A dozen of the employees have died since the first day of school on Aug. 10, according to multiple reports

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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.

School Board of Polk County. Florida
School Board of Polk County, Florida
| Credit: Google Maps

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."

Empty school corridor
Credit: Getty

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.

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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.

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