We’re all “The Martian” now: problems, assets, and empathy

I love this scene from “The Martian;” and it seems deeply applicable for this moment and coming weeks. We’re all going to have to solve problems, from the household level upward. We’ll solve them more effectively if we support each other and tell each other the truth so we know which assets to apply to which problems. In that spirit, here are a few thoughts in no real order.

Watch the Lakeland City Commission COVID presentation

Here’s a link to the joint presentation given by leaders from the Polk Health Department, Watson Clinic, and Lakeland Regional Health. I urge all to watch it all; there is great, useful, clarifying information throughout.

March 16, 2020 City Commission Meeting | COVID-19 Panel

At today's City Commission Meeting, Dr. Daniel O. Haight, Infectious Disease Specialist and Vice President of Community Health at Lakeland Regional Health; Dr. Steven Achinger, Managing Partner with Watson Clinic; and Dr. Joy Jackson, Director of Polk & Hardee Counties for the Florida Department of Health (DOH) provided an overview of the current response, protocols, and challenges associated with the COVID-19 virus. This is their portion.If you would like to watch today's full City Commission Meeting, visit vimeo.com/lakelandgov/cc2020-03-16.Note: Captions for this video are auto-generated.

Posted by City of Lakeland, FL – Government on Monday, March 16, 2020

As helpful as this was, I have an objection to the opening statement from Dr. Joy Jackson of the Health Department: “I do want to first say that there are no confirmed COVID cases in Polk County. The most important thing I can say; no confirmed cases in Polk County.”

As the rest of the presentation makes clear, that’s a narrowly accurate statement that obscures truth.

Our very limited testing capacity has not yet confirmed a case. But that should not guide your behavior.

Again, as everyone knows, testing capacity is very limited. Dr. Jackson said people have been tested in Polk County; and the results have come back negative each time. But she could not say how many people have been tested. She couldn’t even provide a ballpark figure when asked by city commissioners.

Then Dr. Steven Achinger of Watson Clinic provided extremely helpful, precise, on-the-ground context from Watson Clinic’s weekend. He said the Clinic received 26 test kits on Friday. Over the weekend, the clinic saw 400 people with respiratory issues. Nine of those people were tested for COVID/coronavirus. With tests as a precious commodity, doctors have to be judicious in giving them. Dr. Achinger said he would like to give more tests; and he was pretty clear that it’s very possible that cases are being missed because of the stringent criteria for testing. The results for the nine people may come back today. There is a 2-3 day lag in test results. (I did not hear similar numbers for LRH.)

I don’t know if 400 people with respiratory issues on a weekend is normal for Watson Clinic. I did not attend the presentation in person because I was recently in a Clay County hospital that has a COVID case; and I want to be responsible. So I couldn’t ask about that number. If anyone knows, please tell me.

In any event, I don’t think the most important thing that can be said is: “no confirmed cases in Polk County.” A better way to say it is “Our very limited testing capacity has not yet confirmed a case. But that should not guide your behavior.” 

“No confirmed cases” carries a misleading psychological and behavioral signal. I wish people would stop saying it without full context. And the rest of the presentation, from each each presenter, provided that full context. It was outstanding. It was maybe best information I’ve heard; and it was localized in a meaningful way. Kudos to the city for putting it together.

This kind of report from the trenches is important for the public to hear.

Very pleased with the leadership of the superintendent and staff

Since about midday Friday, Superintendent Byrd and her staff have, among other things:

  • Announced and executed a mass school closure.
  • Set up a food program at multiple schools.
  • Set a clear policy and given clear guidance on usage of employee health clinics.
  • Created and sent out a technology survey to parents gauging what people have access to.
  • Accelerated the next pay day for employees to March 20.

Please go to this link on our website for full information on all of this and more.

Here’s a screenshot of the food pickup sites. Click to enlarge:

Mrs. Byrd has really answered the bell of this moment. And I think the Polk School District as a whole has led the way among Polk’s local governments in mobilizing and acting productively. I’m very proud and grateful to everyone who has had a role. This quick action reflects a lot of anticipatory planning that speaks well of our staff leadership. I think the district is doing about everything we can to lay a foundation for the community moving forward. I’m pleased by that.

