PALM BEACH, Fla. – As Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed this summer for schools to reopen, state leaders told school boards they would need Health Department approval if they wanted to keep classrooms closed.
Then they instructed health directors not to give it.
Following a directive from DeSantis’ administration, county health directors across Florida refused to give school boards advice about one of the most wrenching public health decisions in modern history: whether to reopen schools in a worsening pandemic, a USA TODAY Network review found.
In county after county, the health directors’ refrain to school leaders was the same: Their role was to provide information, not recommendations.
They could not tell school boards whether they believed the risks of opening campuses were too great, they said. They could only provide suggestions on how to reopen safely.
“I don’t think any of us are in a position to balk the governor,” one director said.
For frustrated school board members, it was a puzzling turnabout. Florida’s public schools have long depended on local health directors for recommendations on everything from reducing encephalitis risks at football games to how to test students during tuberculosis outbreaks.
But the directors’ new reticence aligned perfectly with DeSantis’ stated goal of pressuring Florida public schools to offer in-person classes.
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Lacking clear guidance from their local health directors, school board members in many counties said they felt compelled to reopen classrooms despite serious misgivings about exposing teachers and students to COVID-19.
Keeping campuses closed, they said, risked violating an edict last month from state Education Commission Richard Corcoran, which decreed public schools “must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week.”
“When we voted to reopen schools, I’ll be honest and tell you I did it because we are under an executive order to do so,” Marc Dodd, a school board member in Lake County, said last week. “Do I think they’re safe? Absolutely not.”
Directors ‘have to follow the orders that we have’
Public schools across Florida will continue to let students learn from home if they choose, but many health experts worry opening classrooms will nonetheless cause COVID infections to spike.
Corcoran’s emergency order pointed to one way around the state’s open-campus mandate: a waiver from state or county health officials. The provision made school boards more dependent than ever on health directors’ recommendations.
But at the same time that Corcoran, a DeSantis appointee, was requiring Health Department approval to keep classrooms closed, health directors were being told not to make a recommendation at all.
The directors’ refusal to guide educators through the roiling school-reopening debate stemmed directly from a directive by Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, DeSantis’ appointee to oversee the Department of Health and its county offices, The Palm Beach Post found.
Health directors in Volusia and Brevard counties both said last month that they were instructed by state supervisors not to offer opinions on whether schools could safely open.
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In Volusia County, health director Patricia Boswell said Rivkees’ office told her and her colleagues across Florida to instead limit their input to how to reopen campuses safely.
“We’ve been advised that our role here is to just advise as to what can we do to make the environment in schools as safe as possible with COVID-19,” Boswell said during a school board meeting. “It is not to make a decision on whether or not to open the school.”
Echoing those comments, Brevard health director Maria Stahl said health directors can’t give direct advice because they “have to follow the orders that we have.”
“What I can say is, (DeSantis) has ordered for the schools to be open,” Stahl said. “The education commissioner has ordered schools to be open. So all I can do is give them statistics.”
“I don’t think any of us are in a position to balk the governor,” Stahl added.
In Palm Beach County, health director Dr. Alina Alonso told school district officials she, too, was instructed not to give formal recommendations about whether to reopen, the school board’s chairman said.
In a statement, Alonso acknowledged she declined to provide a written recommendation after consulting with Health Department attorneys. She said her role was not to make reopening decisions but to “give accurate, up-to-date data to my community partners.”
State health officials acknowledged Rivkees instructed county directors to focus their advice to school boards on how best to reopen campuses. They did not dispute the directors’ accounts of being told not to opine on whether schools should remain online-only.
Rivkees “advised all county Health Department administrators to engage with their local school districts to serve as a resource to the school districts on how to open schools in the safest manner,” the department said in a statement to The Palm Beach Post.
A DeSantis spokesman referred questions about the state’s directive back to the Department of Health.
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Schools ‘are not health experts’
The idea that health directors should not give school boards recommendations on such a weighty public health matter is an extraordinary shift, one that runs contrary to county health departments’ historic role, two former health directors said.
“Yes, we always advise them what to do. They call us every time there is an outbreak,” Dr. Claude Dharamraj, who served as Pinellas County’s health director from 2006 to 2015, said of the public schools. “Schools are educators; they are not health experts. They have nowhere else to turn but us.”
