Florida’s Year of Magical Thinking

August 7, 2020

After her husband died, Joan Didion wrote a critically acclaimed book about her mourning experience entitled, The Year of Magical Thinking.

The title refers to a characteristic practice of grievers: denial. Ms. Didion wrote, among other things, about her inability to give away her husband’s shoes; surely he would need them, she thought, when he “returned.”

Apparently, denial is not just for those mourning the dead.

Magical thinking has also become the go-to method of governance for public officials in Florida.

Today’s Palm Beach Post reports Gov. DeSantis’s administration ordered county health officials to withhold important guidelines from local school districts in reference to reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

“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.”

This move, which is straight outta Mein Kampf, evokes an anger at the Governor which can only be outweighed by the anger aimed at the brown-shirted county officials for “just following orders.”

Eclipsing that anger, however, is sheer, unadulterated terror for our students, teachers, and other school personnel.

If COVID-19 deaths were homicides, our governor and state health officials would be accessories to murder.

Governor Ron DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide mask order, despite scientific evidence demonstrating mask-wearing saves lives.

He habitually takes his cues from He Who Shall Not Be Named, the one who stars in the sh*tshow we once referred to as the White House.

Magical thinking may not just be for mourners, but it surely will usher in more mourning in Florida.

Below is my letter to the editor of the Florida Times Union, which was published today, before I knew about the gag orders.

***

Use Science, Not Politics, In Reopening Schools

The decision whether to reopen Duval County Public Schools, given our current COVID-19 infection rate, should be no more controversial than the decision to close schools in the face of an impending hurricane. Just as we look to meteorologists to understand our risks of being hit by a hurricane, so should we look to medical experts—physicians and epidemiologists—to guide our decisions during this global pandemic.

The silence of current state and local health officials on the subject has been deafening. Fortunately, the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has chimed in with science-based guidelines for reopening schools. Children are absolutely, without question, better off in school than out of school, says FCAAP, but only when school is safe.

On July 29, FCAAP defined “safe” by recommending school districts reopen only in locales which demonstrate, for two consecutive weeks, a 5% or lower positive COVID-19 test rate. Otherwise, FCAAP says, school openings should be delayed until positive test rates decline to the 5% threshold for 14 days. FCAAP provides additional guidelines which can be viewed on its website.

Superintendent Greene and the board are to be commended for looking out for Duval’s most vulnerable children during these challenging times. Our city’s longstanding inequality problems compound the technology gap for many students in underserved neighborhoods, and more students are bound to fall behind if schools are closed. Additionally, providing school meals when schools are closed is logistically daunting, despite the heroic efforts we saw last spring.

No one is more concerned about school equity, however, than Duval County School Board members Ashley Smith Juarez and Darryl Willie. Both voted “no” on the district’s reopening plan. They understand that COVID-19 is akin to a category 5 hurricane, bearing down on an entire nation.

Willie brainstormed creative ways to help reach our most adversely affected students. Juarez argued, much like FCAAP, that science—i.e., the infection rate—should be the arbiter of when and whether to reopen schools, not politics.

As teacher and District 3 school board candidate Chris Guerrieri said, “We can make up for lost learning, but not for lost lives.”

History will not be kind to state leaders who, when tasked with important policymaking, forsake science for magical thinking. The Florida Department of Education, apparently devoid of advice from the state’s public health officials, should permit school districts to adopt FCAAP guidelines in their reopening decisions.

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