These last 24 hours were a time of tragedy in Broward County, Florida, where four public school teachers all died from COVID-19. The local CBS affiliate notes that these deaths come at a moment of heightened tension between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Broward County's school board, which has opted to defy the governor's ban on school mask mandates.
Broward's decision to keep its mask mandate despite the governor's orders was implicitly celebrated in the news article as an obvious move given these deaths, with the Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco saying she felt "relief." CNN similarly used the news hook to focus on DeSantis' mask prohibition. Jen Perelman, a local progressive political activist, tweeted: "I stand with our Broward County school board in defiance of Governor DeSantis. As a local resident with my youngest in HS, school is where our children should be safest. 4 teachers have died from COVID just this week. This is life & death, not a political game. Mask Up."
A casual consumer of this news might come away with the distinct impression that the teachers caught COVID-19 from their maskless students. But school hasn't actually started yet in Broward, so the teachers probably did not contract the disease in their classrooms. Indeed, Fusco noted that they were on summer break. Furthermore, at least three of the four teachers were unvaccinated (the status of the fourth is unknown). CBS saved this detail for the very last sentence of its story; CNN noted it upfront but quickly moved on to discuss masks.
This is shameful misdirection. The media want to pillory DeSantis for banning mask mandates in schools, and to associate this decision with the deaths of teachers. But the lack of vaccination is the more important underlying factor here.
The governor made vaccines available to all teachers in the state as far back as the beginning of March. But in addition to prohibiting mask requirements in schools, DeSantis has also made it very difficult for both government agencies and private businesses to require vaccination. That's the aspect of this story for which DeSantis deserves criticism: His COVID-19 declarations get in the way of individual public schools or districts requiring teachers to get vaccinated as a condition of employment. Yet the mainstream media and many Democratic legislators often appear fixated on masks and mask mandates—even though vaccination is by far a more effective tool for fighting the pandemic.
Instead of governors dictating to schools what policies they are permitted to implement, state governments should adopt broad school choice measures so that families can pick a school that matches their level of risk tolerance as well as giving schools latitude to make their own choices about health and safety measures. Parents who prefer a fully vaccinated (or regularly tested) teaching staff could make that a priority in choosing a school. And teachers and families who prefer not to get vaccinated could select schools where everyone knows and accepts the risks associated with that choice. If a public school wishes to require masks, then parents should be able to enroll their kids elsewhere. The Arkansas legislature is already considering such a proposal.
Meanwhile, the deaths of several unvaccinated teachers should not be cited in favor of a return to ceaseless mandatory masking. Instead, we should focus on letting schools and families have the tools and options they need to stay safe and healthy.