POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — At least 17 Polk County Public School staff members have died from COVID-19, according to a school district spokesperson.
Twelve of them were “active” employees, meaning they had returned to school this school year. Five staff members had not returned.
“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. Every death is a devastating blow to our community and reinforces the need for all people to continue taking precautions to reduce the spread of illness,” wrote Polk County Public Schools spokesperson Jason Geary in a statement.
It is not known where the employees were exposed to COVID-19.
“It’s a terrible tragedy; it really is,” said Lynn Wilson, a school board member. “Our hands are tied. The reality is — you can’t enforce a mask policy. I know a lot of folks wanted a mask policy. I think the real key was allowing a virtual option and we couldn’t do that either.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning school districts from implementing mask mandates, although several school districts have defied the order.
“A lot of what-if’s, you know, if we had more protocols in place like we did last year. It’s kind of a guessing game right now because it’s not just one thing,” said Stephanie Yocum, president of Polk Education Association, on whether the deaths could have been prevented.
Polk County Public Schools has installed air purifiers in every classroom.
It is also in the process of putting 50,000 desk shields in kindergarten through 5th grade classrooms.
“Using federal funding, we are implementing this extra safety measure to help protect our K-5 elementary students, who often work in close proximity to each other and are not currently eligible for COVID-19 vaccines,” reads a post on the PCPS website.
The school district’s COVID-19 dashboard shows 430 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 23.