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17 Florida school district employees have died from COVID-19 since the school year began in August

Seventeen public school employees in Polk County, Florida have died from COVID-19 since the start of the school year on August 10, a district spokesperson confirmed to CBS News.

Five of the people who died were ill before the start of the school year and had not returned to campus to work this school year, said Jason Geary, communications director for Polk County Public Schools. Twelve employees, however, were “actively working” before they fell ill.

“The pandemic continues to have a severe impact on our community, and many officials – including educators, health workers, rescue workers and law enforcement officials – are suffering tragic losses,” he said. -he declares. “Each death is a devastating blow to our community and reinforces the need for all to continue taking precautions to reduce the spread of the disease.”

Although the district has a list of known COVID-related deaths, the information is confidential and Geary said it can be “difficult and perhaps impossible” to determine how and where transmission has occurred in the region. areas with strong community spread.

Polk County is the seventh largest school district in the state and has about 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.

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

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 and indoor places. Masks, however, are not mandatory at Polk County public schools.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has Universal mask mandate prohibiteds in Florida schools. In September, he signed an emergency rule that schools can require masks, but that parents and guardians can opt out at their “sole discretion.” By the same rule, students who have been exposed to COVID-19 but who are asymptomatic are allowed to continue attending school, a decision that goes against CDC guidelines.

The CDC said in August that quarantine is not necessary under this circumstance only for people who have been fully vaccinated. Those under 12 cannot yet get vaccinated, and so far only 65% ​​of eligible Polk County residents have been vaccinated, according to state health data.