THURSDAY, Aug. 19, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Like it or not, Broward County, Fla., has become a flashpoint for the national debate over reopening public schools in the middle of a COVID-19 surge driven by the highly infectious Delta variant.
Coronavirus infections claimed the lives of three Broward educators within 24 hours of each other, just as schools are set to reopen next week in the south Florida county.
The deaths occurred as the Broward County School Board has been pushing back against Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates in schools.
The county's teachers and staff remain in shock by the deaths of the three veteran educators, one a teacher at Pinewood Elementary School and the two others a teacher and a teaching assistant at Dillard Elementary School, school board member Debra Hixon said in an interview with HealthDay Now.
"Of course it's a shock when anyone young and reasonably healthy seems to die of something that we can't see, right?" Hixon said. "We think that we're in a place where we're getting better, the vaccines are here, people are wearing masks — how is it possible that someone can just pass away like that."
Hixon noted that it's not the first COVID-related loss of a beloved educator that Broward schools have endured. The athletic director at J.P. Taravella High School died in August 2020 from COVID complications.
But the speed at which the three educators died this month left the community shaken, Hixon said.
"I think the shock there was that it was a fast process. They got COVID and died fairly quickly," Hixon said.
As the Broward school district prepares to reopen, the school board is standing behind its 8-to-1 vote to require that students wear masks in schools, Hixon said.
"Our numbers are skyrocketing, and it really is not the time to start peeling back layers of that protection. It's not one thing that works. It is a whole host of protocols that we're following that seem to have done a good job," Hixon said.
"We were at 35% to 40% capacity and doing a good job of maintaining healthy schools, but now we're going back to 100% capacity," she continued. "It's just not the time to scale back."
Hixon compared the mask mandate to other school dress code requirements that have been instituted for safety's sake — for example, banning certain types of footwear because they increase the risk of tripping and falling.
"It's in our school policy that you cannot wear bedroom slippers in school, or flip flops, because they're dangerous and you could hurt yourself. And no one has a problem with that," Hixon said. "Well, we are asking people to wear masks not only to protect themselves but to protect the people around them."
The district is also offering free Pfizer vaccines at 35 middle and high schools for school staff, any student 12 or older, and their families.
"The demand is going up," Hixon said. "I wish that it was even higher, but in sites around the county you can see that people are lining up again to both get tested and to receive the vaccine."
But the Broward school board is also considering whether or not to go further and mandate that school staff get vaccinated for COVID-19, Hixon said.
"We are actually looking into the legalities of being able to mandate vaccines at this time for our staff," Hixon said. "There's a little question on if that's possible because the vaccine does not have a full approval by the FDA."
A student vaccine mandate is also being weighed by the board.
"Our students have to prove vaccinations for all kinds of other issues," Hixon said. "This one is wreaking havoc globally, not just in our own community. So we are looking to see if that's a possibility."
Broward County Public Schools has more about their vaccination program.
SOURCE: Debra Hixon, member, Broward County School Board