The covid infection rate in Flagler County is higher than it’s ever been in the 18-month pandemic, and higher than in all but three countries in the world. For weeks, however, there’s been a disconnect between the severity of the crisis as experienced by individuals and at the hospital, where two-thirds of the beds are taken up by covid patients, and in the community at large, even on local government boards, where elected officials urging vaccination and caution have been the exception, not the rule.
That disconnect was on full display Tuesday at the end of a Flagler County School Board meeting. School Board member Colleen Conklin, a 21-year veteran of the board, has never been bashful about speaking her mind, the less so when speaking about students and staff safety. But as she broached the matter of covid safety on Tuesday, even her preface was all nervous diffidence.
She knew the score. David Bossardet, the district’s safety specialist, had earlier in the meeting briefed the board about the district’s new pandemic protocols as school resumes Tuesday. The protocols are more striking by their absence than by their substance. Buses will run at full capacity. No masking will be required, or even encouraged. No vaccination will be required of children 12 and over, or of teachers and staff. No social distancing will be required. It’ll be a do-as-you-can approach. There’ll be no remote learning. There’ll be no restrictions on visitors. In other words, it’ll be just like pre-covid.
The current covid spike is making no difference.
“Considering where we are right now in our community, and obviously our Covid numbers are going up,” Board member Cheryl Massaro asked Bossardet, “is there going to be some kind of plan to reapply to re-evaluating our particular structure between now and a month from now?”
Bossardet circled to No. “I can’t give you a definite answer of, you know, at what point would we reevaluate. We just continue to monitor cases and right now we are seeing a significant amount of cases in Florida and even in our county,” Bossardet said. “I am confident in our plan as it stands. But we won’t hesitate to make any changes that are necessary, and obviously there’s guidance from the federal level, guidance from the state level, and sometimes those always don’t match up. So it’s trying to navigate what works for us and what’s best for our students and staff.”
It isn’t clear what it would take for necessary changes to kick in, given the last two weeks’ totals of over 1,300 infections in the county–a number that at times was more in live with statewide totals for a week, than for a county of just 116,000 people.
So Conklin, after acknowledging her colleagues speaking about how excited they were about the new school-year, began: “I don’t want to sit here and act like or pretend that there’s not a concern with the new delta variant, and want to share some information, and I know we all have a different opinion on this, and that’s fine,” she said. She spoke of Florida leading the nation in the rate of children hospitalized for Covid, and how the virus is spreading faster–if not fastest–than previously among children. Children are spreading it more efficiently, according to the latest data. Conklin questioned the erosion of local control inherent in Gov. Ron DeSantis’s ban on mask requirements in schools in spite of overwhelming evidence about the cheap, accessible, immediate, efficient and significant measure of safety afforded by masks.
No one is calling for closing schools or reverting to distance-learning models, she said, focusing instead on safety measures not taken to ensure continuity in school. “Even if we all have a difference of opinion. Even if members of the community have a difference of opinion, we were elected locally by our community members to make decisions just like this,” Conklin said, coming as close as she did to suggesting that the board should overrule the governor on masks.
She didn’t cross that line: she would not have the votes, even with Massaro’s support. Board member Jill Woolbright isn’t taking a position (she says it’s not her policy decision, would not challenge a state order but would not be opposed to masks one way or the other, if that’s what the administration decided. An eastrlkier version of this article mis-characterized her position as adamantly opposed). Janet McDonald is adamantly opposed. Board Chairman Trevor Tucker, whose pragmatism has moved him left over the years, would have been the only realistic swing vote, but not on this. “I would be opposed to going against the Governor’s current executive order at this time,” Tucker said on Thursday. “We are in a difficult situation trying to navigate the different guidance from the federal, state, and local levels. I personally believe parents should have a choice about their children wearing masks, just as they have the choice for virtual, traditional, or home school. I also encourage any person who is eligible to receive the vaccine to get vaccinated.” (Woolbright notes it’s not the board’s decision either way, but an operational, or administrative, decision.)
The governor’s executive order defers to the state health department “to provide guidance and adopt rules in consultation with DOE,” the Department of Education, she said. “Where’s the guidance, where’s the plan, because we have not been provided with one. But we’ve been threatened to have funds withheld.”
Locally, Health Department Chief Bob Snyder has publicly urged masking indoors, in schools, in accordance with CDC directives. But DeSantis has continuously sent a different message. While he couches his masking language as a choice for parents, his approach has consistently and unmistakably reflected hostility about masks–a hostility reflected in the recent executive order, his push have the state Board of Education provide vouchers to students who would rather attend private schools if they have an issue with masks, and his threat to call a special session to ban mask mandates by law, in schools, if districts persist in defying him. While 62 percent of Floridians support requiring masks in schools, DeSantis’s hostility has given succor to anti-mask parents, who tend to be loud–and scornful: several of them pointedly stood up and walked out of the board room as Conklin spoke.