Dr. Jean Malecki, Palm Beach County’s health director from 1989 to 2009, said she routinely gave the school district recommendations about how to handle infectious disease threats, including pressing the district to ban evening football games during a 1997 encephalitis scare.
State law tasks county health departments with “promotion of the public’s health” and “control and eradication of preventable diseases,” a responsibility that Malecki said should put them at the center of all local public health decisions.
“The health officer must have a say into when schools should open or reopen and should have active participation,” Malecki said. “Whether the state puts pressure on you or not, you have to weigh the balance of what’s best for the community.”
The refusal to give reopening guidance was not uniform across Florida. In some counties, health directors did urge school districts to keep classes online.
When COVID cases started to surge last month in the Florida Keys, Monroe County’s health director shut down summer school classes and recommended that schools remain closed for at least the first four weeks of the school year.
The director and his second-in-command, who have been in office for decades, have a long collaborative history with the school district, School Board member Sue Woltanski said.
They are also toward the end of their careers, which she said may have insulated them from political pressure.
“I don’t think they worry about losing their jobs,” Woltanski said.
In Palm Beach, Alonso declined to give a formal recommendation but did tell school district officials during a small advisory committee meeting that she believed the numbers of COVID cases were too high to reopen classes.
Based in part on her recommendation, Palm Beach County’s school board voted to keep campuses closed. Because South Florida is still in Phase 1 of DeSantis’ state reopening plan, they expect their online-only plan to be approved.
Classrooms reopened despite concerns
But the dynamic has been different in other parts of Florida that have moved into the second phase of the state’s reopening plan.
DeSantis and Corcoran have given conflicting explanations of how much leeway school boards have to keep classrooms closed without Health Department approval, arguing at some points that school boards have total autonomy to stay online-only if they choose and that schools must offer in-person classes at others.
School leaders in many counties concluded the order left them little choice.
In Leon County – where the county health director insisted her only role was to “to provide current data and to educate the school administration on how to provide a safe school environment” – school board members pleaded last month for parents to keep their children home even as they moved to open campuses.
“Persons in high places have made a decision that makes it impossible for us to be flexible,” school board member Darryl Jones said. “Wickedness in high places, that’s what this is.”
Although Corcorcan’s order explicitly empowered “local departments of health” to give reopening directives, Orange County’s health director claimed it was not his place to weigh in.
“So the interesting thing about the orders is that I work for the Florida Department of Health, but I am not the Florida Department of Health,” the director, Dr. Raul Pino, told the Orlando Sentinel.
Orange County School Board member Pam Gould complained that “we did not get a direct answer” from Pino, and the school district moved ahead with reopening campuses.
The county’s schools superintendent later lamented in a national radio interview that “the determination of when to open face to face was actually made at the state level.”
In Brevard County – where the health director last month claimed “it has never been our role to tell any municipality or any school or anything what to do” – board members complained the lack of guidance placed them in “a really bad position.”
“Our local DOH has been told they cannot advise us on the safety of reopening schools,” School Board Chairwoman Misty Belford said, “and our hands have been tied” by the state’s reopening order.
Volusia County School Board member Ruben Colón reacted with alarm to Boswell’s revelation that she had been told not to opine on whether to reopen schools, saying it was ” unfair that the governor has put your office in a very uncomfortable position.”
“I understand that you have been given this directive,” he told Boswell. “However, in not having the advice of the Florida Department of Health, I personally do not believe the schools are safe to open.”
Even so, Volusia County’s School Board moved forward last month with plans to reopen campuses.
Sarasota County is also planning to resume in-person classes, and there a health official did feel empowered this week to make a public recommendation.
It was one likely to be pleasing to DeSantis’ ears.
Faced with new concerns from school board members about a lack of guidelines for reopening decisions, Michael Drennon, the Health Department’s disease intervention services manager, urged them not to reconsider their decision to open up classrooms.
“Continue on with the existing plan,” Drennon said. “That would be our recommendation at this time.”
Contributing: Eric Rogers and information from the Daily Commercial, The Daytona Beach News Journal, Florida Today, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Tallahassee Democrat
Follow Andrew Marra on Twitter: @AMarranara
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Florida health directors told not to give schools advice on reopening