Nothing is going to be perfect or ideal. Needs and programs and responses will evolve. And there will be limits to what we can do. Events will drive much of what happens — from when the schools reopen to what employees are asked to do. We need to be flexible and smart. And I’m confident that we will be.

Just to give you an idea of the pace, here’s the summary of action the superintendent sent board members Monday afternoon.

Local elected boards/commissions need a legal way to meet remotely and regularly

I suggested on Twitter a couple days ago that the governor suspend the Sunshine Law for 6 months. What I had in my head was the communication difficulties and inefficiencies that the Sunshine Law (which is really a large collection of laws) causes in a crisis. It’s not built for speed. To my knowledge, it’s actually illegal for a local government to meet by conference call with the superintendent or city manager.

Twitter being Twitter, the nuances in my head did not come through in the Tweet and a bit of a kerfuffle ensued.

I’m glad for that; because it started some good timely conversation. Gatherings of more than 10 people describes basically every local government meeting. If we don’t want to eliminate local democratic representation during this time, we need to find a legal way for board members/city commissioners to participate. I don’t think this should be very difficult to do; but somebody has to do it.

Empathy — and the indispensable humanity of schools

I want to take a second to talk directly to district employees. There are contradictory truths that occur to me about this moment:

  1. In Florida, most of you were excluded from the economic recovery that followed the financial and housing crisis of 2008. That was a political — not economic — choice made by politicians and voters. I don’t think voters realized what they were doing because of how politicians communicated with them. Recent referenda results show the general public is coming to understand. But the fact remains that your economic reward became sorely out of balance for the stress of your jobs, which is why we have a teacher shortage. Florida’s “booming” economy did not touch you. I am deeply sorry for that. I’ve been trying to fix it; because I’m both a politician and voter. Now that economic recovery is almost certainly over.
  2. Paradoxically, public school employees are also among the better positioned people to get through the coming weeks successfully. I don’t know exactly how much money the district has on hand and exactly how long we can keep paying everybody. I’ll be getting clarification on that. But money is allocated and budgeted. And everybody’s getting paid. Many, many, many people in the general public are feeling the economic floor collapse beneath them at the moment. So I urge all of us — that includes me with a School Board salary — to apply some empathy to what others are feeling. Public school employees understand economic stress. You’ve been my heroes for enduring it to do this incredibly important and difficult job for as long as you have. And I know you all have unique capacity for empathy. It’s why you do what you do.

A number of testing-happy states have already waived their anti-human test-and-punish systems for the year. Florida will too, eventually, but it’s darkly hilarious to imagine Jeb and Corcoran and Kelli hanging onto it with everything they have. They know that when they finally let it go; nobody will miss it. And it’s probably not coming back.

Corcoran saw this year as his big chance to further rig the “turnaround” and testing/grade system and drive kids into vouchers and just kill everything and replace it with nothing. Instead, as the district’s response shows, COVID illustrates yet again the indispensable human and community value of public schools — and the people who work in them.  Online learning is not going to replace that. People are about to get a great reminder of the value of human interaction through its limitation.

Indeed, COVID is illuminating and erasing all sorts of bullshit by the moment, which will be of great long-term benefit to the country if we can get through this together. Let’s keep that — a society with more humanity and less bullshit — as our long-term goal.

Let’s do the math and identify the problems and apply the human assets that we all are to power through this and build a better model for everything.

3 comments

  1. Right on! Thanks for the info., Billy.

  2. The most dangerous thing we can possibly do right now to ourselves is to get comfortable. There will be many inconveniences coming our ways which will need accepted to move forward. If we abide by what types of measures and follow these measures of what our leaders Nationally, State, and Locally we will succeed in conquering this virus for everyone’s sake and well-being without further consequences to one another.

  3. David Breyer

    Just my opinion. The survey that we’re doing should’ve been done in December. We should’ve had a contingency plan in place back in a January. We knew this was coming. We were warned. Maybe we didn’t know it was going to be this bad but, living in hurricane central, we should’ve had a plan in place in case anyway. Just PLEASE tell me we aren’t and didn’t play the “let’s wait and see what Hillsborough is going to do first” game. Not to digress but that attitude is what will always keep Polk county a step behind. Hillsborough should be looking to us to see what we will do.