Communication Builds Our Community

COVID-19 Re-opening of Schools Contentious

The Aug. 11 Polk County Public School Board meeting featured only two agenda items: updates on COVID-19, and following its lunch break, the search for a new superintendent. As has come to be "par for the course," it was not without acrimony.

For the first part of the meeting, dealing with COVID-19 and the re-opening of school, Superintendent Jackie Byrd welcomed Dr. Joy Jackson, director of Polk County's Department of Health, as well as an assembled group of doctors, six altogether.

It was this assemblage of doctors that sparked the latest controversy, as the six doctors all are associated with Lakeland Regional Health hospital: Drs. Kenneth Alexander and Adriana Cadilla (both with the Nemours Hospital division), and Drs. Daniel Haight, Nicole Hinds, Timothy J. Regan, and Donna Bhisitkul.

Following the opening presentation from Jackson, who stated that conditions in Polk County have been steadily improving the past few weeks - with the exception that deaths have risen, mostly those of senior citizens - Byrd stated that with the downward trend, the school system is still on schedule to open Aug. 24. Further comments from first Cadilla and then Haight concurred, with the proviso as long as guidelines are followed. Haight added that the doctors confirmed the spread at schools would be minimal as long as guidelines were followed and enforced.

"Why is no one from Winter Haven Hospital not here?" queried board member Billy Townsend, who added that it's been hard hit with cases of COVID-19.

Board president Lori Cunningham (District 2) immediately came to the defense of the assembled doctors, starting with a statement that it would not be feasible to gather doctors from across the county. She then praised those participating.

"I think they've done an extraordinary job," she said. This drew a retort from Townsend.

"This entire discussion is political," he said. "This debate is silly."

Townsend is facing a strong effort by a political organization, Lakeland First, which is trying to unseat him from the District 1 seat. It is composed of a number of movers and shakers, as well as the involvement of state Rep. Melony Bell, with whom Townsend has clashed in recent past.

He then challenged Jackson how she would recommend controlling possible crowd settings at the school. He gave the example of the high school in Georgia in which photos appeared on social media with students crowding the hallways, with hardly any wearing masks. (This later led to a suspension that was reversed to the student who posted the photos following outcries from people, many who claimed it was a situation of "kill the messenger.") Jackson deferred answering.

Townsend continued, wanting to know why it was so important to have 50,000 students, as well as 6,000 teachers and staff having to come in on one day. In response, Byrd said the situation of "crowding" would be addressed later in the meeting.

Cunningham said she felt it was imperative schools open on Aug. 24. She cited reasons such as the meals provided, mental health, and that of child abuse. She said it is the right for the school board, as well as that of parents and students to be in a classroom.

"It's a choice," she said. Cunningham then challenged Townsend's claim that classrooms would be crowded, with at least 30 students. "There will not be 30 children in a classroom." Her husband, she said, is a science teacher, so she knew there wouldn't be that many students in a classroom. "To me, it's not political, but the moral and right thing to do with the children."

A 16-year incumbent, Cunningham is being challenged in the Aug. 18 nonpartisan election by teacher Anita Carson.

Cunningham's comments were supported by Kay Fields (District 5), who also disputed this was political. She also felt that the doctors were being disrespected by Townsend's questioning, which she termed as their being "interrogated."

"They have the right to present their facts, whether it's liked or not," said Fields.

However, Lisa Miller (District 7) came back at Cunningham and Fields. Even though the school system has stepped up to the challenge of issues such as food fears, mental health and child abuse --- and has done an excellent job at it despite limited resources --- in the greater scheme of things, those are not the responsibility of the school system.

"We are in the business of educating students," said Miller. She then asked Jackson to give her a "safe ratio," one that would keep students, teachers and staff as safe as possible. Jackson said a number of factors have to be figured. It depended on the size of the room, whether windows that can be opened, or at least doors allowed to be kept open, to promote the flow of air.

"Otherwise, I can't give a ratio to you," said Jackson.

In one final challenge, Townsend asked if the doctors would give a straight answer, such as what doctors gave at a recent Hillsborough County School Board meeting, whether they would recommend opening schools in a "big band" method, rather than staggering openings. Only one of the doctors did, as also did Jackson, whose response was this was not her role. Dr. Daniel Haight (whose role at Lakeland Regional Health is that of vice president of community health, as well as Medical director, infection prevention, and an associate professor, department of internal medicine/USF Morisani College of Medicine) did not directly answer the question as posed by Townsend. Instead, he said that "setting numbers ahead of time can have good and bad effects."

Townsend concluded by stating he had absolutely no confidence that proposed guidelines will be followed.


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