Health officials cannot be less courageous than school workers, who cannot be less protected than health care workers

I'm receiving an overwhelming volume of feedback from parents and school staff alike about the entirely political and coercive push to drive kids and teachers back into physical schools at the worst moment in Florida's horribly mismanaged pandemic response.

This feedback ranges from deep unease and fear to "I'm sorry, but I have to retire. I can't risk my life or my wife's life."

Based on that feedback, I'm proposing a 6-part framework for addressing Richard Corcoran's illegal executive order. I will not vote for anything that doesn't essentially look like this. However, it's not clear that I will get to vote. And it's not clear that if I do get to vote for my proposal that I won't get removed from office. But we'll see. Here it is:

  1. If we start at brick and mortar schools, start with the limited, voluntary in-person summer program for rising 4th graders at 12 schools that was cancelled earlier, when the COVID spike was much smaller.

  2. Delay all middle and high school brick and mortar openings until COVID numbers return to the levels that preceded reopening of major indoor gathering spaces. Allow outdoor extra-curricular activities to continue, including football (which is the hardest call and most open for debate.)

  3. On a volunteer staffing and enrollment basis, carefully move from Kindergarten upward in operating elementary school.

  4. Recognize that state government is demanding that school staff become health care workers, with virtually no training or equipment. Our staff will face many, if not all, of the same risks as health care workers in hospitals with basically none of the support or resources. They should receive the same consideration and protection as health care workers.

  5. Prepare for outside schooling when the weather allows.

  6. Whatever plan we decide to execute, I want Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Polk Health Department, to sign something that says this: "I, Dr. Joy Jackson, have great concerns about this decision, but my boss the governor has already made it; and I have a career, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯."

If you think number six sounds harsh, I'm sorry. But you need to watch this entire brief clip from the last Reopening Task Force meeting and see how casual these health care leaders are with the lives and long-term health of our school workers. Key quote from Dr. Jackson:

"I do have to admit I have concerns; but this decision has been made at the state levels. That's a policy decision from the state. And I think what we need to do is just do our best planning, which we're doing, to support our students, and our staff, and our teachers as safely as possible. So I cannot pass judgement on decisions. All I can do is provide guidance and support and be there when there are cases. That's really all I can say."

Dr. Jackson's position directly contradicts and abdicates the authority given to Dr. Jackson in Corcoran's illegal executive order itself. That order, as screen-shotted below, makes opening brick and mortar schools "subject to the advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health," etc.

Cowardice has been the defining characteristic of American and Floridian and Polk County leadership for quite a while; but COVID has exposed it nakedly.

A discussion of masks: what courage, seriousness, and honesty actually looks like

I support the general mask mandate recommended by the Task Force; but a teacher at one of the 12 schools that would be part of the summer program makes a strong point about them. And I want to contrast her incredible courage, precision, selflessness, and intelligence with Dr. Jackson's abdication. Who do you think is paid much much much more than whom?

I am sure you have gotten and will continue to get many emails about school reopening. If Polk Schools would ask their staff, I would be one of the staff members saying I would return to school. I understand that I put myself at risk but I do not have any underlying health concerns that suggest I would not recover, if infected. The same goes for the rest of my family.

However, I would implore you to not go as far as mandating a mask should be worn in the classroom, especially elementary classrooms. Oral language and listening skills are the first stepping stone to literacy development. Teachers need to be able to pull down their masks and speak without repercussions. Have you ever watched a young child learn something new? They often look at their teacher’s mouth. In the same way, students need to be able to take down their masks without concern. Our students will need a break. They will get hot. They will also struggle to understand each other and we need to give them a way to release the tension. School will already be stressful enough.

I know you to be a supporter of teachers, students and the entire community. You balance the demands and pulls from all sides so well. However, please let teachers decide what to do in their classrooms. We have very little control over everything. Please give us this one thing.

This is type of specific and meaningful discussion I have wanted to drive any path to reopening. And in fairness, our Task Force is having very good and precise discussions. I'm actually quite pleased with the performance of our district people on the Task Force.