But they’ve had guidance from the board itself. At one point in Conklin’s comments she spoke of her recent contacts with an emergency room physician at AdventHealth Palm Coast, who sent her–in his words–”Irrefutable objective evidence of mask effectiveness. Conklin relayed what she’d learned from the ER physician about Palm Coast’s own conditions with Covid. Yet as Conklin spoke, McDonald repeatedly shook her head “No.”
It was an astounding contrast: one board member speaking of the scientific, on-the-ground analysis of a Palm Coast ER physician, and another rejecting the account as bogus–as McDonald had rejected other accounts earlier in the meeting.
McDonald often disseminates inaccurate or baseless information about Covid, at times dangerously so. She opposed the mask requirement when it was in effect last year and attempted several times to end it. McDonald was at it again on Tuesday, directing the public against “mainstream media” sources and toward what she calls “more information that’s available, readily available, on the internet,” where disinformation has been rife. “It’s vital that people take in more information than we’re getting from our local media sources,” she said, though Covid reporting by those sources has been grounded in CDC, Health Department and local physicians’ recommendations. McDonald again gave outright false information about the number of covid deaths last year and the claim that “this illness is being monetized.”
Conklin got no reaction from the rest of the board when she was done with her remarks, and the board soon adjourned.
But earlier in the meeting, while Bossardet was presenting, Conklin had asked directly: ““Are we allowed to even have a conversation or discussion about considering masking in dense areas, when kids are on the bus and they’re sitting three to a seat or two to a seat or they’re in the high school and they’re exchanging classes in the hallway, we’ve got kids right up against each other. Do school districts have the ability to mandate or require masks in those types of situations?”
Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, did not respond directly but said any masking requirements would have to come from the state, returning the issue to its non-starting position.
Dr. Eduardo Oliveira, executive medical director of critical care services at AdventHealth Central Florida, is clearer: “I understand the current controversy with respect to masks,” he said during a media briefing Thursday. “But we know the mask is an additional level of protection. Nothing is 100 percent, correct? So we can’t be under the illusion that wearing masks will protect kids from getting Covid 100 percent of the time, but that occasional contact, that contact in which they are sort of passing in the hallway or someone is coughing, you can prevent getting infected the same way that you could prevent yourself from getting infected from the flu.” He stressed: “Any level of protection or any additional protection that you can utilize will prevent one from getting Covid.”
There has been a sense at the school board, whether willingly or not, that the administration’s hands are tied, as Brian McMillan, the editor of the Palm Coast Observer, described it this morning on WNZF’s Free For All Fridays: “They’re in, like, an impossible situation because the people who are anti mask are so incredibly vocal, and some would cause such a headache and a problem at the schools if they required them,” McMillan said. “So I can understand why you would really want to avoid the masks.” (The public comments that preceded the workshop on Tuesday reflected the searing divisions on the matter.)
McMillan echoed Bossardet’s assurance that the district would monitor the situation and react appropriately. Citing the district’s relative successes last year in containing the virus, McMillan said: “Maybe we should give the school board some slack and see what happens. At the same time, how do you eliminate the Governor DeSantis politics from this whole situation? You really can’t. And that also ties their hands dramatically. So what do you? How big of a fight do you want to pick with the people who are adamantly anti mask and with Ron DeSantis at the same time.”
Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler Health Department, who has pushed mask-wearing, is worried about what’s ahead in the school district: “What I’m most afraid of is that the policy that we have going into the next few weeks is pretty likely to resolve in a lot of cases, and a lot of kids out of school,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that we adapt to that. If that happens then adjustments are made. The school board has–I mean the school staff, administrators, have shown a readiness to be open minded, as the facts change, and so we’re just hoping to work with them and adjust.”
Bossardet addressing the school board Tuesday spoke of the rapid testing that will be available through the Health Department to diminish quarantining of students and staff. The testing will be available at the Health Department and a testing site at the county airport, in the morning and the evening (the district did not want it on campus), as long as participants agree to be tested every other day. As long as they’re negative, the students and staffers can return to school rather than quarantine.
“It keeps kids in school, we don’t have the remote-live anymore,” Massaro said. “So quarantining is going to academically affect our kids, greater than it did even last year.”
The contact-tracing process is not changing. When a student or staff member is found to be covid-positive, the Health Department will find out who that person has had close contacts, and those individuals will have a choice: either go through the 10-day rapid testing process, or quarantine for 10 days. But that applies only to the unvaccinated. Bossardet said there are no recommendations for the vaccinated to go through either quarantining or the rapid-testing process–as long as they are not showing symptoms.
“Even though we’re not offering the remote-live option this year,” Bossardet said, “our school leaders are working on very creative ways to try to get additional instruction to any student who’s missing school, whether it’s before-school tutoring virtually or after-school tutoring virtual. They’re working on plans to try to help alleviate some of those stresses.”