Florida students prepare for in-person learning during surge in COVID-19 cases

School starts in less than a month for Bay Area students of all ages. Vaccines are not available for children under 12 and many mandates have been rolled back, so COVID-19 is still a concern for some.

The delta variant is highly contagious and continues to infect especially unvaccinated people. Over half of those eligible in Florida are vaccinated, but many kids between the ages of 12 and 17 have not received their first shot.

Between July 16, 2021,and July 22, 2021, there were over 70,000 new COVID-19 cases in Florida. Across the country, the majority of COVID-related deaths are among the unvaccinated.

In April, the Florida education commissioner asked schools statewide to end mask mandates for students and staff. Gov. Ron DeSantis blocked public schools from requiring vaccines in May.

Currently, the CDC recommends masks for vaccinated students and staff regardless of vaccination status. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also issued guidance calling on all students to wear masks.

RELATED: Masks now optional for some Bay Area summer school students

Public schools and students under 12

Mother of two Nina Banner is ready for a return to campus. Her 7th grader will attend Sgt. Smith Middle Academy and her 5th grader will attend Bellamy Elementary School this fall. 

Banner chose not to get vaccinated.

"I don't trust something created in a short period of time that you're bullied into getting. I saw many negative side effects from peers who received the vaccine, all three options," explained Banner.

With other safety measures in place, the Tampa mom feels comfortable sending her kids on campus.

"I will wear a mask if required. I feel proper hygiene and handwashing practice, education are the best defense against these viruses," she continued.

RELATED: Masks optional, e-learning dropped in Hillsborough schools

Maria Walker, a mother of three and Polk County elementary school teacher, worries for her and her kids' safety if everything is back to normal this school year. Her kids are too young for a vaccine and she's a nursing mother that isn't sure when she should get vaccinated.

"I think the precautions that were taken last year helped, so if they continue them, I feel comfortable. I am not sure what to think if they remove all of the precautions right away," explained Walker.

RELATED: Masks likely optional in Pasco schools next year

Some Bay Area counties have decided a full in-person return without masks is the best option. Florida Virtual School is still an option for students and parents who feel like a return to campus is unsafe.

RELATED: Hernando schools to drop mask mandate at end of academic year

Florida college campuses

USF and many other colleges are recommending but not requiring the COVID-19 vaccines to attend classes or to live on campus.

Tolulope Adeagbo, a sophomore at the University of South Florida, said he was somewhat concerned about the delta variant but is still hesitant about getting the shot.  

"I am not vaccinated. I am waiting to take the vaccine, but until I know it is 100% safe, I will not take it," Adeagbo shared. 

MORE: University leaders urge students to get vaccinated

Nia Getfield, a University of South Florida senior, doesn’t feel ready for in-person courses, even with both doses of Moderna. She’s immunosuppressed, so COVID-19 has been anxiety-inducing. 

"I do have some uncertainties about the transition back to in-person learning. Especially now that USF has lifted the mask requirement and Florida is a hotspot for the new delta variant," explained Getfield. 

Officials are starting to encourage mask-wearing among all individuals indoors, regardless of vaccination status as variants continue to spread. 

"We're required to have up-to-date vaccinations to even live on campus, and public school has been like that since we were in kindergarten. What's the difference? The safety of everyone on the USF campus should be number one priority," argued Getfield.

The highly contagious delta variant accounts for about 83% of COVID-19 cases in the United States. Health officials continue to urge all individuals eligible to get vaccinated.

County-by-county public school policies

Hillsborough County

Face coverings are optional. 

There will be a COVID Lead at each school dedicated to guiding the protocols. The COVID-19 dashboard will alert parents and families about cases and quarantines.

Officials told FOX 13, "We will continue COVID-19 protocols at the start of the new academic year including practicing social distancing, providing PPE for use including sanitation stations in all classrooms, and directional signage in hallways for controlled movement."

Manatee County

Masks will be optional in schools and support sites.

Schools will continue extra cleaning and handwashing/hand sanitizing.

School district officials said, "We will continue to remind parents not to send their children to school if they are sick and if a child comes to school sick or with symptoms, they will be sent home until they are symptom-free."

Pasco County

Watch Superintendent Browning's announcement for COVID-19 information: www.pasco.k12.fl.us

Pinellas County

Students and staff are not required to wear masks/face coverings.

According to a statement from officials, "The district continues to practice layered mitigation strategies including social distancing to the greatest extent possible, upgraded ventilation/air filtering and maintaining the enhanced cleaning and sanitation practices established last fall.  We also encourage everyone eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine." 

Polk County

Masks are optional for students and staff. However, Polk encourages those who are unvaccinated to wear masks.

Officials told FOX 13, "We continue to work closely with the Florida Department of Health in Polk County to review and update our safety measures; enhanced cleaning, social distancing and contact tracing will remain important tools." 

Sarasota County

Face masks are optional until the end of the school year.

According to school district officials, "We are still being advised by the local Department of Health to implement social distancing when possible. Social distancing cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on the number of students and staff in any location at a given time."

Hernando County 

Face coverings are optional. If students choose to wear face coverings they must match the dress code.

Social distancing will be done whenever feasible; 3-foot buffers will be between students.

Hernando is following cleaning guidelines. Vaccines are not required.

Visit Hernando County's back-to-school resources page for COVID-19 protocol information: www.hernandoschools.org

Citrus County

FOX 13 reached out to this district. For more back-to-school information, visit the district website: www.citrusschools.org

Desoto County

FOX 13 reached out to this district. For more back-to-school information, visit the district website: www.desotoschools.com

Hardee County

FOX 13 reached out to this district. For more back-to-school information, visit the district website: www.hardee.k12.fl.us

Highlands County 

FOX 13 reached out to this district. For more back-to-school information, visit the district website: www2.highlands.k12.fl.us

Sumter County

FOX 13 reached out to this district. For more back-to-school information, visit the district website: www.sumter.k12.fl.us

More info

LINK: For more information about Florida's back-to-school guidelines visit www.fldoe.org.

LINK: For more information about the CDC's guide for preventing COVID-19 in schools visit www.cdc.gov.