Insider spoke with a Florida math teacher about teaching in COVID-19 hotspot Broward County.
A week before school began, three elementary school educators died of COVID-19 complications.
Now, teachers are dealing with political battles over mask mandates and quarantined students.
Jim Gard loves teaching — he’s taught math in Florida for 40 years. But he’s tired of seeing students and teachers die.
One week before school started back up, three Broward County educators died of COVID-19, according to local union officials. All three were unvaccinated.
This wasn’t the first time Gard experienced the sudden deaths of colleagues.
He previously taught at Stoneman Douglas High School for over a decade. In 2018, he stood 50 yards away from the mass shooting that killed 17 students and educators. He said he lost four students and three friends that day.
“I love what I do,” Gard told Insider. “I enjoy every second of it and always have. The biggest concern, of course, is health and safety. That’s the bottom line — I just want this to be over with.”
This is Gard’s first year teaching at Monarch High School in Coconut Creek, a city 37 miles north of Miami. Classes started back up on August 18 as the county recorded some of the highest new COVID-19 infections in the nation. He said seven of his students are currently in quarantine.
According to the Broward County Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard, 357 students and employees have tested positive since the start of school.
Gard said the seven quarantined students tried attending class remotely, but the technology continuously malfunctioned. So he drove to the superintendent’s office the next day in hopes of receiving clearer guidance.
On top of high infection rates and logistical confusion, Broward County has been in a political tug-of-war with Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, who banned mask mandates for public schools across the state.
Despite the governor’s orders, the school board voted to implement a mask mandate for the county’s public schools. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran then threatened to withhold the board’s salaries if parents were not allowed to opt out of the mandate for their children.
Gard said DeSantis should “govern for the people, not for the party.”
“It’s really disappointing,” he added. “I haven’t had kids in 41 years ever act that immature”
A judge ruled Friday that the executive order banning mask mandates was an overstep in authority and that Florida school districts can require students and staff to wear masks, AP reported.
Gard said Monarch High’s students have never complained about the mandate, adding that no parents protested the school rule at Tuesday’s open house. He said the masks have become a fashion accessory, and that the kids are just happy to be together.
“If I have to wear a mask for two more weeks or five more years I’ll do it,” Gard said. “Whatever keeps my family safe, whatever will keep the school safe.”
Jim Gard and his daughter, who is also a teacher in Lee County, Florida.
For Gard, school overlaps with family. His son is a sophomore at Monarch High School, and his daughter is a teacher in Lee County on the opposite side of the state.
“She’s had several heart surgeries, so she’s really at risk,” Gard said, referencing his daughter. “I’m really nervous about her.”
The Children’s Hospital Association reported an increase in pediatric COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the nation. As of August 19, almost 10% of positive cases in Florida were children age 14 and younger.
California, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York City have recently passed vaccine mandates requiring public school employees to receive the COVID-19 shots. Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco told NPR earlier this month that she’s torn over mandating vaccines.
“I don’t think that we should have that position of mandating it right now — especially not me, the union president of 18,000 bargaining unit members,” Fusco said. “But a mask mandate? You’re not injecting anything in your body. It’s just a covering.”
Gard, who is vaccinated, said he sees no problem with mandating the Pfizer vaccine now that it’s received FDA approval.
“Vaccines are a really easy solution to a very complicated problem,” he said.
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