Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images. Students return to schools in Florida.
Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

To a devoted Puerto Rican second grade teacher in hard-hit Orange County, this comes as no surprise.

Despite the growing concern of teachers, parents and school employees across the state, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that, at least for now, teachers and school staff are not prioritized for vaccination against COVID-19.

For Michelle Pizzini, a Puerto Rican second grade teacher in Orange County, the state’s fifth most populous county, this comes as no surprise.

“I feel we haven’t been a priority for Governor DeSantis since day one,” Pizzini told The Americano. “I believe that older people are a priority, but so are teachers if he wants to keep the schools open.”

Michelle Pizzini, a Puerto Rican second grade teacher in Orange County. Image provided by Pizzini.

Frontline Workers

According to the Florida Department of Health (DOH), currently in Florida seniors 65 years of age and older, health care personnel, long-term care facility residents and staff, and those persons deemed to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 by hospital providers can be vaccinated for COVID-19. This follows an executive order issued by the governor two days before Christmas.

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However, educators and those who work on campus are in contact with hundreds, if not more, people on a daily basis. They are hoping the governor sees them for what they are: frontline workers who are at risk of contracting or spreading the deadly disease.

Pizzini says she loves teaching, and admits that her students are “champs” for wearing their masks at all times, washing their hands, and following the distance protocol inside and outside the classroom “better than some adults.” She also said that her school is doing everything it can to enforce the safety protocols. “They come twice a day to clean the classrooms and that definitely give us a peace of mind,” she said.

“He Does Not Want to Protect Us”

But despite these precautions, the numbers of new cases in her county, as well as all of Florida, continue to be cause for alarm. On the Jan. 19 report published on the Orange County Classroom Teachers (OCCT) website, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) “broke another record with 125 positive cases reported yesterday – 36 employees, 88 students and one vendor/visitor.” The report goes on to say that, of those employees, it is not known how many are teachers.

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In a Jan. 14 interview, Pizzini said that currently there are about 296 teachers with Covid in Orange County Public Schools, but as the report from the OCCT suggests, that number may have grown since then.

Pizzini estimates that a teacher in a school like hers can impact around 1,000 people between colleagues, students, parents, and administrators. “Teachers are getting sick by the minute and can affect a lot of people.”

In the face of these alarming numbers, the governor’s refusal to acknowledge the need to vaccinate educators and school staff leads her to think that “Governor DeSantis wants us in school, but he does not want to protect us.”

Another concern Pizzini shared with The Americano is the sudden lack of transparency, not from the schools, but from the district.

“They started letting us know the schools that were in quarantine and if we had any cases in our school,” she said.  But suddenly, the calls stopped and the information seemed to dry up.

Another Appeal to Tallahassee

Even if DeSantis won’t make all of them a priority for a COVID-19 vaccine, teachers and other school workers who aren’t yet 65, but because of their age or medical issues are worried about teaching, driving a school bus, or working in the cafeteria, among other in-person jobs, hope they will be allowed to be vaccinated now.

Chair of the Orange School Board Teresa Jacobs drafted a petition for that action. But according to Jacobs, the governor has yet to reply to a letter Superintendent Barbara Jenkins sent him in December. In the meantime, teachers continue to teach… and worry.

“Some of my colleagues have had Covid,” Pizzini said. “It is very sad to see how numbers are rising. I believe the vaccine is a good start and can help the schools remain open.”