How Will Schools Handle Rising COVID Cases? And Boca Loses Another Leader

covid
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

For students, parents and teachers, this is the most turbulent time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, the Palm Beach County School Board is scheduled to vote on Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s plan for the coming year, which begins Aug. 10. Board members already had decided that they would not reopen campuses for the first day of classes.

Instead, Fennoy proposes that as long as the county remains in Phase 1 of the governor’s guidelines for reopening, all classes will be virtual. When–if–the county moves to Phase 2, students would begin to return. The first back would be kindergartners and first-graders to elementary schools, sixth-graders to middle schools and freshmen to high schools.

Last week, however, President Trump declared that he wants all schools fully open. If they don’t, Trump said, he will withhold federal money. Could Trump do that without congressional approval? Probably not.

Not long afterward, Gov. DeSantis also said he wants students back on campus. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran—whom DeSantis chose for the job— followed quickly with an order that all school boards “must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.”

Does Corcoran have such power? Again, probably not. The Florida Constitution delegates authority for operating schools to the local boards.

In addition, Corcoran’s order has a large loophole. Board decisions are “subject to advice and orders” of the Florida Department of Health and local health departments. Miami-Dade County’s superintendent also has said that, under Phase 1 restrictions, he can’t open all campuses to all students. Broward’s superintendent has said that students won’t return next month.

I have spoken regularly with School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri. He also represents the district that includes Boca Raton and West Boca. Two board members—Debra Robinson and Erica Whitfield—represent Delray Beach.

Barbieri told me that on normal votes, even big ones, a majority of the public agrees. With this plan, though, “There won’t be a majority. More people will disagree than will agree. Many people will be unhappy.”

boca schools

Everyone agrees that, ideally, campuses would open. Distance learning underperformed between mid-March and the end of the school year. Students from poor families without Internet access especially suffered, and they were behind their classmates to begin with. Parents who can’t work from home need their children in school.

In addition, online classes deprive children of the socialization that comes naturally to them and supplies another, essential kind of learning. On-campus, extracurricular activities such as sports and ROTC may be some students’ ticket to college.

But Trump, DeSantis and Corcoran have provided almost no guidance for how to reopen schools safely. In most cases, they shift responsibility to the districts, which in turn want that guidance so they can focus on education.

School board members would have faced difficult enough decisions before the record surge in cases. But with DeSantis seemingly unconcerned about the spike, parents and especially older teachers are fearful, even knowing the limits of virtual classrooms.

I’ll have more after Wednesday’s meeting.

PBC officials diagnosed with COVID

Two of Palm Beach County’s highest-ranking elected officials have contracted COVID-19.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg notified his staff on Monday. Aronberg said he had taken precautions, but that his job requires him to be out in public and he lives in a  high-rise with “shared elevators.”

In a news release Monday, Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks also confirmed that she has tested positive and is self-quarantining at home after what she described as “mild symptoms.” Like Aronberg, she said, her symptoms are mild and she is working from home.

Florida is No. 1—but no one’s cheering

COVID

On Sunday, Florida set a national record for COVID-19 cases in one day—15,299. For perspective, if this state of 21 million people were a country, that total would have ranked fourth in the world.

But to paraphrase Woody Allen in “Annie Hall,” maybe we in Palm Beach County should be glad that we’re only miserable, not horrible.

Covid Act Now bills itself as America’s “COVID warning system.” It ranks states’ and counties’ risk of an outbreak based on four factors: transmission rate, positive test percentage, hospital intensive care capacity and contact tracing capability. It is a collaboration among Georgetown University Medical Center, the medical department at Stanford University and Grand Rounds, a website that connects its members with health care providers.

On Monday, Covid Act Now rated Florida’s risk as Critical. It noted that hospital numbers were uncertain because Gov. Ron DeSantis still refuses to list COVID-19 patients separately.

Palm Beach County, though, was “only” rated as High. Infection and positive test rates remain well above safe standards, but ICU capacity was at 68 percent. Again, no one can be quite sure of that number.

And, hey, Broward County to the south and Martin to the north were rated Critical. Who says things are bad?

