A Polk schools reopening/COVID Q&A from a proudly active board member

Let’s start with the two key quotes from Polk’s Chief Academic Officer Michelle Townley at Wednesday’s school opening task force meeting. You can and should watch the meeting above.

These are what led to the public announcement that confused and alarmed a lot of people Thursday evening because it seemed to communicate the basic substance of these two quotes as a “plan.” The first quote comes at about 4:15 mark of the meeting and sets the tone:

“[In a recent call] the state [Department of Education] did mention that unless our local health officials are giving us advice otherwise that the expectation is for us to open [physcial campuses] in August; and if we need extra help to make that happen, [DoE] would be happy to partner with us. However, we are hopeful that as a task force we can work on those mitigation strategies.” [Bold emphasis is from Billy. Will revisit in a moment]

The second quote comes near the end of the meeting and provides direction for moving ahead on planning. It rules out a so-called “hybrid” model. I’m going to come back to the definition of “hybrid model” in a moment because I think it is different for different people.

“It’s either full open or Polk Virtual. We have not been given any flexibility from the state for the hybrid model, through instructional hours. We can’t do the hybrid model because we’ve not been given flexibility.”

Those two quotes, particularly the second, are the basis for the “announcement” that came as somewhat jarring news to the public. But these quotes were not a plan. They were a basis for planning, a statement of reality, as understood by district staff leadership. The actual contours of an operational “plan” are expected after the July 4th weekend.

For now, there is a strange, in-person School Board meeting set for June 30 at the Jim Miles Center in Lakeland. (We’ll see if the COVID spike affects that.) It’s sort of the kickoff meeting for the superintendent search; but Board Chair Lori Cunningham actually created the meeting because a few people said they wanted a chance to tell the School Board not to let the superintendent retire. That’s not in the School Board’s power. And it’s not for me to tell the superintendent she can’t do what’s right for her and her family. But I’m always committed to listening.

This in-person public meeting would also make a good venue for any of your thoughts and concerns about reopening/COVID. Please wear a mask if you come; I will be wearing a mask for your benefit.

A public Q&A from an active board member

I think the disconnect between what staff intended and how the public reacted reflects the divide between board and staff that has been a key theme of the Polk district for a while now. That divide created a reopening task force that, until now, has been doing what an elected School Board should be doing — listening to detailed operational updates, asking questions, making suggestions, collaborating, etc.

To underscore this odd reality, the reopening updates in this most recent task force meeting have never been given to your elected School Board, despite the fact that your School Board met the day before this task force meeting at which they were communicated.

Why is this the case?

Because a 4-3 majority of your School Board seems to want it that way. And given the majority’s commitment to passiveness, it’s hard to blame the superintendent for bypassing all the board members. But it does her or the public no favors, as the reaction to the “reopening announcement” shows.

It leaves the three active elected board members (myself, Lisa Miller, and Sarah Fortney) trying to clean up a public mess we did not make. But that’s what being publicly active means and requires. With that in mind, I’m going to run through some questions and answers. Some of these relate to the questions I wrote about last week and submitted to the task force.

What is the point of the reopening task force? Does it take votes or have any authority?

I’m afraid that the point of the task force is to create a buffer between the elected board (and the public that did the electing) and the superintendent and operational staff.

In fairness, the next step for the task force does seem to be to break into small working groups to hash out operational details. I think that’s fine and wise. But the first two meetings were essentially “policy” meetings, not operations meetings. Literally everything that occurred at Wednesday’s task force meeting should have occurred at Tuesday’s elected School Board meeting.

It is inconceivable that the superintendent and senior staff did not know on Tuesday, at the elected Polk School Board meeting, what they told the “task force” the next day.

Indeed, I gently interrogated Deputy Superintendent John Hill for quite a while about the task force and reopening questions during our meeting on Tuesday. See for yourself below, starting at about the 36:00 mark. And yet, none of the content shared at the “task force” meeting was discussed at the School Board meeting the day before. To put it directly: that’s nuts.

