An uncomfortable Flagler County School Board this afternoon approved a new school-year calendar tailored to the coronavirus crisis. But it did so on a 4-1 vote on the understanding that it would revisit the calendar in September or October for revisions that could apply to the second semester.
The special meeting ended in a whirl of unanswered questions about the threshold that would trigger more delays or remote-only instruction, and in yet more outright false information spoken by Chairman Janet McDonald, who cited as factual bogus claims in a viral video that’s been banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The new calendar pushes the first day of school to Aug. 24 and ends the school year two days late in June. Teachers would have to report on Aug. 10 for two weeks of planning and training. The new calendar will still have 179 instructional days for students, a reduction of just one day from the previous calendar, and 196 instructional days for teachers–no reduction. But it does so at the cost of eight teacher work and professional working days, and at the cost of several off days for students, whose Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks will shrink.
There was unanimity over the delayed start, which also echoed overwhelming public support for a delay, much of it supporting delays longer than two weeks. No one addressed the board in person, but Board Attorney Kristy Gavin spent a long portion of the meeting reading nine pages of single-spaced public comments–37 comments in all–sent in by parents, teachers and service employees, almost all of them calling for delays, some to Labor Day, some to January.
“In the beginning,” Julia Foust told the board, “I opted for my daughter to go to school and do face to face learning. But now with how things have been changing drastically and turning even more worrisome, I don’t think I even want her going to school at all. I feel pushing the start date further out isn’t going to matter. Schools should not be starting just yet at all.”
Much of the focus of covid’s disruptions of schools has focused on students, faculty and parents, with relatively little attention paid service employees–cafeteria workers, bus drivers, teacher aides and the like–who have far fewer options to apply alternative work models, and who make far less money than instructional staff.
Joseph Schneider told the board: “I have been a Flagler County school bus driver for 20 years and honestly cannot wait to get back to work and see many of the kids I have met throughout the years, but not under these circumstances. If you think teachers are afraid to go back, what do you think bus drivers and aides are feeling? if you think a mask is going to help us on a bus in that small confined space then you are sadly mistaken. If one student is sick from covid we are all in trouble and could possibly die. Not only should schools not reopen but there should be no transportation at all, the school board has the power to keep schools shut down and should do so. I personally will not let anyone play Russian roulette with my life. Please wait until the numbers have stabilized for a required amount of time before reopening and as always, without bus drivers and aides there is no transportation.”
The board did not address the comments, shifting immediately to a discussion of the calendar. It was uncomfortable with details of the plan because of the elimination of teacher work days and because of the denseness of the calendar as a whole. But the administration is balancing the need to fit in the required amount of instructional time with limited dollars: the state is not making any extra money available to go along with its order to districts to reopen, and federal aid money connected to the covid crisis is limited.
“To extend the calendar by another week is going to be an additional cost for those teachers in additional pay,” Gavin said.
Board member Colleen Conklin, the lone vote against the proposal, was concerned about the teacher work days “being gone, and there’s zero time in this calendar for teachers to do grading, planning, inputting grades, all the things that they do on that teacher work day, I’m really concerned about that. That’s a tremendous amount of work” expected to be done on teachers’ own time. But she clarified: she was not opposed to pushing the opening of school back two weeks.
Earl Johnson, a senior administrator and the point man on the calendar committee, said it was discussed with teachers, who agreed with it so as not to extend the year further. Conklin said she was “shocked” that that would be the case. (There were three teachers on the calendar committee.) “A lot of the grading is done essentially prior to that day,” Johnson said.
“It seems like a very dense schedule, I’m wondering about relief for students as well as for teachers,” Janet McDonald, who chairs the board, said, suggesting half days. Johnson said it would require adjusting the entire calendar if that were accommodated. “I was going to suggest that we not have a spring break” or “shorten it up a little bit,” McDonald said.
Cathy Mittelstadt, the superintendent, said the administration could return to the calendar committee and “perhaps get the teachers’ voice lifted back up.” She said the goal is to preserve instructional time, but also to be mindful of costs. There is some potential federal aid to defray the costs, but not much, she said.
The board after over an hour’s discussion agreed to approve the delayed opening and the reworked calendar. But Conklin, as she had at a previous workshop, again raised an elephant-in-the-room type of question: at what point does the school district consider going fully remote with education. “What are the trigger points?” she asked. “Is someone going to come out and provide us with–here’s a recommended positivity rate?” She was pointing out the dearth of any available standards the district could apply, and could tack on to the calendar to provide guidance to employees and students.
