Transparency and trust matter more than ever in the COVID era, especially for schools

Since the postponement yesterday of June 30’s strange in-person public School Board meeting, I have heard and seen this question posed repeatedly: if it’s not safe for the public to attend a public School Board meeting, how is it safe to open schools? 

There’s a simple answer to that question: it’s not “safe.” It won’t be “safe.”

But that’s not the true question. The true question is: how do the benefits of opening school and the harm of isolating kids stack up against the risks of opening for kids and staff? The human and data inputs of that equation have changed dramatically in the last two weeks. But the equation itself remains the same. We should all be very, very transparent about it.

To try to address this equation, I’ve said repeatedly that any campus opening should be voluntary for kids and staff alike. No one should be coerced. And frankly, under the vast mismanagement of this situation by state and federal government, circumstances are currently lurching toward an equation that says: don’t open schools at all. 

But it’s not at all clear to me that even if your School Board voted not to open physical schools that they would not open anyway, starting with the 4th grade summer school program on July 8. I want to be transparent about that, too.

I’ve talked about these issues publicly quite a bit. This is why I’ve been begging for meaningful collaboration with the superintendent and state government, who are driving the direction and decision-making. It’s why I’ve called for local health officials to address and take questions from the elected Polk School Board. Building trust with the community that its public officials are weighing these tradeoffs with honesty and care is extremely important to building any modicum of public support for any plan.

With that in mind, I feel that I need to be transparent concerning some additional background on the district’s COVID announcement yesterday. This bears on public confidence and trust in how the Polk District would react to any outbreaks at physical schools.

A sequence of district office COVID events

Early Thursday morning, I became aware of a report that a senior staff member for the Polk District had tested positive for COVID — and that this senior staff member (whose identity I do not know) had exposed others.

After becoming aware of this report, I sent this email at 9:28 a.m. on Thursday to the superintendent, deputy superintendent, and School Board as a group. (That is perfectly legal if the message does not relate to voting business and/or board members do not have discussion. This related to health and safety of direct School Board employees; and I thought the Board needed to know.)

It is my understanding that there is at least one currently confirmed case of COVID among senior staff/personnel at the district. And this case may have exposed others within the building during a recent meeting. Please confirm or correct this understanding.
[The School Board executive assistant], who is a School Board employee, had no knowledge of this when I spoke to her this morning. She was working in the administration building. As one board member, I advised her that I did not expect her to work in the building, given this development.
Please clarify the extent of COVID exposure in the admin building — and what is being done and communicated to employees. Thank you. [My original email contained a typo, which I immediately corrected in a second email. Here I’ve just fixed it for the sake of simplicity.]

At at 11:19 a.m., School Board Attorney Wes Bridges sent an announcement to board members about the postponement of the June 30 meeting.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

After speaking with the Board Chair and the Superintendent of Schools, I am advised that the meeting currently scheduled for Tuesday, June 30, 2020, has been postponed until a later date.  This was a meeting called for the purpose of discussing the upcoming superintendent search and allowing the public to have input.

The scheduled meeting was structured to comply with CDC guidance, including allowing Board Members to participate virtually, limiting the capacity of rooms, requiring social distancing, making masks available to attendees, and prohibiting attendance by individuals who have been exposed, tested positive, or exhibit symptoms.

However, Health Department concerns about widespread transmission in Polk County, transmission among younger groups, and transmission by individuals without symptoms resulted in a decision to postpone the meeting until a later date to be determined.

At 12:41 p.m., the superintendent responded to my email:

Good afternoon,

I can confirm that a member of the administrative team has tested positive. The positive person has informed his/her supervisor of their test results and has been instructed to self-isolate until cleared using CDC criteria. DOH has interviewed the positive person to determine close contacts and is working with the Mark Wilcox Center to exclude from work any other staff members who may have potentially been exposed.

Thank you,

At 1:01 p.m. I replied:

What general communication has been provided to the employees in the building? Circulating air in a confined space can create airborne viral load. Are employees being given the chance to work from home? When was this test confirmed?

At 1:33 p.m., the superintendent sent a much wider email to the board and a group of district administrative staff:

Please see the below message and communicate to your staff today.

Greetings,

As we look forward to another wonderful the weekend, I wanted to take a few moments to address a concern.  We have been made aware that a member of the administrative team has tested positive.  In effort to be proactive, all district office staff will work from home Monday, June 29 and Tuesday June 30, 2020.  This is being done out of an abundance of caution.   These two days the staff will be providing an additional level of deep cleaning and sanitizing in all areas.  Please make sure that you leave all office doors unlocked (to be cleaned) and take all work to be completed with you.

I feel it is appropriate to provide the additional time for cleaning as we continue to follow the CDC criteria. I am concerned about your health and safety, stay safe and well.

Jackie

In addition, it was widely shared yesterday on social media and in messages to me that the Jim Miles Center had also been shut down and employees there sent home to work. Jim Miles was the site for the June 30 meeting. I was able to confirm with the superintendent via text this morning that “district office” in her email meant all district administrative facilities.

I could not confirm with her if Jim Miles had a separate confirmed test; or if the closure is just part of the general closure. The superintendent said maintenance facilities will be deep-cleaned on Wednesday and Thursday.

This activity from Thursday morning provides additional context to the meeting postponement. The meeting had been set by Board Chair Lori Cunningham to allow a group from Winter Haven to address the School Board and urge us to somehow prevent the superintendent from retiring — a thing that is not in the School Board’s power.

Here is Kim Moore’s account of the cancellation for The Ledger. In a mildly amusing irony, I am the only board member not quoted. This is not because I did not provide one. Kim just accidentally left me out. I find it odd that board members who are generally unresponsive to the media or uncommunicative with the public when addressing hard issues were all so willing to talk about this particular meeting.

In any event, as I said in my regular Wednesday Town Hall, I would have attended the June 30 meeting in-person with a mask. The chair set the meeting legitimately; and I take my oath seriously. But I did not find the risk/reward balance for the public particularly wise. And that’s what I told Kim.

I’m providing this additional context in the interest of transparency. The public can decide for itself if the events of Thursday strengthen trust in how government weighs the real human tradeoffs involved in answering: if it’s not safe for the public to attend a public School Board meeting, how is it safe to open schools? 

 

 

 

 

One comment

  1. David Breyer

    I’m not a scientist so I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m begging you: please please please let Polk County be a leader instead of a follower. Please don’t wait to see what Hillsborough does. Please don’t wait to see what the other counties do. If the school board feels we should open up, open up. If they feel we should shut down, shut down. We elected YOU to run Polk County. Not be the puppets of Hillsborough.