I want to make clear that I have great respect for both John Hill and Michelle Townley, who seem  to have oversight of the task force. I enjoy working with both of them and believe I have a good relationship with both. But neither of them has authority to make clear strategic decisions on their own, which means the task force itself has no such power. Any votes it might take are irrelevant. Its power, to the extent it has any, is input-based. The task force exists to operationalize decisions made by the governor/DoE and superintendent, not to make decisions itself.

Townley seems to be running the task force, operationally. Superintendent Byrd deserves great credit for elevating Townley to chief academic officer (from regional superintendent) to replace Michael Akes. She is competent, calm, and well-respected. I’ve never seen her get defensive or react adversely to a question. Townley is an important legacy hire for Mrs. Byrd. Townley’s elevation will leave the district stronger, whoever becomes the new superintendent.

To me, that was on clear display in her management of the task force meeting. She seemed quite receptive to operational questions and input; but crucial strategic direction is already set by state government and superintendent; and it’s not up for negotiation.

Wednesday’s meeting was the second for the task force. In the period between the first and second  meetings, Gov. DeSantis and Richard Corcoran did their dog-and-pony “open the schools” press conference. And the DoE released 120 slides worth of “guidance” for local districts. Tellingly, no elected board member, nor anyone from the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA), was invited to the DeSantis presser. And state government completely ignored the FSBA in developing the “guidance,” as far as I can tell.

Following the press conference, it sounds like there was a call with DoE apparatchiks to flesh out the “guidance” a bit. It’s not clear to me if this was a Polk-specific call or a general statewide call.

So the “news” from the Wednesday task force meeting was just that state “guidance” demands opening of physical schools and prevents the “hybrid option.” It’s clear, in listening to the meeting, that no one intended to announce an operational Polk “plan” for opening school in August.

Instead, district leadership intended to rule out the idea of a “hybrid model” that might allow for a days off, days on approach to physical school attendance. Much of the task force meeting was spent explaining this fact to the task force, which was not asked its opinion about that fact. And that was reflected in the announcement.

And yet, Broward County has announced just such a hybrid plan, after having a meeting to discuss it with its elected School Board. I cannot explain why Polk and Broward are seeing different “guidance” from DoE — or if they are just choosing different interpretations. More on that in a moment.

So how did this simple meeting update get announced as a “plan”?

I’m honestly not sure. But if that content had been presented and discussed at the Tuesday School Board meeting, the active board members would have helped shape this as an update, not an announcement. And our community would not have been unnecessarily confused and riled.

Indeed, Polk is the only district I’m aware of that has excluded its elected School Board entirely from decision making at this point. If there are others, let me know.

Is there no board representation on the task force at all?

Board Chair Lori Cunningham does have a seat on the “task force;” but she asked no questions Wednesday and provided no written update of what was said to the entire elected board. The Sunshine Law allows her to provide such an update, as long as we don’t get into individual discussions. It did not and has not happened. Chair Cunningham is in no meaningful way representing the elected School Board on the task force.

Board members were asked just before the meeting to appoint someone to the task force. I appointed high school teacher Christy McCullough. But she is not my “representative.” She doesn’t speak on my behalf. She speaks on her own behalf and has a valuable point-of-view. She got connected to the task force too late to join the Wednesday Zoom meeting. But she was able to watch the meeting before I could and provided a lot of useful insight to the public on social media.

Did the superintendent or staff provide any update about the content of the task force meeting to elected board members?

I can only speak for myself; but no senior staff figure called me, as an individual board member, to update me on developments from the task force meeting. I had to watch the meeting myself to understand what happened. Unfortunately, the meeting video was posted online just minutes before the reopening announcement was released to the public.

So I couldn’t help explain anything immediately because I didn’t get to watch it for another 24 hours. My attempts to follow up with senior staff in the immediate aftermath of the public announcement went unanswered. I suspect that’s because they have a directive not to speak with me — or certain board members — without express authorization.

All in all, the negative reaction to the announcement was a completely predictable and unnecessary self-inflicted leadership wound over news that was not really news.

Who has ultimate decision-making authority for resolving disagreements about reopening schools? The School Board, the Superintendent, the Education Commissioner, the Governor? Who?