Former Delray Beach mayor battles COVID

COVID

Former Delray Beach Mayor Jeff Perlman has been hospitalized with COVID-19.

In a Facebook post, Perlman said, “I want to be as honest as possible in the hope that these messages can give you an insight into Covid and possibly help you make decisions that can keep you healthy.” He has experienced “breathing difficulties, wild dreams, chest pain, neck pain, burning eyes, chills and fever.”

Perlman added, “I can tell you, without being political, this is no joke. The virus is a beast. I don’t want to scare anyone, I just want to share information and my experience. I want you to stay healthy.”

At the “worst moment,” Perlman said, “I try to quiet my mind by meditating and thinking positive thoughts. Many of them are about you. I have wonderful friends, a great community and a loving wife and family. I’m isolated but not lonely, thanks to you.”

Ag Reserve wins

Developers have lost their latest attempt to suburbanize Palm Beach County’s unique Agricultural Reserve Area.

I had written about three projects that would undercut rules designed to preserve as much farming as possible within the reserve. It runs from Clint Moore Road to Lantana Road and roughly west from State Road 7. Developers wanted the county to create new rules that would add about 1,300 homes and roughly 400,000 square feet of commercial development.

On June 12, the county’s planning commission—an advisory group—recommended that the county commission reject all three. The votes were nearly unanimous. The county commission later unanimously rejected one of the proposals. The other two proposals were withdrawn.

County planners had recommended denial, correctly noting that the proposals represented a “piecemeal” approach to the reserve. The collective development would have been in addition to what the county allowed 20 years ago. In 1999, voters approved $100 million in bonds to buy land for preservation. Combined with development restrictions, the county sought to maintain a balance between agriculture and suburbia.

For the most part, the plan has worked. The public gets a coastal farm belt that provides jobs and bounteous food. Though county commissioners have given some favors to landowners and developers, most advocates would say that commissioners still haven’t given too much.

These projects, though, might have upset that balance permanently. The worst would have allowed 432 units of workforce housing on a 39-acre site near Delray Marketplace. It’s one of two commercial sites permitted under the plan. Under current rules, the developer could build only 39 homes.

Victory for now, however, doesn’t mean that the war on the reserve is over. The county commission could take the staff’s advice and ask for another look at the comprehensive plan for the reserve and make changes that are just as damaging. In November, former state senator Maria Sachs will take over the District 5 commission seat that includes most of the reserve.

Lisa Interlandi is executive director of the Everglades Law Center and a longtime conservation advocate. “We need to accept,” Interlandi said, “that this area is reaching buildout and let that happen under the existing rules.

“If we keep changing the rules to allow more and different types of development, we are just undermining what we sought to create. The county doesn’t need a new planning effort. It just needs the will to say no.”

Jay Van Vechten

Boca Raton has lost another civic icon.

Two weeks ago, it was John Shuff, owner of Boca Raton magazine’s parent company and longtime community activist and philanthropist. This week, it’s Jay Van Vechten, who died Saturday.

In 2009, Jay started the annual Boating & Beach Bash for People With Disabilities. Held at Spanish River Park, Jay billed it as the largest nationwide such gathering, drawing everyone from children to wounded veterans.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jay and his wife, Lowell, for a magazine project about people who influence Boca Raton in a positive way. In four decades-plus as a reporter in South Florida, I’ve rarely met anyone so selfless. Only someone with so much goodness in him could have created an event such as the Bash.

Though Jay dealt with disabilities that made the event personal, I’m told that his passing was sudden. Having to observe a strict quarantine, this most gregarious of men—he ran his own public relations firm for 25 years and could drop names with the best of them—had been planning a Zoom cocktail party with friends and enjoying the company of his only grandchild.

Happily, the 2020 Bash happened just before COVID-19 lockdowns. Looking to March 2021, there will be questions about whether restrictions still will be in place and whether the event will happen. Jay and Lowell explained during our interview that each event demands nine or 10 months of work.

But the Bash drew astonishing community support. With luck, that will increase even more and the Bash will continue as an irreplaceable event despite the loss of its irreplaceable founder.