Meeting for the first time since their ugly, chaotic meeting of Aug. 17, Flagler County School Board members this afternoon heard directly from the medical director at the Flagler County Health Department. He proposed what, in his view and that of the global consensus of the medical community’s view, would help slow the spread of Covid in schools, which are now a driving factor of the disease in Flagler, and cut down on droves of students having to miss school because of mandatory quarantines: universal, mandatory masking.
A majority of the school board was unmoved–or at least not moved in the recommended direction–with two school board members challenging the physician and the meeting adjourning without indications of substantial changes.
For the first time this year–and the first time going back to last school year–the Flagler County School Board administration had invited Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler County Health Department, to the table for the workshop. It was a clear signal that the administration was willing at least to hear about stricter covid-prevention measures than it had been enacting so far, or to indicate that its ears are still open to different approaches as reflected by different board members.
After Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt enumerated Covid’s toll on children’s attendance–over 800 infections, 2,234 quarantines in a district of 13,000–Bickel explained what would work best to address a momentous surge of Covid-19 cases in Flagler schools since classes resumed four weeks ago–more cases in that stretch than all those accumulated last year, and half the total cases in the county.
His recommendation: universal, mandatory masking.
“Our feeling is the best mix of strategies at this point is to intensify the mitigation including universal mask-wearing and de-emphasize the high cost, low impact part which is all this contact tracing,” Bickel said. A board member had earlier asked about asymptomatic students having to be quarantined and never developing symptoms. “The vast majority of kids who get sent home don’t get Covid and don’t have symptoms, they don’t have symptoms because they don’t have Covid but then a lot of them with Covid don’t get symptoms,” the doctor said.
Masking, he said, “will have a significant positive effect,” Bickel said. In an additional disclosure the board members were not aware of, David Bossardet, the safety specialist, said that it would also eliminate the need to quarantine non-symptomatic close contacts of students confirmed to have Covid. That would significantly cut down on absences required by quarantining. “There is CDC guidance that if there is a universal masking policy in a classroom setting, a student would not need to quarantine, as long as they were wearing a mask and they were asymptomatic,” Bossardet said. Close contacts, in other words, would not necessarily have to miss school. “As long as they were asymptomatic, if everybody in the classroom was wearing a mask. There’s no need for students to miss instructional time.”
Even though school board members have been frustrated by the high number of quarantines and infections, a majority of three have refused to impose a mask mandate. They turned down one such move on Aug. 17. They are citing both Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order banning such mandates and what Board members Jill Woolbright and Janet McDonald repeatedly refer to as “conflicting” data about what works and what doesn’t. McDonald is more categorical: masks not only don’t work, but harm children, she said, inaccurately, today.
“It is illegal for us to mandate masks,” Woolbright said, citing state government and education officials. Leon County Judge John Cooper on July 30 ruled that the DeSantis order is illegal, and in his written order issued on Sept. 2, enjoined the DeSantis order: “I also enjoin the ‘Enjoined Defendants’ from enforcing or attempting to enforce the Executive Order and the policies it caused to be generated and any resulting policy or action which violates the Parents’ Bill of Rights as outlined in this Final Judgment,” Cooper ruled. But appealing the decision, the DeSantis Administration got a stay of the Cooper order, which may or may not prevail, depending on further pending decisions on that stay.
As Board Attorney Kristy Gavin explained, the court decision did not address the Health Department’s rule on masks (a rule that requires broad opt-outs), because the department was not a party to the lawsuit. “That stay is currently in place until either Judge Cooper or the First DCA removes the stay,” Gavin said, referring to the First District Court of Appeal.
At least a dozen school districts in the state are defying the DeSantis order either way and imposing mandatory, no-opt-out masking policies (with the exception of medically approved opt-outs). That’s the approach Board members Colleen Conklin and Cheryl Massaro had sought in mid-August, and would have supported again today, if the approach was enacted through the superintendent’s operational authority. But with Board Chairman Trevor Tucker still sticking with the stricter reading of the law as it stands now, there’s no such change ahead.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint what will and will not make a difference,” Woolbright told Bickel, referring to the way last year mask-wearing was more prevalent, though she describe dit in more categorical terms than was the case in Flagler: “It was universal mask, and everybody was swearing masks.” Not quite. The mask “mandates” in effect even then were all voluntary, and mask-wearers were, while more prevalent, by no means universal–except in schools, where masks were mandatory by the superintendent’s orders.
“I’m all for layering our mitigations, but it’s just hard for me to put my mind around how we can say just this one thing is the catch-all,” She said–again, mischaracterizing Bickel’s point. Masks are one of the measures that would help, he said.
There are some changes ahead, namely in the way the district will conduct contact tracing once informed that a student has tested positive. Rather than conduct that contact tracing through individual teachers, as the Health Department does now, a school-based liaison will collect the information from teachers and convey it to the Health Department. It’s an internal change that’s not expected to alter the way students’ parents are informed of their Covid status.
The workshop nevertheless was the first occasion in over a year of the pandemic that an actual medical professional sat at the table, providing insights, factual and analytical, as opposed to board members batting around assumptions, opinions and gleanings from this or that article, this or that social media platform.
But the factual and professional did not have much of an impact on opinions that since last year have become entrenched as unshakable faith, however erroneous.
Janet McDonald, who has peddled innumerable conspiracy theories and false information about masks and the pandemic–and who has no medical degrees or expertise–again did so directly to Bickel, claiming masks are not effective–that the virus goes through and around them, and that “a lot of negative things” can happen to children wearing them. She also claimed that “asymptomatic people do not spread nor do they harbor Covid,” an gross falsehood, and followed it up with the claim that “The CDC themselves said masks were 1 percent effective in a lot of their literature over the last year and a half,” also a gross falsehood. Then she claimed that the Covid vaccine “is not a vaccine,” nor was it approved by the Food and Drug Administration–again, flat-out falsehoods. Bickel said repeatedly that she was speaking falsehoods, at one point exhaling, “Oh, Janet,” as he sat just a few feet from her. McDonald kept speaking.
As she did so and the discussion, with a mostly flustered Bickel, narrowed down to details of one form of testing against another, one variant or another, Tucker halted the slide, asked for the legal analysis Gavin provided, then ended that segment of the workshop, since the board was required to hold a 5:30 p.m. budget hearing. A few other items reflecting how much chafing there is between board members at the moment flared, but again Tucker deferred them to a board “retreat” the panel is holding later this week, in the same room, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the same third-floor meeting room at the Government Services Building, 1769 East Moody Boulevard, Bunnell.