In practice, this is almost certainly Gov. Ron DeSantis and the unelected educrats at Florida DoE: Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Chancellor Jacob Oliva. The only way that changes is if local elected school boards rebel politically against their authority.

A recent lawsuit,  which I wrote about here, makes clear that state government has the ultimate legal power over public education in Florida. That lawsuit makes clear that your kids participate in a state, not local, school system.

Local school boards are only really relevant in their willingness to critique the performance of that state school system at the local level. We’re only relevant politically, not legally. And that’s why there is so much constant pressure from powerful interests to discourage local School Board-based politics — and so much complaint when an active board member like me takes the political and state-critique role seriously. The powers-that-be want local school board members to take their $40K checks, attend a few graduations and conferences, and shut up.

DeSantis could defer power for reopening to local districts; but he’s not willing to do that today because the Florida Chamber of Commerce and DeSantis’ political interests desperately need free mass child care back. Thats what’s driving the move to reopen physical schools; it’s not the well-being of your kids, even if there is accidental well-being overlap.

And, it would not surprise me if DeSantis’ political equation changes with the emerging COVID spike; and he then dumps everything back in the laps of local board and districts. You can never, ever overstate how cynical and cowardly Florida government is. One party rule for a generation, no matter the party, creates that kind of lazy moral corruption in politics.

Is there any role at all in Polk’s reopening process for the elected School Board as a body?

This depends on the non-active, 4-3 majority of the board. Watch this full statement from Board Member Kay Fields. She articulates a position quite clearly that Sara Beth Reynolds, Lynn Wilson, and Lori Cunningham seem to agree with. Key quote and video below:

“I don’t think Mrs. Byrd would have any plan as significant as this and not bring it back to the board for us to have ownership and to have suggested input. I don’t think she would do that because I think she understands the seriousness of it and the urgency of it.

“And I want to thank Mr. Hill for being in the hot seat today. You did a good job. But at the end of the day, the opening of the schools, that responsibility rests on the superintendent of schools. Always communicating with and always keeping us in the loop.

“But at the end of the day, we have to trust in her, as Mr. Wilson said in his prayer, to use her wisdom and understanding to get to where we need to go, with the input of the community, which would be the task force members which we will all have a part in selecting at least one person to serve on that group.”

It took less than 36 hours for the superintendent to prove Kay Fields wrong when she said this:

“I don’t think Mrs. Byrd would have any plan as significant as this and not bring it back to the board for us to have ownership and to have suggested input. I don’t think she would do that because I think she understands the seriousness of it and the urgency of it.”

I don’t know how many puzzled and alarmed phone calls and texts and notes that Board Member Fields and the other passive board members responded to in the aftermath of the announcement made Thursday afternoon. But I responded to many.

Mrs. Fields and the passive board members now have a choice to make: accept being kept out of the “loop” or insist on inclusion. If they don’t insist on inclusion, it suggests to me the passive board majority wants little or nothing to do with the responsibility and risk of sharing in the decision-making about when and how to open physical schools.

Perhaps the passive board members are able to just write this all off as an unfortunate misunderstanding — the difference between “a plan” and “is planning to.” But the public expects clarity; and it did not get it last week. It got unnecessary confusion about some important decisions because the unelected staff didn’t bother to communicate with the elected board. And the silence of the passive majority since Thursday speaks volumes.

What is the role about “local health officials?”

In theory, according to Michelle Townley’s statement, it appears that “local health officials” have the ultimate authority on school openings. As COVID spread accelerates, one assumes “they” could order schools closed or specific health practices be followed. But the top “local health official” empowered by government is Dr. Joy Jackson, director of the Polk Health Department. She’s been the public voice of the government’s local health response.

Ultimately, Dr. Jackson works for Gov. DeSantis. It’s inconceivable that she would order physical schools not to open without his approval. And it’s hard to blame her. The governor would just fire her the same way he fired the creator of the state’s COVID data portal because she was too honest.

