The first round ended with a year of online learning. Round two brought kids back to the classroom with court battles over mask mandates won by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Round three now has schools trying to balance safety with the governor’s directives and keeping kids in the classroom, which means the rules are different for public and private schools.
As Yanique Bouzi waited outside the gates of St. Mary’s Cathedral School Monday afternoon to pick up her daughters, Adasha and Yanisha Meuscaris, who are in third and seventh grade, from their first day back from the holiday break, the mother expressed her concern over in-person classes – especially after a close family member aged 103 was recently infected with the virus.
“It’s very difficult,” said Bouzi. “Yes, I’m concerned. As they say, it easily spreads out. It’s difficult for parents to control this with their children.”
The K-8 school is one of 61 Catholic schools supported by the Archdiocese of Miami, which announced Saturday that it would be requiring all employees and students over the age of 2 to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status or parental request. The requirement, which is scheduled to remain in place for the first three weeks of January, came after seeing a “substantial increase in positive cases per 100,000 people in the tricounty area in the last four weeks,” a press release from the Catholic organization read.
Florida reported more 85,000 cases of COVID-19 and 61 deaths to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Monday, the same day the U.S. hit a single-day global record of more than 1 million new cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. COVID hospitalizations for children have also outpaced adults, according to NBC News data analysis. Florida is one of five states contributing the most to the rise in pediatric hospitalizations.
Bouzi agrees with the mask mandate, given parents initially were the ones to decide whether or not their children should wear a mask at school, but still feels it isn’t enough. She admitted that remote learning would make her feel at ease.
“I don’t know (what) we’re going to do about it for our children. I don’t know if they’re going to go back to online classes,” she said.
Vanessa Didier shared a similar sentiment. She stopped at the school Monday to pick up her niece and nephew, who are in second and seventh grade.
“Yes, masks can be somewhat effective, but I don’t know to what extent. There is still some concern even with masks (because) there are children who might still be inclined to play with each other and touch each other,” she said. “Of course, with spikes happening, it’s major. There have been a lot of people that I know personally who say they have colds, but they’re not sure what it actually is.”
Differing mask mandates
The mask reinstatement in Catholic schools came one day after the Broward County School Board voted to make masks mandatory for visitors and vendors on public school campuses – but not for students and employees.
The 5-3 decision to keep masks optional yet strongly recommended for students and staff followed a heated discussion, where school board members questioned whether it would be effective to make it a requirement for teachers when students couldn’t be mandated due to a recent state law signed by DeSantis that keeps public school districts from doing so.
“I think it’s challenging to force masking on staff only when we are not legally allowed to mandate student masking,” said Lori Alhadeff, school board member for District 4, during the emergency hearing held Friday.
“I will still say personally that I would have preferred to have had the option to serve my community as an elected school board member and voted to mandate masks for everybody because I believe that is, in my heart, the right thing to do,” Rosalind Osgood, school board member representing District 5, added. “But since I don’t have that option, I’m certainly not going to restrict our staff and not restrict the students.”
“I am absolutely in shock,” said school board chair Laurie Rich Levinson, who was in favor of a mandate for all employees. “After the direction we have taken as a board about using masks as a mitigation tool, we’re now going to say that it’s optional for all? I mean, that’s counter to anything we’ve ever done, and just because there’s been a poor decision by the Legislature, I’m shocked that this board is now going to make that decision that adults who can wear masks don’t have to wear masks.”
The day prior, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced that the district would revise its mask protocols to require all employees, volunteers, visitors, contractors and vendors to wear facial coverings while indoors at any school facility. This includes bus drivers and attendants as well as spectators at school sporting events.
Similar to its neighboring county, Broward, the district would strongly encourage students to wear masks because of state law. But Carvalho said Thursday that Miami’s board would be looking into possible legal action to challenge it. For now, he’s sent a letter to the governor and Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to request additional guidance on the latest surge.
Local bus driver shortage highlights national problem
Carvalho added that the school district is concerned about the transportation of its students and is anticipating bus driver shortages – an issue other states throughout the country are going through. Schools in Wisconsin and Iowa canceled classes on Monday due to shortages in bus staff.
“This is an issue that has impacted the entire nation,” said Carvalho. “There are not enough bus drivers, truck drivers, individuals with the type of certification for the operation of buses and trucks. We have done reasonably well, but we anticipate as a result of this new omicron crisis that there may be additional staff shortages in terms of transportation.”
Phyllis LeFlore, who leads the district’s school bus drivers as president for schools of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1184, said there hasn’t been an outbreak among employees since schools reopened earlier this year. Back in September, she confirmed a growing death toll among employees in her union.
“Everything has been calm,” she said. “With the delta (variant), it did not affect us the way that we thought that it would. We have not had a lot of bus drivers that have been affected over the last few months.”
However, the omicron variant wreaked havoc over the holiday break. Since employees were not working during that time, LeFlore is on the lookout for what might happen as school starts back up again. Aside from promoting the vaccine to every employee she speaks to, she’s been in talks with the district to make sure everything is done to keep employees safe, including disinfecting buses daily and keeping windows open to increase air circulation.
“Prior to us (going on break) for Christmas, we weren’t hearing a lot about this new COVID, but now over the two-week period, it’s been crazy. The lines have been crazy. To tell you the truth, everybody that I speak to keeps telling me they got COVID. They’re not employees, but I know it’s out there,” said LeFlore. “Now that they’ve given out the rapid testing through the district, people can do their (at-home) testing, and I know we’re going to have a serious issue coming up. We just have to wait and see.”
To combat the shortages the district is seeing, she wants to raise the salaries for bus drivers as a way to combat the shortage. M-DCPS drivers earn $15.26 per hour, a number LeFlore says will not attract someone to the position, especially compared to other companies. (She cited Amazon’s starting pay for warehouse workers at $18 an hour as an example.)
“Until they up the salary, I don’t think we’re going to be able to get bus drivers in throughout the state of Florida,” she said.
She believes the focus should not only be on bus drivers, but district employees as a whole.
“I have custodians that are working in these schools still making $11.70 and they are short staffed. I have food service workers that have a manager and a worker maybe at a school and that’s been a really big problem – the shortage is all over the district,” LeFlore said. “Everybody that’s out here, we most importantly have to make sure that they’re safe.”