PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Local education leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay are tracking hundreds of COVID-19 cases where students or teachers have tested positive in just the past month.
As cases climb, education leaders in Pinellas County are now considering changes inside the classroom to keep kids and teachers safe.
Nancy Velardi heads up the Pinellas Classroom Teacher’s Association. Every day, she says she hears from teachers worried about their health.
With more students planning to return to school buildings for the second semester, she is demanding changes including more distance between desks inside of classrooms.
“We’re asking for 4 feet. We think 4 feet with the masks would be safe,” she elaborated.
On Wednesday, leaders from the school district and the union will visit an elementary, middle and high school to compromise on prevention measures that both groups hope will slow the spread of COVID-19.
Bill Corbett, a Deputy Superintendent for Pinellas County Schools says although community spread remains high, contact tracing performed by the Florida Department of Health shows spread doesn’t seem to be happening at a high level inside schools.
“We know students and employees are contracting it in the community and then in some cases coming to school, but we’re not seeing a lot of cases where there is a spreader event in a classroom. We’ve had some spread among sports teams, but what that tells us is our mitigation strategy is working. Our number one mitigation strategy is the mask policy and making sure everyone is wearing a mask. It is critical to us. We also have PPE and thousands of plexiglass barriers and we continue to make them as anyone asks for them,” he explained.
The school district is also putting pressure on state leaders to better protect teachers.
The Pinellas County School Board unanimously voted Tuesday to send a letter to the governor arguing that teachers are essential workers and should be given priority when it comes to getting the COVID-19 vaccine especially, they say, considering the state forced districts to keep schools open throughout the pandemic.
Earlier in January, Governor Ron DeSantis said he was not considering speeding up the timetable for teachers to get vaccinated, but district leaders hope with enough pressure, he will reconsider.
“I firmly believe that as we are requiring schools to be open face to face, that we should then be prioritizing the vaccination of our teachers in order to keep those schools open and thriving. I really, really hope we recognize the value of our teachers and the value of our public schools,” School Board member Laura Hine added.