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Less than a week before schools are set to reopen in Florida’s Broward County, local union officials say three educators have died of complications from the coronavirus. The deaths were all recorded within a 24-hour span, according to union officials representing employees of the local school district.
Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco said the start of the new school year has been a mix of emotions as the first day approaches.
“The whole excitement of going back was just running through our teachers when we went back to work on Wednesday,” Fusco told NPR by phone Saturday. “And then the sense of anxiety that our governor’s interfering with the safety protocols and wanting to block the mask mandate because they know it’s an extra layer of protection. And then the deaths that were reported.”
Fusco said 48-year-old Pinewood Elementary teacher and union steward Janice Wright, 49-year-old Dillard Elementary teacher Katina Jones and 49-year-old teaching assistant Yolonda Hudson-Williams, also of Dillard Elementary, were the educators who lost their lives to COVID-19 this past week.
None of them were vaccinated, Fusco said.
Schools in Broward County are expected to reopen for the new academic year on Wednesday.
In an act of defiance aimed at Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Broward County School Board voted 8-1 Tuesday to make wearing masks in all district schools and facilities mandatory for students, staff, and visitors, member station WLRN reported. The board allowed for parents to have their children “opt out” of wearing a mask.
DeSantis has threatened to withhold pay from superintendents and board members who buck an executive order banning mask mandates in schools.
“He’s just pushing his political agenda to cater to the same constituents that were pro-Donald Trump,” Fusco said of the governor. “I think because they scream louder, [he thinks] there must be more of them than the constituents that are taking this virus really [seriously] and want to be safe and secure.”
Cases of the coronavirus have spiked in Florida in recent weeks, spurred on by the highly contagious delta variant.
Between Aug. 6 and Aug. 12 state officials recorded 151,415 new cases of the virus, 14,675 of which were in Broward County.
According to data published Friday by the Florida Department of Health, 74% of Broward County’s population of 12-year-olds and older has been fully vaccinated — well above the overall total for the state, which stands at 65%.
Fusco said she is currently “torn” over talks of mandating vaccinations, although she said she may change her mind once the Food & Drug Administration fully authorizes the vaccines.
“I don’t think that we should have that position of mandating it right now — especially not me, the union president of 18,000 bargaining unit members,” she said. “But a mask mandate? You’re not injecting anything in your body. It’s just a covering.”
In neighboring Palm Beach County, more than 1,000 students were quarantined this week following an outbreak of the virus upon the opening of schools there.