Exclusive: PBC’s health director called for online classes. But she wouldn’t put it in writing.

The Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | July 15, 2020

With no letter, district officials worried whether they could keep campuses closed without running afoul of a new state order.

Palm Beach County’s health director was adamant.

The worsening spike of new COVID-19 cases made it too dangerous for public schools to reopen, Dr. Alina Alonso insisted July 6 during a meeting of the school district’s health advisory committee.

Guided by her advice, the committee reached an informal consensus that campuses should stay closed, attendees say. Two days later, the school board agreed.

But when school district officials asked Alonso last week for a letter outlining her concerns, the veteran health director declined, three public officials familiar with the matter told The Palm Beach Post.

The reason given: State health officials do not want to provide school leaders with official advice about reopening campuses, the officials said.

Alonso’s decision not to put her recommendation in writing came the same week that State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran released an emergency order calling for all Florida public schools to provide in-person classes five days a week.

The only stated exemption: districts where health officials declare that reopening is too dangerous.

Reached Tuesday morning, Alonso declined to comment at length, saying she would provide a statement later in the day.

“My responsibility is to tell the school board the data, and that’s what I did,” she said.

Alonso’s decision not to write a letter left district administrators worried they would lack the documentation needed to keep campuses closed without running afoul of the state’s emergency order, two officials said. Both requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations frankly.

It also raised worries among school leaders that the increased politicization of the school-reopening debate might be affecting state health experts’ ability to give unfettered advice.

“We never got it in writing,” one of the officials said. “Politics is coming before lives.”

Government leaders around the county have looked to Alonso, the county’s health director since 2009, for guidance about closures, reopenings and other public-safety measures since the coronavirus pandemic took root.

School district leaders describe her as a valued partner and adviser as they navigate the risks on in-person schooling and online classes.

But Alonso is an employee of the state Department of Health, reporting ultimately to the state surgeon general and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The governor has called all summer for schools to reopen their campuses, and the state Education Department’s emergency order last week sought to pressure more schools to do so.

The order called for all public schools to “open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” It stated that districts could remain closed based on the “advice and orders” of state health officials or “local departments of health.”

State officials later said they would not require districts to reopen campuses if they deem doing so unsafe, but those districts must submit a plan explaining their decisions.

School board members are scheduled to review Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s reopening plan today.

In lieu of a letter from Alonso, district officials are said to be mulling submitting to the state excerpts from her comments at the advisory committee meeting.

At the July 6 meeting, Alonso was among the most vocal proponents of keeping schools closed, attendees say. Steered in large part by her advice, committee members agreed.

“There was nobody that vocally said, ‘I don’t agree with that and I do want to reopen,’” said Rep. Matt Wilhite, D-Wellington, a committee member who participated in the meeting.

Refraining from giving formal recommendations has not prevented Alonso from continuing to provide sobering information in public meetings, however.

On Tuesday she reminded county commissioners that four children with COVID-19 had died in Florida, and that the percentage of children testing positive for the disease was rising.

“This is real,” she told county commissioners. “The kids can get sick, and they can die.”

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