Florida House Rep. Anthony Sabatini, the Republican firebrand who’s been calling his own legislative colleagues “weak” for not outlawing school-mask mandates, wrote a letter to Flagler Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt and the school board today claiming Indian Trails Middle School students are “being deprived of their right to a public school education,” and that the school is “operating without a plan of curriculum, under a two-tiered class of students: vaccinated and unvaccinated.” The two-page letter goes on to make several other claims about students being “banned” from school and unvaccinated students “subjected to mandatory quarantine.”
Sabatini is not known for veracity. His letter is a series of fabrications and baseless claims, and reflects misinterpretations or mischaracterizations of existing state regulations issued by the state Department of Health. But the letter is also an indication of the speed and breadth of a misinformation campaign that had its origin with a Flagler County couple whose son was required to quarantine last week.
The boy’s parents–Jessico and Charles Bowman, organizers of a new local political pressure group associated with the Republican Liberty Caucus–themselves made numerous false claims or misinterpreted school and health department protocols. They did so in a concerted social media effort to draw attention and supporters at last week’s school board meeting. The fabrications have since taken on a life of their own, echoing in local social media, on the shriller fringes of the right-wing blogosphere or through such misinformation and conspiracy-theory peddlers as the Epoch Times. That publication last week got an enthusiastic shout-out from School Board member Janet McDonald, who has been boosting disinformation from her board seat.
Sabatini, however, repeated and amplified the fabrications on his legislative letterhead, giving his letter and its final, unveiled threat at least the sheen of authority: Governor DeSantis is aware of this issue and if you fail to take action you are opening up your school district to severe legal and legislative repercussions.” Sabatini remains the only member of the Legislature who’s called for a special session to enact bills that would forbid mask mandates and vaccine “passports”–measures that DeSantis has put in effect through executive orders. Sabatini has a history of bombast and flame-throwing: he used his letterhead last January to call on state leaders to reject Joe Biden’s election, encouraged the rally that turned into an attack on Congress on Jan. 6, and has since only ramped up his extremist rhetoric, seizing on issues of the moment to fuel his campaign for a congressional seat. Accuracy is not his forte.
Keeping in mind that at no point in the entirety of his letter does Sabatini substantiate his claims, provides any examples or any factual information, his letter’s first paragraph alone includes several falsehoods or misstatements.
He writes: “My office has been receiving alarming reports of healthy-asymptomatic students at Indian Trails Middle School being deprived of their right to a public school education, in-classroom learning, and being subjected to mandatory quarantine rules.”
This is in turn misleading, false and misleading again, although the word “alarming” does apply in one regard, though Sabatini did not intend it that way: as of Tuesday, 30 students at Indian Trails had been confirmed positive for covid since the beginning of the school year. The number of close contacts would be significantly higher. Over 50 percent of covid infections are asymptomatic. That’s why students who have had or likely had close contacts (of 15 minutes or more) with an infected individual are required to go through the same quarantine protocols as infected students, at least until they’re cleared by a covid test on the fourth day from infection. But none are “being deprived of their right to a public school education.”
Many–but not all–of those exposed to covid or their close contacts are denied in-class learning, that’s true, and being subjected to mandatory quarantine rules, but that’s in accordance with the state Department of Health’s emergency rule issued this month, which spells out those requirements. (The Department of Health answers to DeSantis.) The rule is explicit: “Students who are known to have been in direct contact with an individual who received a positive diagnostic test for COVID- 19 should not attend school,
school-sponsored activities, or be on school property” until the student remains asymptomatic and receives a negative covid test four days from the day of known exposure, or if the student chooses not to be tested but remains asymptomatic for seven days–or if the student is vaccinated, or has had covid in the previous 90 days. If the student is vaccinated, has had covid in the previous 90 days, and is asymptomatic, the student does not have to quarantine, and may continue in school as normal. That’s the state rule.
