The coronavirus is continuing its grip in southern states. As Florida made up nearly 1 in 5 new COVID-19 cases in the country last week, the virus claimed the lives of several educators in Broward County ahead of the first day of school.
The Broward Teachers Union said two teachers and a teacher's assistant, all of whom worked at elementary schools, in their 40s, died within 24 hours of each other this week. They were not infected at school, as doors were not yet open.
"Wonderful, very charismatic, just a special woman. Just positive all the time. Always looking out for her colleagues and, as I said, a union leader," said Anna Fusco, the union president, of one she knew personally.
The union said a fourth person also passed away who was a Broward County Public Schools graduate with close ties to the district through her job.
"The loss of a teacher is a ripple throughout the community. The lives that they touch. The other teachers on their teams. Their schools. It's a huge loss," said Heather Brooks, a parent of two students in the district.
The Florida Education Association said it's counted 15 educators who have died from COVID-19 since July.
"My heart breaks for their families and their students, their communities and that's all we're asking, that we have been provided the safest working environment and learning environment for our students and our staff," said Carole Gauronskas, the Vice President of the FEA.
The association is concerned about the virus' spread as schools start a new year, pointing to vaccines and mitigation measures, including masks.
"We are supposed to do whatever it takes to make sure their environment is a safe environment for learning as well as that for the employee. And right now our hands are tied or have been tied. We've seen several school districts that have bucked the system and are requiring masks with an opt out, but that's one safety feature among many," said Gauronskas.
The deaths in Broward County come as they and Alachua County Public Schools defy the state over mask mandates.
Florida is requiring districts allow parents to "opt out." The state could withhold funding equal to the superintendent and board members' salaries if a district is in violation.
"We're not doing this to get attention or be defiant. We're doing what we feel is best for our community and (to) keep our schools opened," said Jackie Johnson, with Alachua County schools.
The State Board of Education has called an emergency meeting next week to discuss the compliance of both districts.
Florida's governor's office maintains there's no conclusive evidence on the impact of mandating face coverings for kids but suggests anyone working in schools consider getting vaccinated. They note the deaths couldn't have been caused by infections from unmasked kids at school, but said it doesn't diminish the grief from the tragic loss.
"It's important we get vaccinated. They weren't vaccinated. You know, no fault of theirs, they might have had some medical concerns. I'm not quite sure. Social distance. Clean hands. Wash your hands often. If you're not vaccinated, try to get tested. And mask wearing is also a protocol; we were happy that was mandated," said Fusco.
"BCCPTA joins our teachers and the entire BCPS community in mourning the loss of four of our educators to COVID. BCCPTA has been and will continue to advocate for our school district to adhere to CDC guidelines regarding all COVID protocols, including face coverings. Face coverings protect everyone, our children, the adults in the school community and at home. Our primary goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy and diminish the spread of this virus, so that our children can return to a normal school environment, as soon as possible," Burt Miller, the Broward County Council PTA/PTSA president, said in a statement.
Such deaths can impact children in a variety of ways, according to Dr. Daniel Bober, a psychiatrist near Broward County.
"I was treating patients today via Telehealth, kids actually, that were telling me they were afraid to go back to school because some kids aren't going to be wearing masks. They're afraid of getting sick, they're afraid of getting infected, they're afraid of watching their teachers die. So yeah, there's a lot of fear," said Bober.