Who’s in charge of safe school openings in Florida? Who knows? | Commentary


Orlando Sentinel | by Scott Maxwell | July 29, 2020

Ask any state official in Florida to explain who’s personally responsible for deciding whether it’s safe for schools to offer in-person classes this fall.

You’ll hear a steady of stream of words that don’t answer the question or sometimes even form cohesive thoughts.

It’s like trying to divine quantum physics from a babbling baby. And it all seems designed to ensure that none of the people demanding open schools bear any responsibility if things go wrong.

But don’t take it from me. In fact, today, we’re going to do something different: You get to be the journalist.

I am going to give you the verbatim transcripts of what these people say, and you decide whether it makes sense.

My quest for direct answers began after I read several stories out of South Florida where school leaders alleged that state health officials had been muzzled.

School officials there said they couldn’t get the health officials to provide straight answers about whether it was safe to open. The Palm Beach County School Board chair claimed the state’s top health official there had been “politically silenced by Tallahassee” and “told to keep her mouth shut.”

Now, I know politicians can be gross. But this seemed beyond the pale. So I sought straight answers myself.

I started with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s schools-must-open order.

He issued it the same day President Trump tweeted: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”

Corcoran’s order demanded in-person classes in every district but claimed to allow an exception for any district that received “a state or local health directive to the contrary.”

Well, that seems simple enough, right? It sounded like a county health director would be the obvious person to provide a “local health directive.”

Maybe, I thought, there was just confusion in Palm Beach. Certainly Orange County’s chief health officer would speak up.

However, Orange School Board members reported no such luck with Dr. Raul Pino. “We did not get a direct answer,” board member Pam Gould told the Sentinel.

That seemed strange. But I knew Dr. Pino was respected. So I wanted to hear it straight from him. And I wasn’t alone. At a press conference last Friday, a TV reporter asked Pino the same straightforward question: “Who has the authority to open or keep the schools closed?”

Here was his response:

“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.”

He went on to say: “I am an employee of the state Health Department who is assigned in Orange County to work for Orange County and the Orange County government. But the reality is the state health department and the head of the health department is the state surgeon general, not me.”

Um, OK. So maybe the state surgeon general? Except we haven’t heard much from him. In fact, the governor’s staff actually yanked Surgeon General Scott Rivkees from a press briefing in April when Rivkees went off script and started warning Floridians to stay away from each other. (See the Newsweek piece: “Florida Surgeon General Removed from Governor DeSantis’ Coronavirus Briefing After Saying Social Distancing Necessary Until There’s A Vaccine.”)

Dr. Raul Pino, the state health department’s officer in Orange County, speaks during a press conference in Orlando on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Also, Orange school officials said they asked Tallahassee for a waiver and haven’t received a response.

Most importantly, the surgeon general isn’t a “local” official. And Corcoan’s order said a “local” health directive was one of the only ways a school district could avoid his mandate to open.

So I went back to Corcoran to ask him if he could explain his own order: Who specifically should provide the “local health directive”?

So I went back to Corcoran to ask him if he could explain his own order: Who specifically should provide the “local health directive”?

Richard Corcoran, the Florida Education Commissioner appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, ordered all school districts to provide face-to-face classes – “barring a state or local health directive to the contrary” (Associated Press)

Corcoran didn’t respond. But a member of his communications team did. Here’s what she said:

(It’s slightly pared down, but still long because I wanted you to see what I saw.)

Florida Department of Education Order 2020-EO-06 gives ultimate authority to determine when and how to open schools to local school boards and governing boards. The Department of Health, through the county health departments, serves as a resource to the school districts on how to open schools in the safest manner and what mitigation strategies to employ at the time and in the manner determined by the local school districts. … The county health department works collaboratively with the local superintendent, school district and school board to provide county data and trends and educate on mitigation strategies to make the school environment as safe as possible. …

Section 154.01, Florida Statutes, lays out the county health department delivery system, which intends for the Department of Health to aid counties in the promotion of public health and control of preventable diseases. The same section provides that counties may enter into cooperative contracts with DOH, and that DOH shall enter the same. §§ 154.01(1) and (3), Florida Statutes.”

Remember, the order said schools must open unless they get an official pass from a health official. And my question was: Specifically, which local health official is empowered to make the call?

I wondered if maybe I was no longer capable of processing basic information.

So I shared her response with my editor and asked if he saw an answer to my question anywhere in that mountain of words.

“Hmmm,” he responded. “I think what they’re trying to say is pjljaghsodsljfan08mvo.”

I concurred.

My take-away is that Gov. Ron DeSantis and his education commissioner wanted to issue a sweeping schools-must-open order like Trump wanted, but they also know there are safety risks. So they included an out, giving some theoretical “local” health expert the chance to object, but empowering no one to actually do so.

Suddenly, no one’s really accountable.

But hey, maybe you disagree. Maybe after hearing the state say school boards should work with “county health departments” — who say they aren’t the ones who should make that call — it all makes perfect sense to you.

Maybe it’s clear as pjljaghsodsljfan08mvo.

Photos: Getty Images, AP, and Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel