‘It’s heart-wrenching’: Polk music teacher dies from COVID-19, union president says

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A music teacher and an elderly bus driver join a tragic and growing list of COVID-19 deaths among Polk County Public Schools faculty and staff, the head of the teachers’ union said.

Only one staff member who passed away from COVID-19 this month was actively working at the time of their exposure, according to Polk Education Association president Stephanie Yocum.

Students and staff at Chain of Lakes Elementary School in Winter Haven wore purple Tuesday to remember music teacher, Erica Miller.

She died from COVID-19, Yocum said.

Miller had not returned to campus this school year, a spokesperson for Polk County Public Schools said.

Source: Chain of Lakes Elementary School

“Mrs. Miller’s warm personality and bright smile will be missed by both the students and staff at COLE,” read a Facebook post on the Chain of Lakes Elementary School Facebook page.

“It’s teachers, it’s staff. It’s bus drivers. I don’t even know what to say anymore,” said Yocum. “I get a text it seems like everyday now, ‘did you hear about this person?’ ‘Did you hear about that person?’ It’s heart-wrenching.”

Last week, 8 On Your Side reported on the COVID-19 deaths of Lake Shipp elementary school teacher Kelly Peterson and Purcell Elementary paraeducator Norma Reyes, whose husband died six days later.

John Croy, 70, a bus driver, died from COVID-19 last week, according to Yocum.

School officials say he did not return to work this school year.

“In the month of August, I think we’re climbing up pretty close to ten now. We didn’t have that the whole entire school year last year,” said Yocum.

Polk County Public Schools could not confirm that number.

A PCPS spokesperson did confirm two staff members at East Area Adult School, who had not returned to campus this school year, died recently.

They died from COVID-19, according to Yocum.

“Our community has suffered heartbreaking losses this year due to COVID-19. This pandemic has severely impacted our schools, hospitals, law enforcement agencies, and families throughout Polk County. Some of the victims include employees from Polk County Public Schools, and we are devastated by their passing,” wrote PCPS spokesperson Kyle Kennedy in a statement.

In the statement, the school district also advocated for vaccinations.

“We’re in a spot this year that we couldn’t have even imagined last year and last year we had e-school. We had mask mandates,” said Yocum.

Masks are now optional in Polk County schools.

“Do you think you need a mask mandate now?” asked 8 On Your Side reporter Staci DaSilva.

“Absolutely,” said school board member Sarah Fortney.

Fortney said she tried for a mandate at the last school board work session but did not have support from a majority of the board.

“If we could somehow find a compromise with masks, that would be very valuable. I know they’re not 100% effective but they do mitigate,” she said.

According to data provided by Polk County Public Schools, 297 staff members have reported being positive for COVID-19 from August 2 – August 27, with 223 quarantined.