This teacher makes a great point here about masks. And I support the concept of allowing specific instructional/classroom management-related exceptions to the mask mandate. I don't think I can go as far as to give teachers total control on wearing or not wearing -- at least not until we have much improved COVID numbers and better handle on how masking works in schools.

I don't support not wearing a mask all day because you don't want to wear a mask; I can support you taking the mask down, as needed, for instruction and classroom management. I recognize that's a fine line, which is why it's good to start small and see how this works in practicality. Perhaps there's a face-shield alternative that teachers could use that allow for kids to see the mouth move.

Morally, I think teachers and staff confident in their personal health situation -- and who love their kids and work so much that they'll take these risks with clear eyes -- are the bedrock around which we build anything. At the same time, people not in that position are not any less dedicated or worthy of our support. I won't coerce them into anything.

Dear power: don't pretend that you're not forcing school staff to become health care workers

You really need to watch the entire meeting, embedded below.

What's clear is that the health care people have almost zero insight into how schools actually work -- and what the human contact often looks like. For instance, I have yet to hear a single health care official address the health care implications of breaking up fights or addressing extreme behaviors, both of which occur quite regularly in all schools. How many particulates; how much viral load gets expectorated during a fight or an extreme behavior? And how close do adults need to approach to end the behavior or fight?

This lack of insight into on-the-ground realities revealed itself clearly in the discussion of masking for teachers and staff. There's a very interesting distinction made between masks designed to protect the wearer (N95, etc.) and masks designed to protect people around the wearer (cloth coverings, surgical masks, etc.) The health care people emphatically declared that teachers and staff should not wear self-protective masks. Those are really only necessary or cost effective for health care workers in clinical situations, they said.

So do these health care officials expect teachers and staff to respond to fights and extreme behaviors? How similar is that to a clinical treatment situation?

To Dr. Jackson's credit, she did essentially contradict the two doctors who spoke by declaring that some ESE teachers attending to profoundly disabled children are, for all practical purposes, health care workers. But someone is going to have to explain to me how all staff are not health care workers if they are expected to intervene physically in behavioral issues.

Who is "we," doctor?

Again, go watch that clip. It ends with this extraordinary bit of flippancy from one of the doctors brought in to consult.

Look, there's going to be a gradual rate of people getting infected over the next two years. As long as there is sufficient staff to keep the building open, to keep the kids safe, to keep the educational process going; as long as there are rooms in our hospitals to provide care for people who get very sick, I think we're gonna have to march on ahead because we can't stop schools for two years."

You can almost hear Teddra Porteous, our HR director, who is very smart, gulp in response to what he said. Listen.

Who the hell is "we" in that last sentence?

If "we" is the United States government, "we" haven't done jack squat in national policy or funding of what's needed to try to open schools with any remote sense of safety for anyone.

If "we" is Florida state government, not only have "we" bumbled our way into one of the fastest expanding outbreaks on the planet, "we" have taken away $400 million from local districts ($9 million in Polk) over vague pension actuarial formalities. And "we" have not waived any of the grifter, inflexible, test-and-punish fraudulent Jeb Bush nonsense that is completely incompatible with actually opening schools even somewhat safely. "We" haven't bothered to think about extreme behaviors or equip and train staff like health care professionals.

As always, "we" just expect the little people to figure it out on the ground while "we" congratulate ourselves on our leadership.

Indeed, just six months ago, "we" were happy to fire 1,600 teachers over a work stoppage that didn't exist. Outside of Lisa Miller, Sarah Fortney, and myself, no government education or health leader in Polk County or anywhere else stood up for their importance and humanity. And only Anne Huffman and Trish Pffeifer stood up among local government officials.

Suddenly, "we" consider those same 1,600 teachers so important that "we" will casually risk their lives and health (and their families' lives and health) to jam kids back into schools for "our" political or economic benefit.

No way, man. I'm not part of your "we." Power can do with that pronoun whatever it chooses. And "you," teachers and staff and parents and kids, may have very, very hard decisions to make. Believe me when I tell you that your well-being is less important to most people in power than their careers.