New Zealand went 102 days without a coronavirus case. Last Wednesday morning four new cases were confirmed in a single family in Auckland, the country’s largest city, with 1.7 people. The city went into immediate lockdown for at least three days, what it calls Level 3 lockdown, which is similar to our own lockdown in April: no movement except for essential services, all schools closed, no gatherings of more than 10 people allowed. The rest of the country was ordered to Level 2 lockdown, with looser restrictions. The government was ordering a testing blitz and a slew of other public health measures, sparing no dime.
That was for four cases. A day later, the count had risen to 17, and by today the count was 69. We had 17 cases in a single day last week and finished last week with 88 cases in Flagler, a county with a population 15 times smaller than Auckland. What did we do? We welcomed back teachers, threatened them with job loss if they didn’t show and moved on to training them for the big return of 7,000 students to nine campuses even though the governor himself has not lifted our own Phase 2 restriction on building capacity of no more than 50.
You can’t have more than 50 percent capacity in a restaurant, but capacity of 63 percent, and a lot more when you include faculty, is fine in schools. You’re asked not to have gatherings of more than 50 people, but 725 students at Belle Terre Elementary, 1,700 students at FPC, 1,000 at Matanzas (and more when you include faculty and staff) is all fine.
We’re forcing teachers and other employees into a situation they have no control over, into an environment that does nothing to help contain this pandemic and that may very well help accelerate it even as we are once again seeing numbers declining, though from stratospheric heights. It doesn’t matter how prepared the schools are. It isn’t if there will be outbreaks in our schools. It’s when there will be outbreaks, though the district’s intention to keep most infection information from the public at large is disturbing. The district is doing nothing less than knowingly endangering faculty and students. Knowing the numbers of this epidemic, it’s not a matter of if, but when, a school employee and eventually a student, will die. (Elias Ramirez, a dean at a Crescent City middle school, died of covid last week. He was 47. Putnam also recorded the youngest death to covid in Florida: a 9 year old girl.)
For many students and school employees, for many parents, going to school comes down to something like Sophie’s choice, if you recall William Styron’s character who had to choose which of her two children would live and which would die. It’s not an exaggeration. Many of us are faced with a choice that at least entails the risk of contracting a disease whose incidence of hospitalization and death is nothing to toy with.
No one should be placed in that situation when the numbers are what they are–not just the incidence of lethality, but the high number of infections still prevailing in Flagler and Florida. Schools can probably enact the recommended safety precautions, assuming they can get cleaning supplies, masks and safety equipment in their teachers’ hands. But schools aren’t segregated from the community around them, and protecting against this virus isn’t like protecting against an assailant with a gun. You can’t just lock doors. Not when the entire community around you, when the air you breathe, is the assailant. Yet that’s the situation in which the district is choosing to place its employees and students, and by extension, the community around it.
I don’t mean to pick on the Flagler district. It’s no different a district than hundreds like it across the country. They’re doing the same thing, caving to political pressure the way communities caved in May and reopened prematurely. Flagler happens to be my home district. If I were living in Arizona, I’d be despairing over the same follies there (where, for that matter, my daughter is a teacher and is expected back in school this week.)
I doubt this is what most administrators in the district want to do. This is what they’re being forced to do by a hapless governor who thinks ordering schools back in session in a state that remains the epicenter of the pandemic in America is the wisest course. He’s forced districts to revolutionize their models without providing them an additional cent to do it with, or giving them the flexibility to decide whether to open and how. Of course in-person instruction is best. Of course reopening must happen when feasible. But if this is a war against an invisible enemy, as so many politicians refer to it when convenient, then let’s act like it. Prudent states and districts are keeping their campuses closed and enacting remote-only education. It’s not ideal. But it beats Russian roulette.
Florida is more Tarzan than Odysseus when it comes to prudence. There’s nothing a little chest-thumping can’t fix. In May Florida did as Georgia did, reopening prematurely as DeSantis and his disciples bragged. By June, case loads were soaring. Florida became a laughing stock of incompetence on a scale now measured by a daily death tally in the hundreds. Georgia opened its schools a few days ago. It didn’t take long for 1,200 students to be quarantined in a county in suburban Atlanta. We’re about to follow. It’s already happened in Martin County, where elementary students were sent home a day after reopening.
There’s a lot we don’t know about covid-19, and a lot of that has to do with the spread of the virus among children or from children to adults. There’s also a lot we do know. To suggest that children don’t get sick or don’t sp[read the virus, as our acting president did just last week, is false: 97,000 children were infected in the United States in July alone. Most don’t get sick. But among those admitted to hospital, 1 in 3 end up in intensive care. Blacks and Hispanics get sick at far higher rates. If children 9 and younger are less likely to spread the disease, those older than 9 spread it just like adults, according to the largest study on children and covid to date. Putting people together in large groups, whether you distance them or not, whether they wear masks or not, is an invitation to risk as long as your community is still experiencing community spread. That’s the issue here: Flagler is nowhere near a safe zone.
