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New school year means new CDC COVID-19 protocols, but Florida is letting parents decide

Posted at 9:15 AM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-05 10:39:53-04

TAMPA BAY — As every county in the Tampa Bay area heads back to school next week, what can students and parents expect? According to the state, there will be no face mask mandate in any school.

But with kids under 12 still not vaccinated, the Delta variant cases spreading quickly and hospitalizations spiking, what happens if there's a COVID-19 outbreak in your child's classroom? Here's a closer look.

“There will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida," Governor Ron DeSantis said to a cheering crowd in Cape Coral last Friday.

He signed an executive order preventing school districts from enforcing a mask mandate. He even sharing his own personal plans as a parent.

"I have young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the masks with the kids. We never have. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun," DeSantis explained.

RELATED: Gov. DeSantis signs exec. order allowing only parents to choose if kids wear masks at schools

But what if your child is under 12 and still not vaccinated? Should you be concerned?

"We're learning and doing everything we can to keep us as safe as we can but still conducting school," explained Pinellas County's Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego.

Grego further explained what kids and parents can expect in his school district as they head back to class, especially when it comes to pandemic protocols.

"Obviously, face masks are not mandatory any longer but we're going to encourage it. And parents can make a choice, as they see fit. And we continue to clean our schools on a daily and evening basis and on weekends. And we're going to continue to follow the protocols of the Department of Health here," Grego explained.

Grego says Pinellas County's in-person summer school program was very successful over the last few months in keeping students learning and healthy, like at Eisenhower Elementary School in Clearwater.

"We had a remarkable summer bridge program. Most populated ever. Over 15,000 students plus another 5,000 enrichment activities. We had no cases of COVID. We had no spread in our school district and we use that, not as a test case but let's see how we begin to ramp up," he said.

But if there is a COVID spread, Grego says they have alternative plans in place depending on what happens with the pandemic.

"We will continue to maintain our COVID team at the district level that works daily with the Department of Health and if we have to pivot and we have to make some sort of altercations, based on an outbreak or based on a condition, we certainly will do that," Grego explained.

If anyone is struggling emotionally as they head back to school, Pinellas County has a mental health and wellness plan to help students and staff.

"It has every aspect of what we need to do to help the care and the wellness of elementary, middle and high school because it's different and including our employees and how that reaches out into the community. Mental health is something as a community we need to tackle. It doesn't all of a sudden happen when you cross the threshold of a school building," Grego added.

Meanwhile, Hillsborough County's Superintendent Addison Davis says they're prepared if kids have to be quarantined. But those students won't attend virtual classes.

"While a learner is out, we'll make certain that he or she has the necessary resources they need to be successful. Whether that be from technology equipment, connectivity, so they can continue to have that instructional minimum take place," Davis explained.

Wearing a mask in Hillsborough County will also be optional but other pandemic rules will still be in place.

"We'll continue to social distance where possible, provide hand sanitizer, hand sanitation stations, and make sure we implement other health protocols this school year as well," he said.

Davis says he feels those unvaccinated younger kids are at lower risk of getting severe COVID cases, and that makes him feel more comfortable about fully reopening schools.

"Out of 100,000 you know, students at that particular age, you know, only four or five of those students have been identified as being affected. So the numbers are so minute," Davis explained.

The latest CDC guidelines for kids in school include:

  • Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals, age two and older, whether they've been vaccinated or not, if there's a high transmission spread in that area, which the entire state of Florida still falls into.
  • Students should maintain at least three feet of physical distance within a classroom.
  • Students, teachers, and staff should stay home, if they have signs of an infectious illness and get tested.
  • If they test positive for COVID, the school should do contact tracing in addition to making sure the person quarantines and isolates.
  • Finally, schools should maintain regular cleaning and disinfection to keep everyone safe.

Here are all the county guidelines for going back to school per district:

Hillsborough County School District:

"I'm sure you have seen the executive order from the governor that has prohibited face mask mandates within schools following Broward County's decision. We are continuing many of our safety protocols as health and safety is our top priority. We have provided Hillsborough Virtual K-12 as the virtual option this year if parents are not comfortable with sending their student back to the classroom. We will continue to utilize covid protocols from last year, including:

  • Encouraging frequent handwashing
  • Sanitation stations in each classroom
  • Hand sanitizer and PPE available on each site
  • Controlled movement when possible
  • Social distancing where possible
  • COVID-19 dashboard

We will also continue to have COVID leads at every school. Quarantine protocols are as follows:

  • Individuals determined to be close contacts will quarantine for 10 days if they remain symptom-free per CDC and FLDOH recommendations OR 7 days if a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on day 6 or later is negative and they remain symptom-free.
  • Vaccinated people and those who have tested positive in the last 90 days do not need to quarantine.
  • Students who were within three (3) to six (6) feet of an infected student where both students were engaged in consistent and correct use of well-fitting masks will be excluded from quarantine.

