17 Florida school district workers have died from COVID since August

Seventeen employees of Florida's Polk County Public Schools have died from COVID-19 since the school year began on August 10, a district spokesperson confirmed to CBS News.

Five of those who have died were sick before the school year began and had not returned to campus to work this school year, Jason Geary, director of communications for Polk County Public Schools said. Twelve employees, however, were "actively working" before they became ill.

"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," he said. "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."

While the district does have a list of known COVID-related deaths, the information is confidential, and Geary said that it can be "difficult and perhaps impossible" to determine how and where transmission occurred in areas with high community spread.

Polk County is the seventh-largest school district in the state and is home to roughly 14,000 employees and 100,000 students, Geary told CBS News. It also has the seventh-highest number of cases among counties in Florida, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Since August 23, there have been more than 3,860 cases of COVID-19 within the school district, including 433 employees, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard. Since Monday, there have been 35 new cases of COVID-19, most of which involved students. Hundreds of students have been absent every day from school this year for COVID-related reasons.

The county has a high rate of community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the CDC has urged everyone in the county to wear a mask in public, indoor settings. Masks, however, are not required in Polk County Public Schools.

Polk County school board member Lynn Wilson told CBS News it's a "tragic" situation.

"As board members, our hands are tied; mask mandates are not enforceable," Wilson said. "But I think that the height of the Delta variant outbreak could have been managed significantly better by providing a virtual option. Although the State of Florida does not allow for a virtual option, I will continue to advocate for this approach in anticipation of another variant outbreak."

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has banned universal mask mandates in Florida schools. In September, he signed an emergency rule that schools can require masks, but that parents and guardians can opt out of the requirement under their "sole discretion." In that same rule, students who have been exposed to COVID-19 but are asymptomatic are allowed to continue going to school, a decision that goes against guidance from the CDC.

The CDC said in August that quarantining isn't necessary in that circumstance only for people who have been fully vaccinated. Those under 12 years old cannot yet get vaccinated, and so far, just 65% of eligible Polk County residents have been vaccinated, according to state health data.

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