Indeed, Dr. Jackson has been unwilling or unable to take public questions from the elected School Board. She has given public presentations and taken questions from with the City Commission and County Commission, so I’m not sure what’s driving the aversion to the elected School Board. Perhaps it is me.

Or perhaps a majority of the board does not care enough to listen to her point-of-view and ask her any questions about the health and safety of our kids and school employees.

What about the spike in COVID cases?

I think there’s a reasonable chance the resurgent virus affects or even demolishes plans to reopen physical schools because of both public concern and a lack of people willing to work in the schools. But the virus itself will likely dictate that. No human being that Gov. DeSantis outranks is going to make that call until it serves his interests to dump the decision on someone else so he can blame them.

The Lakeland City Commission is poised to impose a public mask requirement at a special meeting on Monday. It will be interesting to see if that mask requirement extends to schools in the Lakeland city limits.

Because…

Is it possible to enforce mask wearing in a traditional school with current Florida education resources?

I have grave grave doubts. Even if all parents said, “wear your masks with respect, children,” which they will not, children routinely misbehave in school despite admonitions from their parents. That’s what children do.

The only real mechanism for discouraging mask defiance that I see is suspension. And that defeats the entire purpose of reopening schools and complicates distance learning. Maybe if we did a one-day mask suspension policy that would be mild enough and yet painful enough to drive compliance. Maybe.

But what about non-defiant failure to wear masks? The school day is long; and masks are annoying. Kids will certainly pull them down or off without even intending to misbehave. And then you get into mask-enforcement judgment calls, which will never be equitable. We don’t have the staff to just assign an army of people in each school to police masking. So our teachers and paras will spend all day chasing mask compliance, having to make impossible judgements about what’s misbehavior and what’s just understandable humanity.

Moreover, I’ve heard health care professionals in Polk County who have diametrically opposed views on the efficacy of masks with children at school. Does the inevitable fidgeting with fingers and hands and face rubbing outweigh the benefit of wearing one? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Temperature checks and contact tracing make perfect sense and should be done; but I think even social distancing is a pipe dream. I see zero chance there will not be rolling outbreaks of COVID within physical schools no matter what we do. And we should be honest with each other about that.

The question is whether the health and safety consequences of the outbreaks outweigh the health and safety consequences of not having kids in school. And no one will know the answer to that question until we live it. Thus, one sees why no one wants to take real responsibility for this decision.

Young people appear to have much diminished immediate risk from COVID than older people — although longer-term health effects remain in question. But the kids in our schools are far from the only people to think about in our schools.

How many Polk staff are willing to work in a traditional school with no masks required?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But we need to ask it formally right now. Because all these plans are meaningless if we don’t have the people to execute them.

The Polk survey data wasn’t all that useful because the questions were pretty muddled. And the survey itself was irrelevant because DeSantis and Corcoran long ago decided what they want. Stakeholder opinions — beyond choice grifters, test companies, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce — did not and do not factor into their thinking. Moral questions do not factor into their thinking. Your child’s humanity is literally the last thing on Florida state government’s mind. So we should stop pretending anybody in Tallahassee cares about that.

We need to stop surveying feelings and register actual human beings — for busing, for online options, for traditional schools. That’s how we’ll know how demand and supply for services match up. That’s the baseline information that will drive decision-making.

Townley spoke about this need to register for busing during the task force. But the registering for everything should start as soon as possible. Registering should not lock you into place; it should just guide decision-making on how to serve demand.

What is the “hybrid model?” And why is it off the table just because the state says so?

The “hybrid model” ruled out this week related to the idea of reducing crowds in schools by allowing a two-day-on, two-day-off type of plan. It relates to partial attendance of physical schools.

The state apparently rejects that concept. Why? Well, here is where it’s vital to understand that the 25-year Jeb Bush Florida Model of education is deeply committed to profitable inflexibility and dehumanizing fraud in testing and evaluation.

It’s also deeply committed to strangling public education human resources and capacity. So I doubt this kind of “hybrid model” is logistically possible at the local level if the state doesn’t fully back it with resources. And it’s not going to. Moreover, I have perceived no groundswell of support for the “hybrid model” in my discussions with the public because it’s hard to visualize how it would work.