A few weeks ago at a school board meeting the chairman asked rhetorically how European schools have managed to reopen. But they’ve done so–when they have, anyway–because Europe after its own stumbles tamed the disease with drastic measures, not because schools reopened while the virus was still circling. In most of the continent, only a portion of students returned, and only for a few weeks before the long summer break intervened. In most countries schools are still closed for summer or have barely opened. Several countries are rethinking opening or re-closing as the virus surges again. As an instructive Washington Post survey of school reopenings in Europe put it last month, “Schools have only reopened in countries where the virus is under better control than in many parts of the United States. And parents and teachers, especially in Europe, have been vocal about their concerns. It is premature to say, as President Trump put it this past week, that ‘In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS.’”
When outbreaks happen in Europe or Asia–because they will even in the most guarded communities–the reaction is more like New Zealand’s: It’s immediate and uncompromising, and public health edicts aren’t held hostage to ideological debauchery or anti-science vigilantism. We can’t say the same about Flagler, where we’ve averaged well over 100 cases a week for the last eight weeks, and still confuse immunity with acting like business as usual. Schools are all about learning to make good choices. This one fails the test.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.
Well protesting, rioting and looting isn’t doing anything to help contain the virus, so why haven’t you reported on that.. I say open the schools! For some children, school is their only outlet. They need to be physically, mentally, emotionally and more importantly socially interactive. Most of these people that are complaining about schools opening are the ones who take their children into stores, restaurants, parks, beaches, etc. You also failed to report the obvious of schools staying closed. Substance abuse, depression and attempted suicide rates have risen. So stop making it political people!
So you are saying that the health and lives of the teachers, staff, and bus drivers is not important. Very nice. And for social interaction is going to be very minimal. The schools lack direction in positive cases in the classroom. You can protect your child at a store, but you cannot when they are at school. Some children will get very sick. Some will die. One death of a child is one to many. Obviously you don’t care.
Your political agenda is more important.
Stop with the political B.S….. everyone has a right to an opinion without it being a political issue
Mike Cocchiola says
Our students, teachers and school staffs will pay a price for the single -minded efforts of hard-line Republicans on the school board and in the state, including Governor and chief executioner Ron DeSantis and Florida State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, to show fervent support for Donald Trump’s bid for reelection. No life is sacred – not some nine-year-old’s at Wadsworth Elementary, a 14-year old’s at Buddy Taylor or a 17-year old’s at FPC High. Their teachers are disposable. Janitors… dime a dozen. All are expendable in the right-wing culture war.
There will be terrible consequences.
E, ROBOT says
You’re right. There will be terrible consequences to forcing children and adults to breath in their expelled air.
Brian Martin says
You seem to forget about the essential workers that have been showing up each week since this has started. What about the businesses that have to reopen to pays their Bills. We can’t all live in the basement like uncle Joe.
There is no way the schools can arrange social distancing.There are way too many children .we will never beat this virus,if we keep acting like the virus is nothing.
Wiley X says
Number one concern of school leadership is to provide a safe and secure learning environment retired principal used to say. She also would say you can’t have learning until that is accomplished. Speaker of school leadership, why do schools with 800 or so students need a principal, two assistant principals (all who rarely leave their office) a dean (for discipline) a discipline person for kids who have a lot of trouble in a classroom setting, And support personnel gets a 1% raise because there is no money.
School desks can be about 4 feet distance at best, and younger children will move around a lot. Custodial staff was really stretched before because their numbers were cut many years ago and never restored.
I can’t see how this is a safe environment.
I know parents need to work to pay bills.
I believe open schools is an election year ploy of someone who believes schools are nothing more than “free daycare”
BTW how do you keep a mask on some of our spectrum kids when some won’t even wear clothes sometimes?
My kid is on the spectrum and even though he has about 7 other students in his class, I have chosen to keep him home. I can’t guarantee he will keep a mask on and I value his teachers far too much to let them take that on.
Let me be one of the first to thank you for your article. Well done Pierre.
We locked down to flatten the curve and not overwhelm the hospitals. We DID NOT lock down to eliminate the virus. People continue to lose their homes and everything they have worked for all their lives for. Every part of life is a risk. I can catch death from your driving habits Pierre. Because of that I wear a seat belt. Where a damn mask. Protect the vulnerable and get on with life. Stop the hysteria and panic.
Born and Raised Here says
Looking at it from medical data, I would think that our black and hispanic would be more cautious and keep there children home, and do virtual since the virus seems to be more potent on this race.
Only Me says
Sure wouldn’t be risking my childs health for going to any school right now. Florida opened up way to early because Donald Trumps Water Boy DeSantis couldn’t use his own brain but had to follow what Donald Trump tells him.
Look what happened in Chapel Hill NC this week, they opened schools and have already had to shut them down because the virus is spreading in the schools.