Sabatini states “this school is operating without a plan of curriculum.” This is false. Indian Trails, like all schools, post lesson plans online for students to keep up when they are sick or absent from school. As Ryan Andrews, the principal at Indian Trails, explained to the Bowman parent about her son on Aug. 16, the day he was pulled from class, “Any work he is unable to complete while at home may have up to the same amount of days that he was absent to turn in after his return to school. With our student ipads he will have his login to Schoology. His teachers may post work, content and resources for students to complete digitally. He and his teachers can communicate through Schoology or our school email.” And as Superintendent Mittelstadt further clarified in her message to parents last Friday, “For students who are quarantined, we have created an instruction guide on how we will keep learning going, which is one of the key components of our Back to School Guide. This document is now part of our Back to School Guide and will be shared with students and families as needed.”
The school, Sabatini says is operating “under a two-tiered class of students: vaccinated and unvaccinated,” with unvaccinated students deemed exposed to covid “cruelly held in isolation in the quarantine room with other students until they are retrieved by their parents.” This is false and misleading. The school is following the district’s protocol, which is following state Department of Education and Department of Health orders, which DeSantis has endorsed. Children who have or may have covid are separated from others. There is no cruelty: “It’s just a classroom, it’s not a disciplinary room, it’s not the in-school suspension room,” Kristy gavin, the school board’s attorney, said today, after reading the Sabatini letter. “It’s a place where the kid is sick. We put them in a room until their parent comes and pick them up. For purposes of quarantine, it’s kind of like you go to a doctor’s office, you have a well room and a sick room.”
In the case of the Bowman child, the health department had contacted his mother on Sunday, Aug. 15, to inform her that she should withhold her son. Jessico Bowman claimed the call was vague and the caller did not identify herself. “That is falsehood,” Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder said. “That is not true. We identify ourselves.” Snyder said department of health staff follow a script when they call parents to inform them of needed quarantines, saying, typically, “I’m nurse so and so, I’m a case investigator with the Flagler Health Department, I’m calling you about your child.” The Bowmans chose to take their son to school anyway. Once school staff found out he was in class, staff separated him and called his mother to pick him up.
Bowman objected to her son being asked if he was vaccinated. She says he has a religious exemption from vaccines. That may well be, but Gavin said the question about vaccination is in line with the state Health Department order, and it is intended to give the parent and the child an opportunity not to miss school. “So here are the ways your child can come back,” Gavin said–in other words, not be quarantined: “Provide us this information, and if you have this information, come on back, no problem. That’s pursuant to the department of health rules. If they don’t want to provide it to us, they can provide it to the department of health.” That goes for both a vaccine or proof of infection within 90 days, either of which clears the non-symptomatic child to continue to attend school.
Sabatini in his letter draws the same mis-characterization of the situation as did the Bowmans, inverting the Flagler district’s very intention–to keep as many students in school as possible–into an attempt to exclude children by asking them about their vaccination status. The question is “not for purpose of–you must show us or you cannot,” Gavin said, but to comply with the Department of Health emergency rule and its focus on “the importance of in-person learning.” But the district must have information it can act upon before willy-nilly opening its doors to close contacts. “Those are the ways your child can return to school, so if you’re able to establish any of those, let us know, and we’re happy to allow them to return prior to the seven day requirement,” Gavin said. (In fact, the Bowman child returned to school on Monday, after seven days away, in compliance with the state rule and Flagler protocols.)
The Sabatini letter repeats the false same claims in different words further on (“Unvaccinated students are being banned from school and sent home without any plan for their education,” “Your board of education has created an illegal distinction between two classes of students,” and so on. Sabatini quotes two of the governor’s executive orders. He does not appear to be aware of the state Department of Education’s order or the emergency rule issued by the Florida Health Department.
Sabatini’s letter doesn’t call on the superintendent or the school board to respond by letter. “Do the right thing for our students and change this policy immediately,” he writes in his concluding paragraph, again citing a non-existent policy: “We don’t have a policy. We have protocols,” Gavin said.
“Governor DeSantis is aware of this issue and if you fail to take action you are opening up your school district to severe legal and legislative repercussions,” he ends. Sabatini has little pull in the Legislature (“So far I’m the ONLY elected Republican in Florida calling for a special legislative session to end this insanity,” he wrote on Tuesday of his push for outlawing mask mandates). But the mechanics of disinformation depend on only on fomenting the appearance of scandal–something the pinballing of falsehoods through conspiratorial websites and social media pages, including those of a local county commissioner, a would-be commissioner and a school board member, can now amplify with falsehoods written on official letterhead from the Florida House of Representatives.