But I have heard a concern about the task force and district ruling out this “hybrid model” just because the state supposedly told us we can’t. And if that’s true, why is Broward moving ahead with its “hybrid” plan?

In trying to answer that, it’s important to understand that Superintendent Byrd and her staff work for Gov. DeSantis almost as clearly as Dr. Jackson does. Challenging state edicts, even if she were inclined to, come with personal risks of lasting punishment for Superintendent Byrd that are more severe than any the Polk School Board could provide. All Florida superintendents fear Tallahassee much more than their local boards; so that’s who they really answer to. That’s where the power is.

DoE might even be able to remove her, in theory. Rep. Melony Bell, who just gave $500 to my opponent, said that DeSantis should remove me from office just for existing. So it’s not entirely idle. And if one is marked as a combative opponent of test-and-punish education, I doubt the doors to lucrative consulting gigs are likely to open to you after leaving a district in test-and-punish Florida. The positive and negative incentives for compliance are powerful for all education leaders in Florida.

For whatever reason, the superintendent is not going to challenge any dictate from DoE — from opening physical schools to imposing more stupid state-level testing and punishment, no matter how harmful it is to kids. That’s been her record. She complies fully with DoE. In this case, DoE has apparently offered no waivers for “seat time” or “instructional time” rules.

But again, why is Broward not afraid of state punishments or edicts? Maybe Broward just doesn’t care about getting permission, while Polk does. I don’t know; but it’s a more complex question than simply: “the state says no.”

Is a different “hybrid” model, a “tether model” that connects Polk Virtual directly to individual schools, off the table, too?

I don’t think so. It fits within the basic state parameters. And this is where I plan to focus advocacy.

Pasco County announced an option that I’m calling a “tether” model.  It’s a virtual model connected to individual physical school communities.

As I understand it, someone who enrolls at Polk Virtual is enrolled in a separate school. If you’re not attending Lakeland High physically, you can’t attend it virtually. Townley spoke clearly about a binary choice: physical school or Polk virtual.

Pasco’s plan allows for a more nuanced online option: kids can take classes virtually through their home schools. But kids are also required to attend at set times. It essentially mimics a normal school day online. That’s my understanding. To be clear, I am not saying: copy Pasco.

I could see the utility of having teachers mix in-person and virtual teaching, but not in the same class period. I could see teachers with three in-person classes and two online classes, for instance, structured like a normal school day. I’m not sure what’s required to operationalize that; but I want us to explore it.

Does a binary choice, without a “tether option,” threaten the long-term funding and survival of the Polk School District?

Yes. Absolutely.

It’s important to remember that the Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran hates public education and wants to destroy it and move millions of kids out of it. He has said this clearly. Indeed, the entire Jeb Bush-era Florida Model has pushed toward that goal.

At the same time, DeSantis and big business groups want free child care back; so they’re desperate to jam as many teachers and kids as possible back into schools for their own selfish political and business interests. They don’t care who gets sick or dies. Humanity does not factor into the decision equation at all. These are terrible people. Never forget it; and I hope Jacob Oliva can’t sleep at night. I expected more from him.

How does one thread the needle on these two rather evil, but contradictory, imperatives, if you’re DoE and state government?

Push districts to create a binary choice: full physical attendance of a specific school; or full attendance of a online option considered a separate school. The full online option can also be Florida Virtual School. It doesn’t have to be Polk Virtual. Apparently, there is very little difference in the experience of Polk and Florida Virtual. They are supposed to have similar platforms. But when you choose Florida Virtual, the student FTE money leaves the Polk County district. If you choose Polk Virtual, the money stays here.

Superintendent Byrd emphasized the importance of Polk Virtual for the future of a Polk District during the task force meeting. Again, that’s a good reason to watch the meeting and to think more widely about non-binary options.

A “tether option” tying Polk Virtual to specific physical schools is better for parents and kids, as an experience, most likely. A tether option could secure positions in magnet or special schools for parents concerned about their kids attending a physical school at first. I’ve heard this concern a lot.  A tether option preserves human relationships with specific schools and helps preserve money and capacity for the future.

