The state has no “plan” but more testing for reopening schools; so we have to ask and answer foundational questions ourselves

Your child’s humanity; your child’s suffering over the last few months; you child’s development could not be more irrelevant to the current discussion of reopening schools in Florida. Nor could the well-being of health-vulnerable adults in a confined space with circulating air.

Three basic tenets are driving the state’s non-plan for reopening that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced at a vapid press conference last week; and none of them remotely care about your kids as human beings:

  1. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and big business lobby wants their free, taxpayer-funded child care for big businesses back. DoE said it quite clearly in its accompanying powerpoint: “Florida can only hit its economic stride if schools are open.” That’s the only reason DeSantis and Corcoran care about physical schools. The only reason. Corcoran has spent his entire career trying to destroy them. His contradictory drive to reopen them now reflects the power of the business lobby in this state. Nothing else really matters to power in this state. Humanity certainly does not.
  2. Corcoran and the teacher-hating grifters that run education in Florida are desperate to restart the test-and-punish model of education and greatly expand it. This means more testing for kids who are already vastly overtested; and it means new testing for toddlers, using federal CARES Act money. Keep in mind, these are the same people and policies who have produced America’s worst state-level test score performance in the last 25 years because they do nothing but chase test scores. See full article here. It has never been refuted. When you hear “achievement  gap” and “90% proficiency” and “catch-up” tossed around by politicians, they are actually saying: “we have to bail out our test-and-punish grift and our buddies in the testing and educational fraud industries.” They plan to double down on Jeb Bush’s abysmal failure and moral fraud because there is money to be made off your kids’ “data.” And the superintendents of Florida go along meekly because they don’t know what else to do. They are co-dependent on the grift as a group.
  3. DeSantis, Richard Corcoran, and legislators will make certain they take no responsibility or blame for anything that happens. They will outsource that to the local districts.

Here’s a good rundown of the “non-plan” released last week from the Tampa Bay Times. What’s clear to me, as an elected school board member, is that #1 and #3 are much more important to DeSantis and the business lobby as a whole than #2. Vastly more important. And the business lobby is more powerful than the test-and-punish lobby, when it comes right down to it. There is leverage there that I intend to use, starting with voting against any external operator contract for any Polk school. More on that to come.

Polk’s reopening task force largely sidelines the elected education representatives of the Polk County people

Unelected district staff leadership appointed and convened a school reopening task force before it ever notified the elected Polk County School Board of the task force’s existence. Apparently, Board Chair Lori Cunningham serves on the committee; but she did not communicate with the board either.

I, of course, heard from various people about the creation of the task force and got a decent firsthand account of the first meeting from one of its members. But the elected school board wasn’t formally told about this task force until a few minutes before this district press release went out about the committee. 

This is not a PR problem. It’s another example of the ongoing debate about the point and role of an elected local school board. It was quite telling that no elected school board member was invited to the DeSantis and Corcoran dog-and-pony show, nor was the Florida School Board Association consulted or invited.

I will be pushing to make the deliberations of this Polk task force as public as possible. And we’ll discuss it at our meeting tomorrow, I’m sure.

What Polk parents seem to want; and what they may not be considering

I have received quite a few notes from parents arguing for a return to something very close to normal schooling. They repeatedly argue — and I agree — that children need real interaction with each other and adults to develop and thrive. People want their schools back. I’m also a parent; and I also want them back, too. I should add that literally no one — NO ONE — has said: “we demand more testing because blah blah blah, achievement gap.”

Most of these parents emphasize that COVID seems to pose very limited health threat to children — and that the threat diminishes further the younger you get. I also agree with that, generally. But there is not zero threat. It’s important to be honest about that.

To state the obvious, parents see re-opening schools from the point-of-view of their child’s personal well-being and development. In this, they differ greatly from state leadership, which sees it in terms of benefit to business and benefit to the test-and-punish grift.

I respect the parent view far more than Richard Corcoran’s toddler-testing nonsense; but they still miss something, in my observation. Schools are not just gatherings of kids in close proximity. They are gatherings of adults. And while there may well be very limited threat to a healthy 8-year-old, that same healthy 8-year-old carrying coronavirus without much incident can pose a great threat to a teacher recovering from cancer, for instance. That same 8-year-old can infect their mom or dad who works in a nursing home and then set that nursing home ablaze with COVID, as has already happened in Polk County several times.

Foundational questions the Polk County reopening task force needs to ask and answer

I should say that I’ve also heard from a lot of teachers ready to go back at something pretty close to normalcy, who are ready to accept the risks for the benefit of their kids. I’ve also heard from others less ready because their risks are pretty high.

