17 Employees at One Florida School District Have Died From COVID Since August, Officials Say
One school district in Florida has reported 17 employee deaths from COVID-19 since August as schools continue to battle the state and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have banned them from requiring masks.
Polk County Public Schools say a dozen employees have died from the coronavirus since school began on Aug. 10, according to multiple outlets. Five others died beforehand.
The district called each death "a devastating blow" to the community in a statement obtained by NBC News.
"The pandemic continues to severely impact our community, and many public servants — including educators, healthcare staff, rescue workers and law enforcement officers — are experiencing tragic losses," the district said.
Polk County School Board member Lynn Wilson called it "a terrible tragedy" in an interview with WESH2 News. Though he said he doesn't believe a mask policy is enforceable, he does think a virtual learning option would have been helpful, "and we couldn't do that either."
Schools in Florida are currently required to allow families the option to opt out of mask requirements, per DeSantis, and individual school districts have been battling the state over their right to enact such mandates in classrooms.
Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Associate, criticized the state's "laissez-faire" approach to the situation "as far as the mitigation strategies and being very restrictive to local government from local school boards and what we can and can't do."
To help better protect everyone at elementary schools, where most students remain ineligible to receive a COVID vaccine, the district is using federal funding to install desk shields "to help protect our K-5 elementary students, who often work in close proximity to each other," they said in an Oct. 11 post on Facebook.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.
The district said it has ordered approximately 50,000 desk shields and expects the installation to be complete "within another month," per WESH2 News. Each classroom is equipped with an air purifier as well.
So far, 433 Polk County school employees and 3,434 students have tested positive for COVID since the school year began, according to the district's coronavirus dashboard. Over 21,000 students and staff have had to quarantine.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.