By contrast, DoE and Corcoran and DeSantis want to squeeze as much short-term child care benefit as possible out of physical schools today (they know they can’t mandate attendance) while sabotaging those same schools over the longer term so they can destroy the schools when the COVID-era is finally done. A binary choice helps in that goal.

Again, these are not good people. But this is clearly the plan. Don’t look away. If it was not, the testing/fake accountability BS would already be waived, as it is in Georgia. And there would be much more flexibility available to local districts to develop true, humane solutions. There would be far less concern about “permission.”

Can we reverse-engineer the instructional continuity plan (ICP) to be the tether?

Ironically, the state-mandated template for the “instructional continuity plan” (ICP) could provide a tether vehicle.  The ICP is the plan all districts developed on the fly when schools shut down in March.

DoE has now mandated a template version for all districts. The idea is that when a school has COVID cases (and it’s a when, not an if), the common state ICP plan makes it possible to “pivot” easily to online learning through the same teachers, structures etc.

But there’s no reason that template can’t work in the opposite direction. Put kids on the ICP from the start if they want to; and tie it directly to the schools themselves. Again, I don’t have all the operational detail. Maybe this is impossible. But it certainly sounds like what Pasco is doing.

Moreover, what if kids/parents change their minds about their choice?

Everybody is looking through a glass darkly in making their school decisions. I honestly don’t know what I plan to do with my own son. And obviously, my wife has as much say or more than I do. A lot of families are in that boat. Much will depend on the progress of the virus — and how the community experiences it in the next few weeks.

An ICP tether makes it possible for kids and parents to move back and forth, theoretically, as circumstances of opening become clearer over time. I think it’s morally dubious to force a kid to live by a decision made on deeply ambiguous information this summer. Some kids may want to come into schools; some may want to come out. Telling families, nope, you’re stuck because of that judgment you made in July is just crappy and inhumane.

Again, the only reason to force this rigid, binary choice this summer is to sustain the fraudulent Florida Model of education and bail out testing companies.

I understand binary positions if that’s all we’re capable of doing. But binary for the sake of binary, because bad people in state government want to advance their selfish interests, we should reject.

That’s where I’m going to focus most of my effort, I think.

A referendum within a conundrum

If there was a majority of the board that wanted the superintendent to challenge state government, it might complicate her decision-making. But, as I’ve said, there isn’t such a majority; and Sara Beth Reynolds, a key member of the passive board majority, was just re-elected without opposition. So perhaps the public agrees; or perhaps Sara Beth just laid low for her 4-year-term and got lucky to run in a time of national and local crisis that makes campaigning even harder than normal.

My own race will be a good indicator; and I welcome the clarifying competition. I have not laid low. I’ve done exactly what I said I would; and I’ve done it actively and openly. My opponent’s lack of any platform whatsoever makes this a clear referendum on an active board vs. passive board.

Indeed, with Gow Fields, Hunt Berryman, and the Bell family as key donors to my opponent, this is a clear referendum on returning to the passive board mentality that brought you Kathryn LeRoy.

It’s a clear referendum on whether Polk County School Board was awesome for the generation before Billy and the active board members and the public messed it up with all their questions and expectations in 2016 and 2018.

Such referenda are helpful to the public. And I hope this Q and A has been, too.

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Ron martin

    Billy this is Ron martin in ft Meade,I was in the dark until I read your excellent response to opening reguatsl school in August,I get the tag if newspaper called ledger they certainly made nothing like your response,that I know you and sahrah have been fresh air on the school board, you right in saying the parents will have the rights to wheather children will go back into a closed area with no mask and this deadly virus that now affecting young people, and for Desantis and doe to say it’s not a choice of wheather you virtual School two days off two days on it all don’t make sense to me,they must be thinking of only big business campaign contributions to Trump’s ,bell,ect campaigns. I’m I’m definitely not happy with all of this going on when we have a deadly virus surging. But your writing is showing me who deserves to be re-elected to the school board.