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Florida school district rattled by Covid-related teacher deaths days before classes begin

The deaths prompted officials to stress the importance of mask mandates while also pushing plan to incentivize vaccinations by paying staff hundreds of dollars.

Two teachers and one teaching assistant died this week from complications of Covid-19, rattling a school district in southern Florida only days before students are scheduled to return to classrooms, officials said.

The deaths from employees with the Broward County Public Schools included a female teacher, 48, and female teaching assistant, 49. They worked at an elementary school, according to a statement Friday from the Broward Teachers Union. A second female elementary school teacher also died, the union said. She was 48.

The two teachers and teaching assistant all died within a 24-hour period, union officials said. The union corrected a previous statement from their president Anna Fusco. Fusco incorrectly said three teachers and one teacher's assistant died earlier this week from Covid-19 complications.

"We grieve their losses along with their families and the school communities they left behind," the union said.

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“It really hits because we've been in this conversation about masking up in schools; our own elected governor acting like masks are not necessary,” Fusco told the news station.

Broward County School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood told NBC News on Friday that she learned of three deaths on Tuesday, including a teacher and teaching assistant who worked at the same elementary school.

“It hurts me to my heart. These are people’s lives,” Osgood said. “I’m absolutely scared for the students. That’s why we have to mandate masks. It can’t be optional.”

A district spokesperson declined comment on the teacher deaths, citing the confidentiality of employee medical information. However, the spokesperson provided a statement about how its school board on Tuesday voted 8-1 to mandate masks in schools. The decision follows guidelines from the state health and education departments, the statement said.

Requests to opt-out will be considered, the district said, based on medical needs and individual education plans.

Students return to school Wednesday. District personnel are formulating a plan to offer staff between $250 and $300 to get vaccinated, Osgood said, noting the plan will be funded by district monies acquired from the federal American Rescue Plan.

The federal government sent hundreds of ventilators and other equipment this week to help Florida respond to record Covid hospitalizations.

The devices, which came from the federal government's Strategic National Stockpile, included 200 ventilators and 100 smaller breathing devices and related supplies, said an official with the Department of Health and Human Services.

The surge of Covid infections in Florida is being driven largely by the unvaccinated, public health officials have said.

On Tuesday, 14,787 people were hospitalized for Covid-19, 145 percent more than during the state's previous peak in July 2020, according to the Florida Hospital Association. Nearly 90 percent of the state's intensive care beds were in use, and 85 percent of all patient beds were filled, the group said.

The rising toll from Covid comes while Gov. Ron Desantis has taken a sharp stance against mandating masks in classrooms.

“I don’t understand the governor’s position,” Osgood said. “I just really wish all of the bullying and intimidation would stop so we can focus on educating our students and caring for our staff.”

Across the country, Republican governors like DeSantis have signed executive orders or enacted laws seeking to prevent local officials from imposing new mask mandates. With the school year getting underway as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges, some local officials have decided that defying the measures is the only option.

Earlier this week, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent letters to the superintendents and school board chairs of districts in Alachua, Leon and Broward counties. The letters were obtained by NBC News.

Corcoran wrote in letters to each district that he had "grave concern" over the face mask policy and said they were being investigated for "non-compliance."

The commissioner went on to say that public statements made by each district "indicate that you have no current intentions of complying with this order, which is intended to guarantee choice options to parents/guardians regarding their child while also protecting families' and students' federal and state protected rights to privacy."

Corcoran threatened to withhold money from their salaries and gave the districts a deadline to respond with a plan that would "remedy this glaring non-compliance."

CORRECTION (Aug. 13, 2021, TK ET): A previous version of this article misstated how many teachers in the Broward County School District died this week from Covid-19. It was 2, not 3.