It is so pathetic that our country listens to politicians that obviously have no value of a human life but only for their own greedy political gain.
In the end they will realize when they are on the side lines as losers what they did so wrong. They sure aren’t obeying the Oath of Office they put their hand on the bible to protect and serve the people that voted for them.
Lil bird says
Case numbers do not equal deaths. In fact, the COVID death rate in FL less than 2%. This level of survial for both parties is not at all anologous to Sophia’s choice.
Meanwhile, “the other side” clearly has hypocritical political points which you noted: 50% capacity cap for restaurants, bars still closed, gatherings limited to 50, sport teams on hold, etc– yet schools mandated to open.
Teachers are frustrated, like all of us, with the mixed messages & being used as political leverage by both parties. Parents are in limbo too.
Lockdowns don’t save lives long-term (except in long-term care facilities) but I do wish our school district was making “reasonable accommodations” like any big business already has for it’s teachers more at risk per the CDC & ADA guidelines. FCPS is the leading employer in our area and has its own HR department. Face the nightmare of scheduling like any Lowes or Publix or Walmart manager already has, anticipate a backup plan, and make it happen!
Good to hear a voice of reason for once in Flagler County. We should be looking at the NW GA area where I grew up for an example of what not to do. They opened up about three weeks ago, and have already had to shut down several schools. The last I heard over 2000 students and faculty were supposed to be quarantined. How many parents and grandparents will die because of Kemp’s stupidity. Are we really dumb enough to have to learn these lessons the hard way when we already know what to expect?
Let’s Get Real says
School districts all over the state are being bullied and threatened with loss of funding totaling millions of dollars if districts, without a state approved waiver, do not reopen brick and mortar five days a week by August 31. That reduction in funds translates to teacher layoffs and a reduction of services for our kids.
But, do parents really understand what reopening now looks like? Class size has NOT decreased, perhaps due to the loss of funding incurred by students going to distance learning. So, if classes haven’t decreased in size, it is really not possible to space students 6 feet apart. Especially true if your child is in a portable classroom. Schools have NOT received additional funds from the state to support additional supplies needs in a pandemic- PPE’s, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, water bottle filling stations, etc. Although school districts try to provide some supplies, these supplies largely come from the generosity of teachers and parents. Teachers with autoimmune issues and physician documentation are often always assigned to distance learning and worse assigned to larger student populations such as lunch duty. What happens when teachers and staff become infected? How many qualified people want to substitute in a school in a pandemic? This is the perfect storm for community spread. In spite of being bullied into reopening by the governor and his staff, are school districts liable for the illness and death that may well occur? Is this really what we want?
Let’s Get Real says
It’s disappointing that a teacher’s union has to sue their employer for information that ethically should be provided to all community members so they can make informed health decisions. Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court Chief Justice ruled in favor of Orange County Classroom Teachers Association in their public records case. The School District has 48 hours to produce names of schools and worksites that have had positive COVID-19 cases since June 1, 2020 as well as the total number of cases district wide. This information will also be available to the community. Moving forward, the teacher’s union will request information on what is done to clean each site and information on what type of contact tracing is being done.
Lack of transparency on the part of a school district cripples the community’s ability to make fact based decisions about their health and welfare. Shading the truth and suppressing factual information is how Adolf got his start. All school board members need to make transparency a top priority.
Dissapointed in Palm Coast says
It’s simple – when teachers start dying… they’ll close them down again. Typical “wait and see” mentality that’s been the hallmark of this whole administration’s COVID response.
William Powell says
Likening school opening to Sophie’s Choice? I don’t think your hyperbole was quite dramatic enough, princess! Seriously, I’m so fed up with everyone’s frightened little girl mentality. It’s like rational thought ceases to exist in anyone’s mind anymore. I’ve been working 10 hour shifts in a dirty factory during the whole pandemic with all kinds of people, and I’m not sick. So get over yourself, drama queen!
Let’s Get Real says
You would do well to consider the scientific data, or at least save your demeaning remarks for another site.
B From PC says
Check your scientific data to see how many died from influenza the past couple years and compare!
I will reiterate cases do not equal deaths. My household of three has had the virus, with various levels of effect. My wife was very sick for nearly two weeks until a nurse practitioner from Orlando prescribed her antibiotics and steroids after the local hospital sent her home with nothing. My daughter was sick in bed for five days; she is going back to school. I was mildly sick for a few days; I got a cold afterwards which was twice as bad. I won’t downplay the possibilities, but life has to go on. People have to pay bills and the country can’t afford to print money in perpetuity. Reality definitely sucks.
Jane E says
I find the ignorance of many people in this county to be mostly unbelievable. A parents job is to protect their children and sending them into the school system at this time isn’t the wisest of choices. Thank you for a very well written and thought provoking editorial Pierre. What will everyone think once we go through another lockdown???
So keep YOUR kid home. Problem solved.