“It would be nice to have as a state that there is a uniform threshold, not just for Flagler County but for everybody,” Conklin said, which would then trigger “a certain level of response.” She said that guidance should be coming from the health department, the governor’s office or the Centers for Disease Control.
David Bossardet, the district’s risk manager, said no such numbers or standards have been defined. He said he communicates daily with the local health department to go over the numbers. But there’s no sharp clarity on standards, particularly since the CDC has issued conflicting messages–its original school-reopening plan was cautious and guarded until President Trump ordered it to issue a more permissive plan, which it did last week–and the state has punted the responsibility to school districts.
The state health department reports that 55 Flagler County children have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic out of 545 tested, a positivity rate of 10.1 percent. The majority of the cases have been confirmed during the summer surge.
It was then that McDonald, who’s frequently posted or retweeted false claims to her twitter account and used her position on the board to broadcast them, did so again today: “If you didn’t see it, it may still be up online, but Frontline Doctors had a wonderful conference, and they had a wonderful press conference yesterday,” McDonald said, referring to a video featuring people in white lab coats and speaking in the guise of a press conference in front of the United States Supreme Court building. “The entire thing about positivity rates is alarming, because people think it means death down the road. What they said was, it really just means we’re developing herd immunity, which is a great thing. These are not people that are hospitalized, that’s not people that are dying, so a positivity rate has a good impact if it doesn’t advance, and they also were talking about wonderful things are happening.”
McDonald’s claim about the positivity rate building herd immunity was addressed previously by Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia county health departments: it would take years to reach herd immunity, and to do so as a strategy would inevitably lead to an enormous death toll, though that death toll is already evident: the disease has claimed close to 150,000 people in five months in the United States and 660,000 worldwide.
“This idea that people keep bringing up about herd immunity it’s frankly laughable in my opinion,” Bickel said in May. Herd immunity–when enough people have developed immunity to a disease that it cannot propagate efficiently anymore–is believed to kick in at around 60 to 70 percent, or at 200 million people. Even at a 0.5 percent death rate for those infected, “that’s a million people. Are we prepared to let that happen? To have that debate would be fine if it really was a choice between one and the other,” Bickel said. But there is a third choice, in his (and other scientists’) view: prevention by relatively simple means, among them mask-wearing.
The video McDonald referred to made other false claims, including against masks. “This virus has a cure, it’s called hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and Zithromax,” a woman in the video claims. “You don’t need masks, there is a cure. I know they don’t want to open schools. No, you don’t need people to be locked down. There is prevention and there is a cure.” No public health agency or reputable physicians or scientists say there is a cure–though there is a massive effort under way to develop a vaccine–and claims about hydroxychloroquine have been contradicted by several studies aside from two studies that were discredited for being shoddy.
The “frontline doctors” video was reposted by President Trump and his son, whose twitter account was suspended for 12 hours for doing so. It is so riddled with falsehoods and potentially harmful claims that all major social media platforms banned it. “Tweets with the video are in violation of our Covid-19 misinformation policy. We are taking action in line with our policy here,” Twitter told the BBC.
But the video continues to circulate widely and has taken its place among other emblems of defiance, usually right-wing, to the more fact-based and preventive approach about covid-19.
McDonald went on to talk about eating well and building up immunity to covid until Board member Trevor Tucker jumped in. “Can we get back to a point of order here? This is getting way off the topic into health.”
“I just wanted to put it in perspective from one more piece of data,” McDonald said.
“I get that, I just feel like we’re getting into a tangent outside of this instructional calendar.”
Perhaps McDonald–who moments before today’s special meeting was upbraided by a prosecutor and a circuit judge for calling a local jury trial and conviction of a former supervisor of elections a “travesty”–had missed the comment by Alex Giorgianni, a district faculty member who’d submitted remarks that Gavin had read earlier: “Data driven is a term used often in schools,” Giorgianni had said. “In a time when data is so vital to the safety and well being of our students, faculty, and staff, it appears the data is being ignored. Just this past week, the state of Florida experienced a surge of 7,980 new cases of covid-19 in children under the age of 17. If a 34 percent increase in cases amongst children occurred a few weeks before school starts, what will those number look like in a month, when schools all across the state open for business? Children are our future, and it is our job to keep them protected and safe above anything else. How can we, as educators, willingly play a part in putting them at risk? Last year, I was closely impacted by the tragic loss of one of our students. Seeing my students and athletes physically and emotionally shattered was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. If we proceed with this plan, I feel like that experience will be felt by every single person in Flagler county. The cost of even one child’s life is not a price I am willing to pay.”