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A Duval teachers group wants the school district to increase COVID safety measures

A group of teachers and staff gathering at the district's headquarters to demand N95 masks, contact tracing and more vaccination campaigns.

A group of Duval County teachers are calling for increased COVID safety measures after more cases were reported in district schools in January than during the entire first semester of the school year.

Teachers with the group Duval Coalition of Rank and File Educators on Tuesday gathered in front of the district's headquarters in Jacksonville ahead of a school board meeting to demand N95 masks, contact tracing and a vaccination campaign.

"There's not really a proactive approach to COVID safety measures, and we don't feel like people should go into work being fearful about their health," said Monica Gold, a sixth-grade teacher at Arlington Middle School. "We don't feel like students should be going into schools where we're not doing everything in our power to make sure that they are safe."

She said she wants the district to make N95 masks easily accessible to teachers and students.

New state law prevents the district from enforcing a student mask mandate, but teachers, staff and visitors are required to wear a mask in Duval schools.

In an emailed statement, the district said it has distributed more than 1.5 million masks through schools so far this school year.

"The district provides disposable face coverings for those who need them," district representative Tracy Pierce wrote. "KN95 masks are provided to school health personnel conducting COVID-19 testing."

But teacher Monica Gold said many people wear cloth masks, and the district isn't providing her with the more protective N95 masks to offer to students.

"It really does feel like we're on our own, and I think that's the most disheartening thing about it," Gold said. "Teaching in general is difficult; teaching in a pandemic is difficult; going to work not knowing if you're going to get sick is scary."

She and other teachers are also asking the district to take on more proactive approach to contact tracing after the Florida Department of Health stopped the practice two weeks ago.

The district responded by committing to send up to one letter per class per week to families with elementary schoolers. But, according to the district, it does not have the authority to require students to quarantine as the health department was able to.

The district is not sending letters to families of middle or high school students who may have been exposed to COVID in classrooms. Instead, the district is reporting all COVID cases on its COVID dashboard and calling parents with schoolwide case updates.

"Because secondary students change classes and experience each school day with an expansive number of peers, school-based notifications remain the most meaningful basis for sharing positive case information," the district wrote in an announcement about the contact tracing change.

The teachers' group said it wants the district to give notification of specific cases teachers might have been exposed to even if there are no quarantine requirements so they can make informed decisions about coming to work.

Mobeen Rathore, an infectious disease specialist at Wolfson Children's Hospital, told WJCT that contact tracing is still important for managing COVID.

"If an infection has occurred in a classroom, the best way to identify who else is infected and who is not infected is by contact tracing, and that is going to help us avert the further spread of infection," Rathore said. "Contact tracing has been, for a long time, one of the sentinel things we do in any outbreak control."

The group of teachers is also calling for vaccine buses to come to campuses during the school day and for sending vaccination information home with kids to their families.

The district has focused on weekend vaccination events in recent weeks, instead of school days. Four schools held COVID vaccination events this past Saturday.

Pierce wrote that vaccination events are held on weekends because "parent attendance and consent is required, which is why we have offered our events primarily at times convenient to working families."

According to the state Department of Health, Duval reported fewer new cases of COVID-19 this week, but the number of people hospitalized remains high. A total of 10,975 cases were reported after case counts hit a peak of almost 20,000 two weeks ago.

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Claire Heddles
Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting.