PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning says his district is drowning in COVID-19 cases adding that there are more than 800 COVID-19 cases where staff is still working to notify students and teachers that may have been exposed to the virus.
Browning presented the information to school board leaders Tuesday night saying that he wants to be transparent with everyone about the situation in schools. Superintendent Browning addressed the issue from 55:00 to 1:05:00 in the school board meeting.
If you look at Pasco County Schools’s online COVID-19 dashboard, you’ll see 286 cases which include 237 cases involving students and 69 cases involving staff. Yet, Superintendent Browning says that number is actually closer to 1,260 cases total.
“We’re doing our very best but it’s like a sinking boat and you’re bailing it out with a thimble. That’s how fast these COVID cases are coming in,” he told ABC Action News.
Superintendent Browning says the number on their website only accounts for COVID-19 cases that have been fully contact-traced. He says there are at least 868 more cases that parents haven’t been notified about, adding that each case takes 1-2 hours to trace who the positive student or staff member was in contact with and for how long.
“I will be very honest with you,” Browning explained. “We don’t have the staff, we don’t have the time. We’re not in the contact tracing business but we’ve placed ourselves there.”
Browning says the district even received a grant to hire contact tracers, but they keep quitting because they are overwhelmed by the amount of work.
“We get them trained, we get them in. They work for two days and say this is not what I banked on and I’m out,” he elaborated.
Browning says by the time parents are notified, it’s often too late for students to quarantine.
Now the district is making changes to keep parents better informed. Starting Wednesday, August 18, if there is a positive COVID-19 case linked to a classroom, Browning says all parents in that class will be notified right away and given the option to quarantine their student.
Soon, the district’s online dashboard will also be updated with all reported cases, not just those that are contact traced by nurses.
Megan Hedblom is a Wesley Chapel mom of a kindergartner. She plans to keep her son home until the COVID cases decline or the district puts stronger measures like a mandatory mask mandate in place.
“These numbers are unreal, and I don’t want kids to have to die for people to decide something has to be done,” she added.
Hedblom says just 4 of the 16 kids in her son’s class are wearing masks.
ABC Action News reached out to all our Bay area school districts to find out if they are experiencing delays with contact tracing. Here’s how they’re responding:
Hillsborough: "Our school leaders perform the contact tracing. A teacher or school bus driver would provide their seating charts and determine which students were in close contact. Then, they spend time contacting each family that is quarantined to make sure they know the length of time they are quarantined. It is a lengthy and tedious process, and our school leaders are doing an amazing job. We have consistent communication with the health department, but they do not have the staff to perform the contact tracing themselves. This is how it worked last year as well for our district."
Sarasota: "Contact tracing is led by our local Department of Health. It’s our understanding that there is a general delay tracing community cases, including school cases. School and district staff assist the DOH in contact tracing efforts by providing information like seating charts and schedules to help with the overall process. Similar to last year, the DOH determines quarantining and isolation guidance."
Polk: "The Florida Department of Health in Polk County handles the contact tracing, although it is our understanding that they have increased their available tracers from 6 to 16 in response to the surge in COVID cases and are streamlining their investigation process. Polk County Public Schools serves in a supporting role for the contract tracing efforts of FDOH-Polk. School staff help by pulling information (class lists, bus seating charts, etc.). 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."
ABC Action News also reached out to Pinellas, Manatee, Citrus and Hernando County school leaders and are waiting to hear back.