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17 employees have died from Covid in a Florida school district since August

"Every death is a devastating blow to our community," according to a statement from the Polk County Public Schools.

Seventeen employees in a Florida school district have died from Covid-19 since the beginning of the school year in August, officials said Wednesday.

Of the staff who died at the Polk County Public Schools, 12 of the 17 had returned to their jobs when the school year began on Aug. 10, said Kyle Kennedy, a district spokesman. The remaining five employees never reported to their jobs this school year.

The district is unaware of how the employees contracted Covid, Kennedy said.

“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 in a statement.

"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.”

Polk County is in central Florida, between Tampa and Orlando, and includes the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. Its school system is among the 30 largest in the country and serves about 106,000 students, according to the district’s website. Kennedy said the school system has about 14,000 employees.

According to the district’s Covid-19 dashboard, as of Aug. 23, there have been 3,855 total confirmed Covid cases in the school system, which includes 3,424 students and 431 employees. Since Aug. 23, 21,536 people have quarantined because of Covid, which includes 20,979 students and 557 employees, per the district’s dashboard.

Masks are optional for students and staff in the district, Kennedy said. Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned mask mandates in the state and threatened to penalize districts that attempt to enforce masking.

School board member Lynn Wilson told NBC affiliate WFLA in Tampa, “It’s a terrible tragedy, it really is."

“Our hands are tied," Wilson said. "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.”

The ban on mandating masks is still making its way through the courts, with a judge ruling last month the state must immediately stop enforcing DeSantis’ ban, only to see an appeals court days later say it could be enforced as it's challenged.

Polk County Public Schools has air purifiers in every classroom, WFLA reported. It is also installing 50,000 desk shields in elementary schools. The project should be completed in November, the district said in a statement.

“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.”