An enrollment-based tally by the Flagler County school district shows that 4,278 of the district’s 11,500 students, or 37 percent, will be attending school virtually, the rest attending in person, at the district’s nine schools.
A June survey by the district had found that 28 percent of parents with children in schools intended to opt for remote education. But that was before Florida became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, with covid-19 cases in Flagler tripling since, including numerous infections among children.
Of those choosing the remote option, 2,831 students, or 25 percent, have chosen the remote-live option, which entails daily instruction as if the student were in class, but seated at a computer at home and following class through a live stream. The student is expected to attend class and furnish the same amount of work as students in the classroom. Another 1,447 students, or 12 percent, will be enrolled in iFlagler, the county’s equivalent of Florida Virtual School. Those classes are not live. The student sets his or her own pace within a semester framework, with contact with teachers on an as-needed basis.
Rymfire Elementary expects the lowest in-person attendance, at 53 percent. Indian Trails Middle is at 56 percent for in-person attendance, and Buddy Taylor Middle School at 61 percent. Both high schools, however, expect 66 percent in-person attendance.
While it isn’t absolutely certain that school will resume on Aug. 24, after a two-week delay, the current plan is that school will open that day. It is also not clear what criteria the district will follow should it decide to go to all-remote instruction again, as was the case after spring break in the last school year.
School Board member Colleen Conklin attempted for the second or third time to find out what that criteria is–or would be–during a meeting of the school board Tuesday. Neither Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt could provide it nor was the school board willing to set it. The Flagler Health Department has so far refused to set a standard, deferring to school officials, even though school officials claim they will follow health department guidance.
Mittelstadt and the district are under state orders to reopen in-person schools. But that order was issued just before the major spike in cases, and in a haze of contradictory or absent guidelines, leaving districts to scramble for a way forward on their own. Mittelstadt’s approach has been to develop as many learning options as financially and contractually possible while navigating the shoals of uncertainty and leaving the door open to a possible deferment of in-person instruction.
“We have created a very nimble return to school plan, and we will be responsive,” Mittelstadt said. “If the conditions are not right on the 24th, we will vet all of that, bring it back to the board, and make a determination that takes care of protecting all of us. The end game here is, we need to provide instruction to our students, and I know that many of them need us back in the buildings, so we want to try to preserve that opportunity. I appreciate everyone’s patience as we continue to work through this, and just recognize that it is ever-changing.”
As it had at its previous meeting, the board had heard during the public-comment segment a large number of anxious concerns, questions and doubt from parents about the reopening.
“We are putting the whole community at risk by reopening schools,” one comment read. “Teachers don’t feel safe. Most parents said in a
survey that they’re “very concerned” about sending their kids back to school. So why are we taking a chance on opening when we have the ability to do virtual school? This district isn’t ready to open. We can’t afford to have teachers, staff, and students to become seriously ill, or sadly, lose their lives. We need for our school board and the administration to consider the real risks of opening up our schools in the middle of a raging pandemic.”
What is the comprehensive plan for safety and school closure?” another asked. “For example, what is considered a cluster?” Neither the district nor the health department have provided that answer. Many questions an concerns were from faculty or other employees. Another wrote: “I’m afraid if we start face to face in a couple of days, it won’t last long and we’ll be back to virtual learning and teaching. Why not start virtual and have high hopes of returning face to face when we have less cases, numbers, and deaths.”
Remarkably, there wasn’t a single comment fully supportive of a return to school as projected by the district–or even questioning the covid data. That contrasts with the 63 percent of parents who have opted to send their children back to school in person. (See the full set of comments here and here.)
“The Department of Health is not going to give us a positivity rate, or 14-day average, hospitalization rate or death rate,” Conklin said. The health department is providing those numbers, but not tagging them to an actionable threshold for school openings. “So at some point we as a board and as a leadership team need to look at what the data say, and is there a particular threshold.”
Conklin agreed that opening schools provides “a number of health benefits to our students,” but she returned again and again to needing “data we can look at so we can separate as much as possible the emotion of it and look at the science involved in it.” She added: “Regardless of our own personal feelings on the situation, there are people that are concerned and they’re frightened, and we have a staff that is concerned, and they’re frightened, and they have a right to be validated, as well as the parents and the families. I think what we can do is respond in the best way that we can by acknowledging that, and then try to make sure that if we are offering that brick and mortar option, that it is as safe as possible as it could be.”
School Board Chair Janet McDonald has been pushing for reopening the schools and downplaying the severity of the pandemic. She did so again at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I know that a lot of people don’t like to hear good data, but there is data that there has been no covid transmission from a student to a teacher in the world, so–,” McDonald said, before Conklin interrupted.
“But Janet that’s what I’m talking about,” Conklin said, looking for clarity on the word data.