I think we parents must understand these realities and what we’re asking of the underpaid people who would staff these schools. And we must understand that we did not have adequate capacity to serve children at the level demanded by the public before COVID hit. Florida’s deep failures in the Jeb-era, which it plans to make worse, created one of America’s worst teacher shortages before we ever asked any health-compromised people to risk their lives to teach our kids. We parents cannot be casual about that, nor can we elected officials. Or this task force.

We cannot wish away issues of capacity. Or many other important questions. With that in mind, here are 11 “foundational” questions that the task force needs to ask and answer. I already have answers in mind for a lot of them; and I’ll come back to them later this week. But I want people to think about them.

  1. Who has ultimate decision-making authority for resolving disagreements? The School Board, the Superintendent, the Education Commissioner, the Governor? Who?
  2. Does compulsory education exist in the era of COVID? Is the Polk County School District an authority or a resource?
  3. If compulsory education exists, and schools are presumed open, are all children required to attend physical schools if they are not enrolled in a specific, existing virtual program? If not, what does the alternative to physical schools look like? How is it funded?
  4. If compulsory education exists, what constitutes legal truancy? In physical schools or online programs? Do student grades have any meaning?
  5. How does transportation function?
  6. If physical schools are open, are staff required to work in them? Will a 57-year-old teacher with an underlying health condition be fired if she or he will not work in a physical space? What about bus drivers, etc?
  7. Can CDC guidelines be reconciled with how schools in Florida and America function — or with the behavior of children attending school and the adults that look after and serve them? Can CDC guidelines be reconciled with what parents want for their kids?
  8. Do we have the human and financial capacity to operate all schools in a mode that approaches  “normal”? If not, what do we do?
  9. What happens if there are school outbreaks like those in Israel, which were discussed here?
  10. At what point, if any, does the resurgent growth of reported cases in Florida affect the status of schools?
  11. What possible mechanisms for “evaluation” of school performance can exist in this type of uncertainty? What percentage of “standards” can possibly be addressed in a way that can possibly be measured?

For now, if you’re a member of the public, no one in power seems to care, at all, about what you want for your child. Only what your child and your child’s education workers can do for power and business and the electoral prospects of various people.

The Polk Task Force needs to understand that context and help fight it. It can start by giving strong consideration to each of these questions.

 

 

3 comments

  1. All excellent points. Based upon your comments, “Unelected district staff leadership appointed and convened a school reopening task force before it ever notified the elected Polk County School Board of the task force’s existence. Apparently, Board Chair Lori Cunningham serves on the committee; but she did not communicate with the board either,” does this meet the Sunshine laws? Also, might I add that I would ask the Superintendent if she plans on reimbursing the School Board for all monies spent on researching and looking for a new Superintendent if she decides to not resign.

    • Charlie Leigh

      Superintendent Byrd did not resign. Rather she announced her plan to retire. As an educator and a public school employee covered by the FRS, she has every right to retire whenever she chooses to do so and to claim any FRS benefits to which she is entitled based upon her years of service. It would be ludicrous and illegal for the school board to ask her to reimburse the district for monies it will spend on a search for a new superintendent.

  2. Scott Ketcher

    We really don’t know the risks to children yet. What we do have is New York City (NYC) mortality data. Currently deaths per 100,000 are 0.64 in ages 0-17. That’s equivalent to a typical flu season but we don’t know what the infection rate is. We also don’t know what the long term effects are to the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organ systems among survivors.

    We should be concerned with our children’s health alone but it gets even worse for adults. Schoolchildren are one of the strongest vectors to bring this illness to the rest of the population. Back in March we were about two weeks behind New York in our cases of COVID-19. Had the schools not been shut down I think we would have followed a similar trajectory. New York drug it’s feet on closing their schools, closed them the same week we did, and paid the price for that inaction.

    Looking at adults the NYC mortality per 100,000 are 20.43 (10x the typical flu season) in 18-44 year olds, 190.22 (21x the typical flu season) in 45-64 year olds, 624.24 in 65-74 year olds and 1,555.28 in 75+ year olds. Typical flu season mortality is 50 per 100,000 over age 65. Combining that latter data means ONE PERCENT of every person over the age of 65 in NYC is now dead. Again this is only mortality data and we have no idea about long term effects on the health of survivors.

    There is already a resurgence in COVID-19 in FL just with reopening the economy. It appears the spike in new cases looks even steeper than the one in March. I think it is incredibly foolish and reckless to reopen the schools in the fall and we should continue with distance learning which is 100% safe for all involved.

    My wife and I both fall into higher risk age categories as I’m sure many parents do. There are many single parents as well as grandparents who serve as primary caregivers and often are the sole caregiver to these children. What happens to these students as their parents and caregivers fall ill, are hospitalized and possibly die? Is FL ready for that burden? What happens when teachers and support staff are incapacitated due to illness? All of this can be avoided by online learning.

    We don’t feel comfortable sending our daughter back to school because of the risk to her and to us and are currently researching online learning in the event Polk reopens the schools.