Two educators in Florida share how the rising number of COVID-19 cases and loose enforcement of safety measures in schools has brought a new level of daily stress into their classrooms.
David Berger teaches 12th grade English in Florida. He’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but he’s not comfortable asking his students if they are or asking them to wear face masks while at school.
After returning to in-person schooling for the fall, Berger has watched fewer students wear masks every day. Now, he said about 1 in 10 students is wearing a mask at any given time.
Last year, Berger’s school district in Land O’ Lakes — about a 20-minute drive from Tampa — would send out emails to staff when someone tested positive for COVID-19. “This year, they’re not doing that,” Berger told Healthline. “I know there have been cases this year, but I don’t know how many.”
That level of uncertainty is being felt all over Florida.
Just over half of eligible residents ages 12 and older are considered fully vaccinated in the state, even as the Delta variant continues to tear through primarily unvaccinated residents and visitors.
That’s of concern to many educators in the Sunshine State, especially after four teachers died of COVID-19 within 24 hours of each other in Broward County, which includes popular tourist destinations like Fort Lauderdale.
“Within a 24-hour span, we had an assistant teacher pass away, a teacher at her school pass away, an elementary teacher pass away, and another teacher at a high school,” Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco told CBS Miami.
Florida and Texas have been two states adamantly opposed to basic prevention methods during the pandemic — including their governors issuing orders that prohibited mandates that people wear masks while in public and working to increase vaccination rates.
Instead, their policy more closely followed the conservative edict of “personal freedom” over recommendations from medical experts.
Meanwhile, judges have been checking those governors, telling them they don’t have authoritarian control over what local health authorities can determine is in the best interest for their communities as the Delta variant continues to spread primarily among the unvaccinated.
On July 30, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning school districts and other entities from mandating masks in schools, citing, among other unfounded claims, that “masking children may lead to negative health and societal ramifications.”
But last week, a judge overruled that order, saying DeSantis overstepped his authority by preventing local jurisdictions from mandating masks in schools.
Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott issued a similar ban in his state, but the Texas Supreme Court affirmed a judge’s ruling that allowed cities and school districts to make their own rules.
On Monday, August 30, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was opening a civil rights investigation to see if restrictions on mask mandates in five states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah — are violating the civil rights of disabled students.
School districts are now facing a more infectious and effective Delta variant, as even the most stringent of districts are now welcoming students back.
Just in the last month, that sent 10,000 students in 14 states into quarantine after being exposed to someone who came in contact with the coronavirus, according to the Washington Post.
That includes Palm Beach, where 160,000 students returned to campuses without mask mandates. It took only 2 days before 440 students and staff had to return home to quarantine.
The district mandates masks on school property, but parents still have the option to let their children opt out, which means it’s more of a suggestion than a mandate.
While children ages 11 and younger remain ineligible for any of the vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says getting kids back into the classroom is
But, the CDC notes, in-person instruction should be done with basic precautions. That includes wearing face masks indoors, 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, and testing, ventilation, handwashing, and other methods.
The CDC continues to stress that there’s one quick way to control the coronavirus on school campuses: having all eligible students and adults fully vaccinated.
“Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC says in its guidance. “Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”
But not everyone is following that guidance, and it’s leading to some students — many who are still too young to get vaccinated — and staff developing COVID-19.
Despite local rules to wear a mask indoors, the teacher instead read aloud to the class without wearing a mask.
“This outbreak of COVID-19 that originated with an unvaccinated teacher highlights the importance of vaccinating school staff members who are in close indoor contact with children ineligible for vaccination as schools reopen,” the report states.
Teaching was a stressful profession long before the pandemic began. But many don’t like the political game being played in the state capitols about what can be done on school campuses to protect educators, staff, and students.
In Berger’s classroom in Florida, he notices that students would rather work together at tables. That means social distancing is hard to maintain because there’s not enough space to go around.
“I would love for masks to be mandated indoors, considering how cramped schools already are,” Berger said. “Masks would put more people at ease.”
Just south past Tampa in Manatee County, Dr. Crestie Smith teaches 8th grade social studies, history, and government, and educates teachers earning their master’s degrees through Walden University’s MS in Education program.
“My students are old enough to get vaccinated. Some have. I don’t know who is,” Smith said of her middle school students. “People are very stressed. People are very worried.”
The local school board did require masks at schools, but, like other districts in the state, allowed parents to elect to have their children opt out of the mandate.
Smith said half of the students at her middle school wear masks, partially fueled by some kids liking the option of being able to hide some usual preteen awkwardness behind it.
“Kids in middle school are weird,” she said.
Loose masking has led to students and staff being potentially exposed to the coronavirus, leading to dozens of classrooms being shut down to quarantine.
That, Smith said, means kids’ daily lives are once again disrupted and their education is impacted because the school district — like many others that have taken a hard-line approach to returning to school — doesn’t allow for a mix of virtual and in-person schooling.
“A lot of kids have to stay home because they have to quarantine,” she said. “Academically, we will have to play a lot of catch-up.”