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South Florida Teachers Are Making Their Own Personal Protective Equipment — Against District Rules

The United Teachers of Dade held a drive in early October to collect PPE supplies, like those shown here, for teachers.
Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

South Florida teachers have gone to some desperate lengths to stock up on personal protective equipment and other supplies since public schools reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic: begging parents to send disinfectant wipes with their kids, crowdfunding for air purifiers, spending hundreds of dollars of their own money on plexiglass dividers, and building makeshift desk shields from materials like PVC pipes and clear shower curtains.

Despite teachers’ protestations, school district officials maintain they’ve provided what educators need. They’ve dispatched millions of masks, face shields, gloves, scrubs, gowns and other items designed to protect teachers from contracting the coronavirus in the classroom.

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The School District of Palm Beach County spent more than $850,000 purchasing 13,000 plexiglass shields for their teachers. At about 2-and-a-half feet by 2-feet, they are too small for some teachers to feel protected.

“It’s not enough to really do much,” said one Palm Beach County elementary school teacher. She asked WLRN not to use her name and to leave out some other identifying details, because she’s afraid of getting in trouble.

Her mother, Linda Brown, retired earlier than she had planned from her own teaching job at a public high school in South Florida. She’s 70 and was afraid of getting sick.

“On March 13, I walked out and didn't go back,” Brown said.

Brown’s daughter didn’t have the same option. So Bill Brown, Linda’s husband, a retired architect, fashioned a desk shield based on some designs he saw online.

“It was pretty easy to do. I ordered the materials from Home Depot, picked it up, and it took about 15 minutes to put it together,” Bill Brown said.

“It's just another little bit of protection,” Linda Brown said. “She goes to school, as it is, in a shield and a mask. With this, I feel a little better about her being there.”

Then the school district clamped down on homemade protective devices, arguing they could pose a fire hazard.

“Unfortunately, many of these designs are in violation of the State fire codes because they are constructed of untested and possibly highly flammable materials,” according to an Oct. 5 memo the district administration sent to school principals.

“In addition, barriers hung from or near ceilings may potentially obstruct the activation and discharge of fire sprinklers and may damage ceiling systems," the memo said. "Curtains may also disrupt air conditioning flow that defeats important air filter functions.

“The only barriers approved are those provided by the School District.”

A spokeswoman for the Palm Beach school district declined multiple requests for interviews with officials who could further explain the policy.

Linda Brown said the order won’t change her daughter’s plans. Her desk shield stands on its own and is not attached to the ceiling.

“They're going to have to go in and take it away from her, because she's not going to take that down.”

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Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.