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Florida School District Calls Emergency Meeting After 5,500 Students Exposed To Covid-19

As of Monday, 5,599 students and 316 employees were in isolation or quarantine.

A Florida school district has found itself battling an outbreak of Covid-19 cases after just four days of in-person learning. Hundreds of school employees and more than 5,500 students within Hillsborough County Public Schools were in isolation or quarantine after either testing positive for Covid-19 or having had close contact with an infected individual. The district has called an emergency school board meeting to discuss measures that might help mitigate the virus’ spread, including mandatory face masks.

Schools within Hillsborough County Public Schools opened their doors to welcome students back for the 2021-2022 school year on Aug. 10. But almost immediately, the number of positive Covid-19 within the district’s more than 200 schools began to rise. By 7 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 16, district officials said 316 employees and 5,599 students were in isolation or quarantine as a result of Covid-19.

“Isolation refers to individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 while quarantine refers to those who have had close contact with a positive case,” the school district said in a statement posted to their website. The Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Covid-19 dashboard showed 1,289 confirmed Covid-19 cases had been reported since Aug. 2.

As a result of the rising cases and potential incidents of exposure, Hillsborough County Public Schools has scheduled an emergency school board meeting to discuss implementing additional health and safety measures geared at mitigating the spread of the virus, including mandatory face masks for all students and staff. Reopening plans for Hillsborough County Public Schools noted the district did require face coverings at the start of the school year but allowed parents or guardians to opt their children out of having to follow the policy.

In July, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order to protect what he called “parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.” Additionally, Florida’s Department of Education implemented an emergency rule earlier this month that gives public school students who feel they have been subjected to “harassment or... adverse, intimidating treatment at school” related to Covid-19 policies a scholarship that would enable them to transfer to a private school or other school district.

“Unnecessarily isolating, quarantining, or subjecting children to physical COVID-19 constraints in schools poses a threat to developmental upbringing and should not occur absent a heightened showing of actual illness or serious risk of illness to other students,” the state’s Department of Education said in its rule. “As public school districts seek to impose new COVID-19 restrictions on students, emergency rulemaking is necessary here to protect the rights of students and their parents or guardians.”

Most recently, DeSantis has floated the idea of withholding pay from school officials who mandate masks, CBS 4 has reported. “It would be the goal of the State Board of Education to narrowly tailor any financial consequences to the offense committed,” a statement from DeSantis’ office read. “For example, the State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, has criticized DeSantis’ efforts to keep schools from mandating policies designed to limit the spread of Covid-19. “Just heard….nearly 5600 Hillsborough County students in quarantine,” AFT President Randi Weingarten tweeted Monday. “This is the result of the recklessness by DeSantis….why is he banning mass mandates in schools?”

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.