Violating Facilities and College Board Agreements, School Board's McDonald Peddles More Masking Falsehoods at SAT Testing Site
Flagler County School Board member Janet McDonald has frequently used her time on the school board to spread falsehoods and disinformation about the Covid pandemic. Speaking from her seat at board meetings, she has derided face masks as ineffective or harmful. She has claimed, falsely, that communities with masking have had steeper transmission rates. She has downplayed the extent of covid fatalities. She has falsely called the various immunization options against covid “not a vaccine.” She has used her Twitter feed to the same ends.
Until last week, she had not interfered with another organization’s rules to impose her own beliefs. On Saturday, she did, turning up at a College Board testing site for the SAT at Matanzas High School, standing guard by the registration table, telling students, in contradiction of College Board rules, that they did not have to wear masks, and successfully managing to have most begin their testing without masks on. The incident was first reported by Flagler Rogue, the anonymous Twitter feed that began as a clearinghouse of Covid information in the schools and has since expanded its role to other school-related matters.
The College Board is not backing down from its rule. It is taking the interference seriously and investigating the matter.
“Across all weekend test centers, the College Board is requiring all students and staff to wear a mask or protective face covering during an SAT administration,” the College Board told FlaglerLive in an emailed statement in response to questions. “In a challenging and dynamic environment during Covid-19, the College Board is working very hard to keep all students and staff safe, provide opportunities for testing, and comply with all applicable regulations. We are grateful to all students and staff who cooperate with us to achieve those goals. We are looking into this particular situation and will make a determination in the best interest of the students who took the test.”
So it isn’t yet clear to what extent, if any, the College Board–which typically investigates irregularities at its testing sites–will consider the testing jeopardized, though its focus on students’ best interest suggests it will not penalize students for a school board member’s misconduct.
The College Board’s previous agreements with Flagler schools are explicit and strict on testing protocols, so nothing was out of the ordinary but McDonald’s interference. The agreements spell out that “The SAT will be administered under standard College Board test administration and security protocols as specified in the [Test center Master Form] and Test Center Supervisor training and instructional materials… In accordance with College Board policies, any test irregularity, including mis-administrations or security breaches, will be thoroughly investigated and may result in score cancellations. The Client [in this case, Flagler schools] is responsible for making all necessary arrangements to ensure that the testing environment and the security of all test materials satisfy College Board requirements as specified in the Test Center Supervisor training and instructional materials. The test will be administered by Client-employed personnel, who will not receive additional remuneration by the College Board.”
McDonald never went into testing areas and left once the testing began. College Board officials soon learned of her interference and requested that the test administrators, Corinne Schaefer and Jeremy Schaefer, reimpose the masking rule at a break. District spokesman Jason Wheeler said they did so. The Schaefers are both Flagler County school employees but on Saturday were working in their capacity as College Board testing administrators, as the testing was entirely a College Board operation, not a Flagler school district operation. As such, whether as a school board member or a member of the public, McDonald had no jurisdiction, no authority at the site.
McDonald was “in a place where she did not belong,” Wheeler said on Saturday, when first describing the matter as he understood it–he was out of town–though by Monday he’d tempered the statement. “I don’t know where she was,” he said of where McDonald physically stood, though McDonald herself later acknowledged she stood at the intake point, ostensibly greeting students. “I don’t know if that’s permissible or not, I don’t know the rules of the college board.” But on Saturday, only students and test administrators were authorized to be in the testing areas.
What is clearer, Wheeler said, is that the College Board was using Matanzas High School as a third party, through a Use of Facilities agreement, the same way that churches, athletic groups and other organizations routinely use school facilities for their activities. But as such, once an organization uses a school facility, it’s the organization’s rules that prevail, not the school board’s. The College Board’s masking rule is clearly stated, and makes allowances for medical exemptions. Students were read a script the day before, so they knew what to bring and what to be prepared for, including masking, Wheeler said.
He also noted that as a College Board operation, this was not just necessarily testing of Flagler schools students only. “You have private school students, sometimes you have home school students, you have students crossing county lines, so we may have had other students from other districts there, we don’t know, so it’s not just a Flagler schools issue,” Wheeler said. In that regard, McDonald was interfering with students over whom she’d have no jurisdiction even as a school board member.
