Life

What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in Florida, Where School Mask Mandates Are Banned

Teacher in front of a classroom
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Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives.This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with a teacher in Florida. It has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Sofia Andrade.

I teach AP chemistry at a high school in [Leon County, Florida, and] this is my 16th year teaching. I’ve taught chemistry for the majority of my career, and I’ve also taught some physics. I’ve taught at public and private schools, both in Tallahassee and out of Tallahassee.

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When the pandemic first hit, I was at a well-resourced private school, so we basically knew that all of our kids had decent internet access and computers, so we really did just continue [online]. … We did lighten the load and were flexible for our expectations of the students and helped them as they were learning to juggle things, but we were able to pivot very quickly.

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That school started [again] in mid-August. The local public schools here didn’t start until Aug. 31. Like many districts, they started on the last day that they could under the executive order that forced them to start in August.

By mid-September, the private school was basically at 100% in-person. You could choose to be online, but there was a very small number of students who did that. … Then I switched to the local public school [later in the fall]. My class sizes were larger, but the in-person class sizes actually still went down, because at that point in the year, I would say it was solidly 60 percent of the students were online. And as the year progressed, it decreased for some of my classes—down toward 40 to 50 percent—but none of my classes ever went past two-thirds in person.

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We were able to maintain distancing, and everybody had their masks on, and so it was about as safe as it could be under the circumstances. … We never had close contacts in my class, from what I can tell, and nobody ever got sick from being too close. I commented to my colleague at the beginning of the year that I was setting the lowest bar I’d ever set as teacher for the year: To end the year without feeling responsible for anybody getting seriously ill or dying.

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[At the public school], masks were required all of last year, even after the state started loosening things and some other districts, especially the ones out in the Panhandle, started kind of letting that slide. My students were masked, and as their age groups became eligible for the vaccine, I had students who were getting vaccinated and happily telling me they were vaccinated. I was very happy to be able to be vaccinated fairly early on, too.

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As we were approaching the end of the school year, with everything improving so much, to be honest, none of us really thought too much about it. … Surprisingly, and out of character for me to do so, I was kind of thinking that things really would be fairly normal. I was thinking, “Hey, I’ll have everybody in front of me. I won’t have masks. I’ll be able to really go back to doing hands-on activities in science class again.” And then the numbers just kind of started taking off.

It’s crazy to me that in Florida, the Republican Party is in huge support of home rule—until home rule doesn’t do what the Republican Party wants to happen. In many ways the state really pushes … to allow local jurisdictions to make decisions. And yet now, when it’s a situation where it really can be life or death for students and teachers, for no scientifically justifiable reason, [DeSantis’s executive order to prevent mask requirements in schools is] taking away the best tool that school districts have to protect the people in their schools and in our community.

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Even though I’m vaccinated, obviously there’s been so many breakthrough infections, and I don’t want to take any chances, so I’ll be wearing a KN95 mask. I won’t be resuming hands-on activities with the students yet, so labs will wait until this wave breaks, whenever that may be. I’m hopeful. I’ve got windows that I can safely open up in my classroom to allow for extra airflow, and I’m doing everything that I can so I feel as safe as I can.

Since the executive order, I’ve been trying to advocate for other things that can help: doing a better job of encouraging vaccination locally, requiring masks of all staff vendors and visitors. At least that’s a step that doesn’t put our school funding at risk.

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As teachers have gone back this week, I would say that at my school, 10 to 15% of teachers were masked at our first big faculty meeting. … Right now, if things are not required, there’s going to be a significant fraction of teachers who don’t want to. … I was thinking there would be far more support among teachers for requiring the masks, but just like everything else, it’s split pretty ideologically. There’s a lot of teachers who resented having to wear the mask all year last year and did everything they could to skirt the rules, so it doesn’t surprise me. … But I’m hoping that there’s improving momentum locally as our area has started to see an increase in hospitalized pediatric patients.

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It’s clear that DeSantis is focused much more on his reelection campaign and on his inevitable campaign for president … than he is on keeping the teachers and students and really the community in Florida safe. He keeps doubling down and … making false claims and having “experts” that tell things that are completely false. He’s really taken away the ability for local governments to listen to their local community and experts and do what’s best for the people in that area. It seems pretty clear that it’s been this way throughout the pandemic—that keeping people safe has not been Gov. DeSantis’s top priority.

The fact that we were able to achieve the creation of this vaccine—a very effective vaccine in the time frame that we did—has been absolutely amazing. To take this feat of science and of mankind, and to essentially throw it away by allowing and encouraging conspiracy theories and so many other things that keep people from getting vaccinated? It just blows my mind that we can receive such a great opportunity and then, as a society, fail to take advantage of it and cause hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. The scientific community really stepped up and has done amazing things during this pandemic to try and help people keep people safe, and we ended up seeing politicians just trying to counteract and fight against that at every turn.

After this interview was conducted, the teacher’s district issued a rule requiring masks for all instructors. The district has also asked the governor to require masks for K-8 schools.

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