The Townsend position: offer e-learning to everyone; stagger in-person start to carefully, slowly provide in-person services to the neediest kids
Polk County schools should not attempt a mass re-enrollment of physical schools on Aug. 24. Instead, the district should start in e-learning mode for the first nine weeks. And we should use that 9-week period to gradually enroll specific high-need groups of children as staffing and demand allows. We should use the first nine weeks period to responsibly test the viability and effectiveness of safety measures at small scale.
The general groups I have in mind to prioritize for gradual enrollment are: ESE children with highly special needs that require face-to-face interaction; emergent readers struggling with early literacy – the children who would have taken part in our summer program that COVID canceled; children of teachers/staff, who need child care in order to be able to teach.
And we should ignore all stupid state rules about "seat time" and number of school days, which do nothing but put bureaucratic shackles on a COVID response that must be creative, human-centered, and flexible. Let the state shut down our schooling, if it dares. This is all political posturing anyway. It has nothing, at all, to do with the well-being of your kids or loved ones. The Florida Model of education is completely incompatible with a COVID model of education. More on that to come; but I want my position known on restarting school known well in advance of Tuesday's meeting.
I am open to discussing the terms and pace of physical re-enrollment; but I will not vote to permit a mass re-enrollment on Aug. 24. And I plan to force a School Board vote on this Tuesday. I want to be on record so I can show my grandkids how I behaved one day, when faced with the irresponsibility of power and with forcing grotesque choices on our fellow citizens and employees.
If this position costs me an election; or our incompetent and feckless state government feels the need to remove me from office, fine. I've never been more comfortable with the morality of a decision. However, if you listened closely to the governor's insipid little speech a couple days ago, what I'm proposing is actually completely compatible with what he is asking for. There is no need to over-comply for the sake of over-compliance.
No confidence the state or district will effectively mitigate the risk of an August 24 mass re-opening.
Preliminary data from Polk and elsewhere suggest that 30 to 50 percent of kids would show up on August 24, if we did a "Big Bang" approach to opening schools. I do not know if 30 to 50 percent of staff would show up, absent coercion. And I'm not interested in coercing anyone. I won't vote to force someone to risk their life for their job. Their life is not less important than mine.
In Polk County, we could probably expect 40,000-ish kids out of 105,000. If they all show up at once, with us having no way to truly practice and assess safety measures, it will be a compete logistical and health disaster. I have no illusions about that.
Even if we had a good and serious state government acting as a partner, it would be a disaster. But we don't have that.
The state of Florida has done absolutely nothing helpful for re-enrolling physical schools. It spent more time and money and energy chasing a political convention in Jacksonville that has now collapsed because it’s profoundly unsafe.
Indeed, the same state government demanding staff risk their lives in physical mass enrollment also recently took away $9 million from the Polk County School District general fund over vague long-term Florida pension concerns that the state itself could easily cover. We are not governed by serious people in Tallahassee.
Indeed, most of your local legislators have spent more time stalking my Facebook page and campaigning against me than thinking about the state school system they fund and oversee. So their priorities are clear.
The buck stops with people who have no power to pass it
Our local leaders are being pressured to do the impossible by selfish and incompetent politicians with no interest in helping.
"Figure out on your own with no resources how to mass re-enroll your schools in raging pandemic for someone else's political benefit" is not a serious governing edict. It should be ignored.
In this sort of situation, the buck and risk responsibility always gets passed downward -- until the people on the ground are left to sort it out and suffer. I've experienced this personally with my parents in the state's incompetent and cruel nursing home response. And I have no reason to believe state support for school operations will be any less incompetent or cruel.
Indeed, I increasingly lack confidence as a board member that any meaningful safety measures will be in place or enforceable at scale on August 24. The district simply lacks the capacity to provide this and enforce it at scale.
No serious effort to provide capacity or practice safety measures
I suspect all other districts lack this capacity as well; but school leaders across Florida have grown accustomed for a generation to lying to the public about what schools have the capacity to do. I believe they're lying to themselves and the public now if they think they'll have the capacity to safely welcome 40,000 or 50,000 kids or more back to school all at once on August 24.
I heard from terrified administrators at one school yesterday who told me in no uncertain terms they do not feel their school is prepared or has any meaningful plan from the district level for establishing and operating mass safety measures at scale. I cannot in good conscience keep that from the public.
So, if you are waiting, as a parent or teacher, to evaluate the district's on-paper safety plans, I wouldn't. I would assume that those plans are meaningless in terms of resources dedicated to them. And you should understand that we will not be able to meaningfully practice or test measures that we are able to put in place before a mass opening on Aug. 24.
Those are certainly my assumptions as the parents of a high school student, for whom we have chosen e-learning.
Do the impossible is a deadly farce
Understand, I do not blame senior district staff for the lack of confidence of on the ground school leaders.
As I have said from the beginning, no mass re-enrollment in the time of COVID will be “safe.” And Polk County is now one of the hottest and deadliest per capita hot spots in the overall hotspot that is Florida.
Thus, all mass re-enrollment of physical schools today will involve great risk – to kids (lesser extent); adult employees (much more); and the families/community at large that interacts at home and elsewhere with members of school communities. Partial mitigation of risk and open acceptance of risk are the only answers to this general lack of safety. And it still won’t be “safe,” even if everything is done right. And it won't be done right.
No country has attempted mass reopening of physical schools with a COVID profile that looks anywhere near as bad as Florida’s or Polk County’s. So no country's experience means anything to us. The unique incompetence of the US and Florida response to COVID makes any comparison with any responsible and serious country absurd and meaningless. Even so, in Israel, school reopenings -- at much lower viral prevalence – have been blamed for that country’s COVID resurgence.
And no country -- none -- has so indifferently stuck their local schools with the impossible task of mass pandemic reopening and so completely abdicated responsibility and risk to the little people. Indeed, no serious medical group I've seen is openly advocating mass re-enrollment of physical schools with Florida's virus profile.
I will delve into other aspects of my priorities and position in future articles. But I wanted to make it clear where I stand not the core decision now.