McDonald’s interference with the masking rule was no different than if, for example, she had interfered with a Jewish or Islamic religious service contracted as part of a use of facilities, insisting that the activity entail readings from the New Testament instead of the organizations’ own scriptures. McDonald did not respond to a phone call, but told the Observer that “Masks don’t work,” and that ““All they do is limit oxygen.”
The statement is an outright falsehood that numerous peer-reviewed studies, public health and medical organizations have repeatedly refuted. “Claims that masks reduce oxygen supplies, cause carbon dioxide “intoxication” and weaken the immune system have gained steam, fueled in part by social media,” WebMD’s Amy Norton reported last November. “At the same time, medical authorities — including the World Health Organization and the American Lung Association — have issued statements debunking those myths. But the claims persist.”
Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler County Health Department has repeatedly debunked the McDonald masking myth, and at one point did so weekly in his radio appearances on WNZF’s Free For All Fridays. He did so again today in an interview. He said that while there are legitimate points of debate regarding masking–not whether, but how much, they work, under what circumstances they’re best used, whether they pose any kind of risk–“this idea that they have biologically harmful effects is absurd. It has no scientific credibility,” Bickel said. “If that were the case, would you see surgeons routinely wearing them for hours on end? It’s just so farcical, why are we even having discussions?”
McDonald. Bickel said, is taking advantage of people’s dearth of scientific knowledge to peddle falsehoods that may have appeal among certain people. “That’s kind of like a tell in a poker game: if you’re going there, it shows you are so far down the rabbit hole that you’re just making stuff up to go with your beliefs,” Bickel said. McDonald, for example, is conflating carbon dioxyde and oxygen exchanges with masks. There have been “minimal effects” of carbon dioxide levels on mask wearers, but in amounts so negligible that they have had no effect on physiology. As for oxygen, there’s been no showing of any effects. “Honestly it’s like, Janet, why are you doing this? You’re only going to get away with this, with people who don’t know anything about science,” Bickel said, as if addressing the school board member. If she were to speak such ideas to any group of physicians, they “would be rolling on the floor with this stuff. She takes advantage of these people who are scientifically naive.”
The acid test, Bickel said, is whether masks have any effect on people’s ability to function. They do not, he said. “The idea that they’re harmful either from oxygen or carbon dioxide or effects on your skin, I have not seen any credible scientific evidence for that, and it flies in the face of millions of people, including health professionals, wearing them all the time for decades. So if you think this isn’t illogical, do you ever think anything is illogical?”
Dr. Stephen Playe, a physician in Flagler, wrote McDonald and other school board members this morning, addressing the email to McDonald. “The obvious solution would be to offer two testing spaces: one mask optional and one mask mandatory,” he wrote. “In fact the students were led to believe universal masking would be assured at the testing site (in conformity with College Board recommendations), then found that most students were unmasked. It is possible that their performance on the test would be adversely affected by the last minute distraction and the anxiety of being in what is considered by many to be an unsafe, infectious, environment. While I am not a lawyer, I suspect legal liability will be ascribed if adverse events (i.e. unexpectedly low scores among, say, immunocompromised, unvaccinated students) are alleged. Who would be found legally responsible? You, if you were acting as a private citizen? The Flagler County School Board, if you represented them? The College Board, for not following their declared policies? The students who did not wear masks despite being told to by the proctors?”
Playe ended his email with a reference to surgery he had last week. “Masks in the operating room were not optional,” he wrote.
McDonald claimed in response that she was “following up on the guarantee made to students who had requested well in advance of the testing session because of their personal health needs and were assured by administrators that that was possible. You understand the specifics of individual health needs for best performance, especially in ‘high stakes’ situations and extra need for oxygen. ”
Wheeler specified that “any communication between Mrs. McDonald and District Administration surrounded one student with a parental concern, which had previously been addressed with the College Board last spring.”
In her email to Playe, McDonald went on to claim knowledge of mask’s harmful effects before, astoundingly, questioning Playe’s integrity as a physician: “Sadly, I’m sure you are being compromised in your profession now, too,” McDonald wrote. “Doctors are experiencing policy positions from afar that are impacting their ability to treat patients as they evaluate their individual needs in person and real time.”
School Board member Cheryl Massaro’s response to the physician was less speculative. “It seems that every day a new shoe drops presenting even more outrageous challenges for our board,” Massaro wrote. “My greatest fear is what this single minded event is teaching our students, and that is Rules are made to be broken, and not adhered to. How dangerous is that thought to the future of our society?? Unfortunately, I am only one voice of five, and can only hope common sense will prevail.”