We are planning to provide tutoring for students who may be impacted by quarantine, but we do not have eLearning this year."

Sarasota County Schools:

What is your plan if there’s a break out of COVID in a class, especially for elementary schools and preschools with kids 12 and under still not vaccinated?

"We will continue to follow DOH guidelines utilizing current quarantine procedures. Classrooms, as well as high traffic areas and touchpoints, will continue to be cleaned regularly as they were throughout the year."

If they have to quarantine - will you bring back virtual classes? If not- How will they keep up?

"At this point there is no discussion or are we planning to bring back remote concurrent learning. If a student misses class for an extended amount of time Schools will arrange for parents/guardians to pick up any materials (i.e., textbooks, workbooks, etc.) that teachers deem necessary for instruction. Personalized learning packets will be available for elementary students, and Blackboard, Microsoft TEAMS, or other digital platforms will be used for middle and high school students."

What are your rules on masks and social distancing - again for those 12 and under students?

"All mask-wearing will be optional for students and faculty. We will maintain social distancing protocols where possible and continue to partner with DOH for assessing contact tracing."

"Our goal is to open the school year as normal as possible. We plan to allow all extracurricular activities and utilize volunteers in the classrooms. Mask Policy- the optional face mask policy will be discussed further by the School Board on August 3. However, it should be clear that the policy remains unchanged. The Board would have to have a discussion first about any changes (Board workshop) & then vote, all of which must take place publicly at a Board meeting (after the workshop on August 3). The same process is followed for all School Board policies. The Board also -- again, after a discussion -- has the ability to enact emergency policy."

Polk County Schools:

"Polk County Public Schools will continue to use additional safety protocols to help protect students and staff against the spread of COVID-19. Please see the 2021-22 back-to-school guide by visiting Plans and procedures covered in the guide are subject to change as state, local and CDC guidelines are updated."

Pinellas County Schools:

"The link has the latest safety protocols for the new school year. The guide was posted on the district web page and social media platforms on Wednesday, July 29. As you know—these are subject to change. COVID-19 Info / Guiding Practices and Protocols

Quick summary:

New: Masks are still optional—at this time—but strongly recommended.

The district has expanded its Pinellas Virtual School program for K-5 called PVS Live. for families feeling uncomfortable sending their child to school or who have a health issue.

Same: Social distancing to the greatest extent possible, hand sanitizers in classrooms, on buses and common areas, masks available when needed, frequent handwashing encouraged, the same daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols and practices of classrooms and district as last year. The district air ventilation and filtration system was updated last summer…fresh air recycled every 30 minutes."

Pasco County Schools:

What is your plan if there’s a break out of COVID in a class, especially for elementary schools and preschools with kids 12 and under still not vaccinated?

The Health Department determines who might have to quarantine. Naturally, if they make that call then the kids would not be able to come to school. We would handle it the same way we have handled outbreaks of other kinds in the past – anything from a kind of virus to head lice. More on that in second question.

If they have to quarantine - will you bring back virtual classes? If not- How will they keep up?

Building on my previous answer … though we have no plans to continue with our online option (mySchool Online), we have strategies to keep kids engaged when they are quarantined. For instance, when a teacher and the class are quarantined, we have had some success with having the teacher conduct class remotely. That, of course, is contingent on the teacher not being sick, etc.

What are your rules on masks and social distancing - again for those 12 and under students?

Masks are optional.

Manatee County Schools:

What is your plan if there’s a break out of COVID in a class, especially for elementary schools and preschools with kids 12 and under still not vaccinated?

The district will be using its operation center again this year which helps monitor cases in school and does contact tracing. It is staffed by school personnel and the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County.

If they have to quarantine - will you bring back virtual classes? If not- How will they keep up?

If a student needs to be out of school for 10-14 days parents and teachers will stay in communication with each other to make sure their child receives their course work so they can stay up to date while they are out.

What are your rules on masks and social distancing - again for those 12 and under students?

Mask as optional per the governor’s executive order. Social distancing will be practiced but the district is expecting 95% of students on campus. The district wants teachers to be mindful of social distancing but it will not be the same as last year when less students were in the classroom.

The district will continue to promote good hygiene, hand washing, and hand sanitizer stations. Schools will also be cleaned daily.