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Beachland Elementary becomes first school closed here by Covid surge

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of September 2, 2021)

The closing of Beachland Elementary School until Sept. 7 amid a COVID-19 outbreak shows why students and educators must be required to wear a facemask on campus, several parents said.

The school district shuttered Beachland Elementary School on Friday (Aug. 27) after 14 educators – more than a quarter of the staff – tested positive for the virus since the new school year started Aug. 10.

By Monday (Aug. 30), a total of 15 staff members and 26 students at Beachland Elementary had tested positive for COVID-19, school district records show.

The 41 COVID-19 cases so far this year amounted to more than twice the total at Beachland Elementary for the entire 2020-2021 school year, when Florida Department of Health reported 16 cases.

The virus was spreading so rapidly at Beachland Elementary, some of the district officials assigned to substitute for ill teachers and administrators have also gotten sick, said School Superintendent David Moore.

Moore’s Aug. 26 decision to shut down the Vero Beach barrier island’s only public school came two days after the School Board voted 3-2 on Aug. 24 to again require students and staff members to wear a facemask on campus when social distancing is not possible.

Some Beachland Elementary School parents said they’re glad the School Board reinstated the mandatory facemask policy because they believe it slows the spread of the virus.

“It just reiterates how important it is to wear a mask,” said Stacy Hazell, whose daughter is a third-grader. “Last year we sent our children to school wearing masks and we didn’t have any issues at all.”

The voluntary facemask policy put in place when schools reopened resulted in relatively few students and teachers opting to wear masks at Beachland Elementary, Hazell said.

Kristi Challenor, who has twin third-graders at Beachland Elementary, said she would like to see the school district reinstitute the full program of health and safety initiatives put in place for the 2020-2021 school year, including requiring all to wear facemasks on campus.

“Masks are a great first step, but we all know that’s not all they need to do,” Challenor said. “They obviously need to implement the safety measures they had last year. We’re a little bit behind the eight ball here.

“We opened the school year with masks and social distancing and these protocols,” Challenor said. “The district focused on all these different measures so people knew exactly what to do and the kids knew what to do in school too. Now I think the district needs to find a way to communicate all those things again, so we can try to limit any more spread, especially at Beachland.”

Daniel Bowman, whose son is in third grade at Beachland, said the schools could make the mask mandate more palatable by offering students new disposable masks between classes.

“I think new masks every now and then throughout the day wouldn’t hurt,” Bowman said. “I think they just need to keep following the rules and provide new and fresh masks more often.”

However, the mandatory facemask policy remained a hot-button issue in Indian River County as several parents urged the School Board on Aug. 24 to continue the optional facemask policy put in place for the new school year.

John Corapi, an anti-mask activist who frequently speaks at School Board meetings, claimed mask mandates in schools across the country have triggered an increase in mental illness and suicide attempts.

“The masks don’t work and they keep kids isolated,” Corapi said. “They don’t protect them from COVID, they don’t protect them from the Delta variant.

“We don’t need kids to die from suicide because they’re not dying from COVID,” Corapi said. “If you’re voting for masks, you’re voting for COVID stress disorder, you’re voting for kids attempting suicide in the future.”

Despite the anti-mask protestations, COVID-19 continued to spread across Indian River County and its public schools.

As of Monday (Aug. 30), the school district reported a total of 333 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the new school year started on Aug. 10 and 629 students have been quarantined.

A total of 136 staff members have tested positive for the virus, including 22 at Vero Beach High School, 10 at Storm Grove Middle School, and nine each at Treasure Coast and Citrus elementary schools, district records show.

“Where we are as a district is not a good place,” Moore said Friday.

District officials are also considering closing Treasure Coast Elementary School, where 32 students have tested positive for COVID-19, Moore said.

A fourth-grade teacher at Treasure Coast Elementary School, Tabitha Blair, died Aug. 19, reportedly from COVID-19 contracted outside of work. The school held a fundraiser for her family Aug. 26 with students wearing clothes with tie-died and flamingo-themed clothing in her honor.

A kindergarten teacher at Fellsmere Elementary School, Sarah Zevallos Gonzalez, died August 26 from COVID-19, a week after testing positive for the virus, Moore said.

“Students who had a teacher last Friday are going to have a hard time understanding why they have to have a new teacher,” Moore said Friday (Aug. 27). “It’s been a real rough week for us.”