Tina Certain took a pay cut when she quit being an accountant to become a member of the Alachua County School Board. She still needs the $40,000 or so annual salary – but that’s now at risk in a fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“It makes you pause,” she said. “But the goal is the health and safety of students and staff,” she added, explaining why she was willing to put her salary on the line.
DeSantis is threatening to withhold the salaries of school superintendents and board members like Certain who institute mask mandates in defiance of his executive order that parents must decide how to protect their children in the pandemic.
But Certain is not second-guessing the decision of the board to require everyone in schools in her northern Florida county to mask up to stop the spread of Covid-19, at least for the first two weeks of the school year. Only a doctor’s note – not just a family request – allows someone to opt out.
“If I have to step out and take the risk of one, versus putting 29,000 students and our 4,000 staff members [in danger] … to keep them safe, I’m willing to take that risk,” she told CNN, standing outside mask in hand, ready for when she went back indoors.
Superintendent Carlee Simon detailed to parents in a letter how the rising cases from the highly contagious Delta variant were already affecting Alachua and impacting the board’s decision.
“Two of our employees passed away from Covid,” she wrote. “The number of employees testing positive for Covid has jumped in the past two weeks, even before most of them are back from summer break.”
The board’s act of defiance came as Alachua County students headed back to the classroom on Tuesday, after the last isolating school year. And while children, teachers and staff celebrated the excitement of a new year, many acknowledged that it comes with a sense of uncertainty and tension over the debate on mask mandates.
Parent Emilio Bruna supported the mandate. “It’s just a really great tool to prevent the transmission of disease. And so, it just seems like something we should be doing. It’s logical,” he said, as he dropped off his 12-year-old son for the first day of school at Howard Bishop Middle School in Gainesville.
Florida’s hospitalization rate for Covid is now about three times the national average, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services. And the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the US added 94,000 child Covid cases in just a week.
The mask requirement was a relief for 6th grade science teacher Chloe Winant at Howard Bishop Middle School, a newly constructed school with a well-known magnet program.
“I was really pleased to hear that our Alachua School Board voted that way,” she said.
While unpacking boxes in her classroom and showing off her shiny Van de Graff generator of static electricity, she stressed about the list of 77 things she had to get done before students arrived.
She plans to make use of the school’s garden behind the building, created by a volunteer. It’s outside, she points out, and it could be one more measure she takes to teach kids in an area with better ventilation than the classroom. It could protect her students and prevent her from bringing the virus home to her two-year-old daughter, Ramona.
“We know that layered mitigation strategies work,” Winant said. “If they washed their hands before they touch the material, if we keep socially distant, then that’s going to allow us to keep learning.”
Howard Bishop Middle School Principal Mike Gamble plans to use a handful of mitigation strategies – required mask use, contact tracing, and social distancing. He’s not worried about mask compliance. Distancing has proven to be more difficult with crowded classrooms.
“Six feet? No. Three feet? Maybe with some classes. Not so much for others,” he said discussing what’s a realistic distance he can keep students socially distant.
As the first day of school wrapped up, Gamble said the school didn’t have any major issues related to Covid-19.
The district as a whole had 32 employees and five students test positive for Covid-19, according to Alachua County Public School Public Information Officer Jackie Johnson.
Next week, the school board will revisit its mask policy, and reassess its need.
If it’s up to science teacher Winant – no surprise – she says to follow the science.
“We’re having this big chasm right now in our national discourse about science and how we think critically about what’s happening,” she said. “The best I can do is to teach kids how to think critically about science.”