Health directors told to keep quiet as Fla. leaders pressed to reopen classrooms

By Andrew Marra / palmbeachpost.com – Posted Aug 7, 2020 at 5:15 AM

“It’s not up to the health department to say a yes or a no,” the governor said.

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 Gannett 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.

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.

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.”

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