HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — After a long winter break, thousands of students in the Tampa Bay area will start returning to the classroom on Tuesday. With worries over the omicron variant and a rise in COVID-19 cases, Hillsborough County school leaders highlighted the steps they’re taking to help mitigate the spread.
By this time on Tuesday, Erin Parke’s two boys will have finished their first day back at school after winter break.
“My kids are vaccinated. One of them is boosted, along with myself. They wear masks,” said Parke. “All I can do is control my family here.”
With the current surge in COVID cases across the country and in Florida, Parke explains she’s apprehensive but hopes other people are taking the right precautions, too.
“I’m confident that hopefully everybody is taking it as seriously as I am. I know that the school is doing the best that they can,” said Parke.
On Monday, Hillsborough County school leaders weighed in on what they’re doing to help fight the spread of COVID-19 as students return from break on Tuesday, recognizing with certain state rules in place, in some ways, their hands are tied.
“One thing as organizations, we cannot mandate vaccinations for our employees. We cannot implement masks for our students,” said Addison Davis, the Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent.
Still, Superintendent Davis says they’ll continue to encourage wearing masks indoors. Davis says on Sunday they started HVAC systems to get airflow moving, reminding them they were among the first to use MERV 13 air filters.
As for when there are COVID-19 cases in school, Davis explained if a student is positive, they will have to isolate for 10 days, while teachers will have the option to either sit out for 10 days, or per new CDC guidelines, isolate for five days and after day five, they can come back and wear a mask for five days.
“We do have a number of home assessments that we can give families, those in need,” said Davis. “Schools have them if they need them. We were given around 40,000 from the Department of Health, so schools have them, so a family in need, we’re there to make sure we can close that gap.”
The district says students who have to isolate will have resources available to them to help keep up with their schooling. School leaders stressed it’ll take a community effort to help create the safest environment possible.
“If we have symptoms, our students need to stay home,” said Davis. “I get it. It puts a lot of pressure on our families when they have to go to work as well, but if we do not take it seriously and we allow that learner to come to school, now we are potentially infecting so many students that are in that short radius around them, and we have a number of students that start missing school.”
Damaris Allen, a Hillsborough County Schools mom, says she’s feeling as prepared as she possibly can. Her advice from parent to parent: talk to your kids.
"Talk to them about the precautions that they can take,” said Allen. “Help them to feel a little bit at ease because, at some point, circumstances are beyond our control, but there are certain things we can control, and so give them license to control those things.”