, they found nothing wrong with school protocols.
Brown considers the district’s COVID-19 response a resounding success that reinforced her respect for the organization. It featured a number of moving parts, including meal and laptop distribution, and limited access to visitors and volunteers.
“Our goal was to keep kids in school and I think we were able to do a fairly good job of that,” she said. Describing cleaning crews who worked overnight after a case was diagnosed, she said, “we just did, in my opinion, an exceptional job in those areas to keep our schools safe and our kids safe while in the schools.”
Pinellas teachers union president Nancy Velardi raised safety issues throughout the year. Overall, she said of the school district, “I would say they did the best that they could, considering we did not have the option to remain closed the way other states did.”
Taking a position that is consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she does not believe those who say students cannot contract or spread the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Children who have the virus but have no symptoms can still spread it to others, just like adults, according to the CDC. Most often, they have mild symptoms or have no symptoms at all.
Velardi believes mandatory masking made a difference, as students this year were less likely to spread common colds and the flu. “The idea that children don’t spread this virus seems odd when they are very good at spreading everything else,” she said.
She said she is not embarrassed at the efforts teachers took to try and delay the start of school. And she does not take lightly the illnesses that occurred. “We can’t possibly consider 4,600 cases of COVID within our schools as nothing,” Velardi said, citing the number of infections reported in Pinellas as of May 28.
Hillsborough schools reported about 8,300 cases for the year. Pasco County schools counted nearly 3,700 cases and Hernando County schools just over 1,000.
Velardi said she knows of two Pinellas school employees who died from COVID-19.
“I don’t see any death as being acceptable,” she said. “We muddled through a horrible time.”