Hillsborough County Public Schools quarantine numbers, in context

School has been back in session in Hillsborough County for eight days, and already, more than 13,000 employees and students have been sent home due to the spread of COVID-19.

The Hillsborough County School Board had an emergency meeting Wednesday night to discuss the rising numbers of COVID-19 on its campuses. Friday morning's data shows 5.61% of staff and students are either COVID-positive or stuck at home in quarantine.

"How do we get there so that less children are missing school, less children are impacted," Hillsborough County School Board Member Melissa Snively asked Wednesday before voting against a mask mandate, which ultimately passed.

Across our region, Hillsborough does not stick out in many of the important COVID-19 indicators. In fact, the county falls right in the middle. 

"We're third in newly reported cases per capita," explained Dr. Jason Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology at USF's College of Public Health. "Once you adjust for population size, we're fourth in test positivity; we're tied for fourth in vaccination rates."

As of Thursday, 79% of all employees and students impacted in the district were not the ones who tested positive, but rather the ones sent home to quarantine.

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"Only the students who absolutely need to be quarantined are quarantined," Jennifer Sparano with Hillsborough County Public Schools said Wednesday.

The numbers listed on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard are the total reported cases, including any student or employee who is exposed on campus or in the community.

School leaders handle the initial contact tracing.

"So at the time that we post to the dashboard cases are not confirmed, but in order to have expedient transparency, we're being honest about the fact that these are reported cases," said Sparano.

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That could be the key as to why the numbers are so high. Not every district is reporting this quickly, using this method, or taking the lead on who needs to quarantine. 

"Hillsborough is trying to be proactive and not allow transmission in the schools and the way to really ensure it is by doing what they're doing and just pulling people because you don't know which contact is going to result in transmission," said virologist Dr. Michael Teng with USF Health.

Orange County Public Schools is about the same size as Hillsborough. Yet the district is reporting nearly 10,000 fewer students and staff impacted by the virus. The Department of Health handles the contact tracing, so only confirmed cases make the dashboard.

Officials say their numbers are likely backlogged and not an accurate representation of how the virus is spreading on campuses.

"You can spread the virus two days before you're symptomatic, and then after symptomatic then you get a test. So it could be like three days of spreading," said Teng.

District leaders are hopeful the mask mandate approved Wednesday night will drive down the quarantine numbers because with universal face coverings, fewer students will be exposed.