But in Miami-Dade, where cases have more than tripled since mid-June, it remains unclear whether teachers and students will be required to wear facial coverings to meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's new recommendations that all students, teachers, staff, and visitors who enter K-12 schools wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.
Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho has yet to make a decision, so far having only said that facial coverings be worn on school buses. "We're not going to allow the politics of this issue to interfere with our rational and timely decision," Carvalho said at a press conference on Wednesday.
But masks aren't a contentious political issue among Miami-Dade teachers. United Teachers of Dade, the union that represents thousands of Miami-Dade County Public Schools staff, released a statement that said requiring masks in schools would be in the best interest of students and educators.
Mask mandate or no, several South Florida teachers who spoke to New Times say they will continue to use the pandemic as an opportunity to teach kids about social responsibility and mutual respect. (The teachers asked that their full names and schools not be published, out of fear of retaliation.)
"I remember saying to them that at the end of the day, it's all about respect," Ingrid tells New Times. She recalls telling her students, "Although for some people it's uncomfortable to wear a mask, we're going to wear them and be respectful to others. You don't know what someone's living situation is. If we're sitting here maskless, COVID could be spreading and affecting people at home or in this building."
In her high school math class, meanwhile, Ms. B used exponential functions to explain how viruses can replicate and how quickly people can get sick.
"The kids were like, 'Wow, that's crazy, Miss,'" she recounts. "When the lesson started to click for them, everybody pulled up their masks and asked if they can get some hand sanitizer."
In Stef's high school English class, teacher and students regularly discussed themes of social justice, inequality, systemic racism, and oppression. Stef says their students often found ways to bring those themes into conversations about the pandemic.
"Black people and people of color experience racism everywhere, so we would talk about the disparity in the survival rates between them and white people and what that says about our medical system," Stef remembers.
The conversations would arise organically in the classroom, Stef says, and helped students to think critically about what they were seeing in the media, including the conspiracy theories and misinformation they encountered on social media or hear at home.
"I'm anxious that people who can get vaccinated are choosing to go unvaccinated and making that decision for younger people in their families," Stef says.
When Ingrid disclosed to her students that she had been vaccinated, they asked her if she was crazy.
"They were worried that I was going to turn into an alien or something," she says.
Teachers already play the role of caretakers for students, but their roles in students' lives magnified during the pandemic. They became counselors, public-health experts, and enforcers of safety protocols. The teachers say they had little guidance about how to teach kids about COVID-19, but they tried to do so with empathy.
"I tried not instilling fear in them," Ingrid says. "I think that was very difficult to balance."
For teachers of younger students, the challenges lay in prohibiting behaviors that were once commonplace in the classroom, like hugging, sharing, and sitting at the same table.
"I would just remind the kids that we need to keep each other safe when we're in each other's company," says Sandra, a Miami-Dade elementary school teacher. "And it sounds cheesy, but kids really buy into that 'we're a family and need to protect each other' [conversation]."
For teachers in low-income communities, the pandemic only further exposed already present inequalities. Some students' families couldn't afford masks, so Ms. B spent her own money to purchase boxes of medical-grade face coverings to hand out to students. Other students disappeared from online lessons because their families didn't understand the new digital platforms. There were even students who lost parents to COVID-19 and couldn't focus.
Ms. B says it already felt like her school received disparate resources compared to schools in higher-income communities. She says the pandemic only exacerbated those conditions. She doesn't believe her classroom was ever sanitized during the pandemic. On the last day of school last year, her students swept the floor of their classroom and gathered mounds of dust and dirt, she says. For much of the school year, there was no soap in either the students' or teachers' bathrooms.
"The same students you've been neglecting before the pandemic are getting it worse during the pandemic," she laments. "It's disgusting and dehumanizing."
All the teachers who spoke to New Times say they believe that learning in the classroom rather than online is the best thing for students — but only if everyone at school follows safety protocols and wears masks. They believe that the school district's current position on safety protocols isn't sufficient to protect their health and that of their students.
"We as teachers know there is nothing more effective than having our kids in the class with us," says Sandra, the elementary school teacher. "[But] if we're sending everyone back to school with no protocols, and if we're going to be exposing each other and making families sick, then how positive is that?"
Marcos, a Miami-Dade high school teacher, isn't certain that it's safe to return to in-person classes with cases increasing and COVID's Delta variant on the rise.
"We know for a fact that students benefit more from in-person teaching," Marcos says. "But of course, we always have to keep in the back of our minds the worst-case scenario. What if a student gets extremely sick? Was it worth it? For that one student and one family, I don't even want to think about it."