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Was Palm Beach County's health director 'politically silenced' in recommendation to keep schools closed?

School board chairman says Florida's surgeon general told Dr. Alina Alonso to 'keep her mouth shut'
Dr. Alina Alonso provides coronavirus update, June 19, 2020
Posted at 12:37 PM, Jul 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-17 18:09:18-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Keep your mouth shut and don't speak about it.

That's what Florida's surgeon general told the Palm Beach County health director after she recommended keeping schools closed to protect children from the deadly coronavirus, according to the chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board.

At Wednesday's board meeting in which school board members approved a plan to start the 2020-21 academic year with distance learning only, Chairman Frank Barbieri claimed Dr. Alina Alonso, the head of the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, was "politically silenced by Tallahassee" after recommending that brick-and-mortar schools not reopen next month because of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

"The superintendent told me [Alonso] was very clear," Barbieri told WPTV in an interview earlier this week. "[Alonso] said that the schools should not be reopened at this point while we're in Phase One and the epidemic is surging."

According to an executive order issued by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on July 6:

"Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students, subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health, Executive Order 20-149 and subsequent executive orders."

Barbieri said he and Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy asked Alonso for her recommendation in writing to send to the Florida Department of Education to justify why the School District of Palm Beach County shouldn't reopen brick-and-mortar schools next month.

But Alonso never wrote the letter.

"She got a call from the surgeon general of the state of Florida that told her to keep her mouth shut and not speak about it," Barbieri said at Wednesday's school board meeting. "Not only did she get the call, but the other health directors from around the state got the same call that they should not get involved with the school districts' decisions on whether or not to reopen schools."

WATCH BARBIERI ADDRESS SCHOOL BOARD:

Frank Barbieri addresses Palm Beach County School Board

Barbieri said the phone call from Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida's surgeon general, directly went against the guidance issued by the Florida Department of Education.

"The head of the health department is the person we're supposed to depend on to make health care decisions for this county and give us advice on what's in the best interests of the children and the 23,000 employees in our school system," Barbieri told school board members. "And when she doesn't want to do her job because she's being politically silenced by Tallahassee, it's shameful."

Those comments came at the start of Wednesday's 2 p.m. school board meeting.

More than 10 hours later, around 12:30 a.m. on Thursday, board members voted unanimously to begin the 2020-21 academic year with distance learning.

The only thing left to decide is when the actual school year will begin.

The current start date for Palm Beach County schools is Aug. 10. However, Fennoy confirmed to WPTV that the school year will be delayed.

"The board's will and pleasure right now is to delay it, and it will be delayed," Fennoy said Thursday.

At next week's school board meeting on July 22, Fennoy will present board members with options and they will officially vote on a start date.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Back To School | Coronavirus

"We should be making our decision based on sound medical science and recommendations from the medical authorities," Barbieri told WPTV. "When we can't get that medical advice, when [Alonso] is told not to give it to us, then it is problematic for us and it harms the children."

WATCH BARBIERI'S INTERVIEW WITH WPTV:

WPTV interview with Frank Barbieri on Alina Alonso

Alonso was not present at Palm Beach County's weekly coronavirus briefing Friday afternoon. Instead, Mayor Dave Kerner said she was "out doing other public service in the community."

WPTV has contacted the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee, the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County and the Florida Department of Education for a response to Barbieri's allegations.

So far, none of those agencies has issued a comment.

However, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did briefly address Corcoran's executive order during a news conference Friday in Apopka, stressing the Florida Department of Health's involvement in school reopening decisions.

"I think what [Corcoran] was trying to do is say, you know, the goal should be to get kids back in the classroom," DeSantis said. "If you actually look at the way it's structured, it's not exactly mandatory. The Department of Health has to do this, all this other stuff. So I think what it's doing is focusing people on what this is gonna look like and going forward."

The Florida Department of Education posted specific details about Corocoran's order on Facebook on Friday afternoon, saying it "encourages school boards and charter school governing boards to seek the advice of public health experts at the Florida Department of Health and local departments of health when making decisions to safely reopen schools."