“I’m not going to have a conversation right now,” McDonald said, cutting off Conklin in turn. “This was stated as a piece of data. I let you have your statements. I would like to have other people who have a world stage have said these things. I think sometimes when we focus on the negative, we don’t have room for any positives, and the best thing we can do for ourselves is be healthy, make sure your immune systems are strong. We have an incredible on-board system that is self-healing if we allow it to be strong. And there are really important things we can do as a district.”
McDonald was referring not so much to data as to a single epidemiologist in England–Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University–who got a lot of press on July 22 after making the claim that there had been not a single recorded case of a covid transmission from student to teacher. The statement was just that–an observation. It was not based on a study or anything more scientific than Woolhouse’s conclusions, though studies have shown that children 9 and younger are less susceptible to infections or to infecting others.
The most authoritative study to date on school-based infections was conducted in France in June, based on data gathered in late April, and finding no student-to-teacher infections. But the study was accompanied by numerous caveats, among them that it involved only elementary-age students, that several students and teachers had been infected just before school closed for vacation (then for lockdown, much as it did in Florida), though infection was attributed to home environments at that point.
Last week, however, the Centers for Disease Control issued a study of an outbreak at a Georgia sleep-away camp attended by 597 youth campers between June 17 and June 27, just weeks after Georgia, with great fanfare, had announced its reopening, with Florida following suit closely behind. All the campers were required to show proof of negative covid-19 tests before enrolling. “Most components of CDC’s suggestions for Youth and Summer Camps” were followed, according to the study.
But within days the camp started losing students and staffers to covid infections, and camp closed on June 27. Only 344 of the 597 people at camp were tested, so some cases may have been missed. Within that group, 76 percent were positive. “Attack rates increased
with increasing length of time spent at the camp, with staff members having the highest attack rate (56%),” the analysis found, a dramatic contradiction of the claim that there’s been no transmission from student to teacher anywhere on the globe, though it could be argued that camp is not a school (though camp is mostly outdoor, school is not).
“The report is likely to add fuel to an already polarizing nationwide discussion about whether sending children back to crowded school buildings is worth the risk, in large part because so little data has been available about children’s vulnerability to the infection and their ability to transmit the virus,” the Washington Post reported.
There are also reports of spiking covid cases in reopened child care facilities in California, among children and staff.
In Flagler, according to the latest health department pediatrics report on covid, 75 children 17 or younger have tested positive for the virus, out of 668 tested, a cumulative positivity rate of 11.2 percent–significantly higher than Flagler’s overall positivity rate of 7 percent. Twenty-six children in the state have multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a covid-related condition where, according to the CDC, “different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs.”
None of those details or references were part of the discussion at the board meeting of course, a discussion that took place at the very end of a very long pair of meetings that had clearly exhausted the participants.
“We hear a lot about the fears in our public comments and the counter to that is, the consequences of the extended school closures and not going face to face,” School Board member Andy Dance said. He said even “the beloved Dr. Fauci,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert, came out for face to face instruction–a bit of an exaggeration: Fauci’s statements in interviews has been more nuanced, pressing for reopenings of schools where possible but warning that children older than 9 are as infectious as adults, and a lot is still unknown.
In a town hall with teachers, Fauci said: “In many respects, unfortunately, though this may sound a little scary and harsh—I don’t mean it to be that way—is that you’re going to actually be part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know. Remember, early on when we shut down the country as it were, the schools were shut down, so we don’t know the full impact, we don’t have the total database of knowing what there is to expect.”
Dance said the district has prepared as much as it could. “The wild card is making sure everybody is following the precautions so that in three weeks we’re at a level that it’s safe to go back,” Dance said. “I hear all the public comments as though it’s an easy decision. It’s very complicated because of the effects on children to stay out of that face to face. It’s a losing-sleep proposition at times,” with personal stories that “hit you hard.” He credited the administration in getting to the point where a safe reopening may take place.
Flagler County Students Enrolled in the 3 Learning Options for Fall 2020
|In-person||Remote-live||iFlagler||Total Students||Enrollment in May 2019|
|Bunnell Elementary||725 (67%)||230 (21%)||123 (11%)||1,078||1,160|
|Belle Terre Elementary||802 (61)||312 (24)||207 (16)||1,321||1,452|
|Old Kings Elementary||732 (63)||212 (18)||221 (19)||1,165||1,254|
|Rymfire Elementary||507 (53)||343 (36)||115 (12)||965||1,094|
|Wadsworth Elementary||615 (68)||191 (21)||93 (10)||899||954|
|Buddy Taylor Middle||613 (61)||225 (22)||169 (17)||1,007||908|
|Indian Trails Middle||524 (56)||273 (29)||146 (16)||943||920|
|Flagler Palm Coast High||1,684 (66)||654 (26)||218 (9)||2,556||2,534|
|Matanzas High||1,052 (66)||391 (25)||155 (10)||1,598||1,642|
|Totals||7,254 (63)||2,831 (25)||1,447 (12)||11,532||11,958|