Mismanaging Environmental Crisis: Student Desk Shields from China During Covid-19

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1.      The Florida Sarasota County School System (SCS) spent $693,000 for the purchase of 42,000 individual plastic/acrylic desk shields to be used as part of their Covid-19 PPE mitigation effort in July 2020. The purchase was made during a state-wide Emergency Resolution which waived standard approval policies/procedures during the Covid-19 pandemic. The State of Florida is unique in its politically driven back-to-school mandates.

2.      Through FOIA research, it was discovered that the source of the desk shields/dividers/partitions is a Chinese plant who produced (made) the shields under the manufacturer’s name of David Dobbs Enterprises out of St. Augustine, FL. The desk shields were then shipped overseas by vessel via a Korean-owned distribution company during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. They landed in California, and then were over-the-road freighted to a Sarasota County Osprey warehouse, where they were then disbursed to individual schools. These facts have never been revealed to the public by SCS or SSB.

3.      SCS notified the Florida Sarasota County School Board (SSB) of the pending purchase in advance via email. There is no FOIA documentation of any discussion or question from SSB. The Emergency Resolution permits the bypass of any normal approval processes, including the participation of the public, parents, staff, students, or health and education officials. SSB had full knowledge of the purchase, which was then first revealed and announced to the public during an emergency School Board meeting on July 2, 2020 without any opportunity for public engagement or comment.

4.      FOIA requests under the Florida Sunshine Law revealed no documentation or indication that either SCS or SSB consulted with the Florida Department of Health or any other entity, including the CDC, regarding the science behind the efficacy of the shields. In fact, the desk shields are simply glorified plastic/acrylic menu holders repurposed for educational use, a line of business Dobbs Enterprises has conducted for over 40 years. There is zero evidence or research as to the mitigating effect from airborne particles, or any other documentation regarding the desk shields being utilized as PPE safety devices.

5.      In its rush to react and prepare for the initially scheduled August 10th school opening, SCS did not conduct a bid process. This desk shields purchase was a single-source item and there is no FOIA evidence of any attempt to find a US-based maker of the product. This is especially offensive to those supporting the United States economy during a national crisis, (for one, myself as a US Veteran). SCS was however, in receipt of initial promotional marketing flyers, which were then offered as comparables after the FOIA request was underway.

6.      SCS and SSB approved the desk shields purchase with the full knowledge that many students would not be attending in-person class for the 2020/2021 year. This means that the purchase of 42,000 units was completely unnecessary and an irresponsible use of taxpayer resources. SCS also plans to unnecessarily charge students for the replacement of any desk shields lost or damaged, further supporting the growing claims that SCS and SSB function as a business and not as government entity serving the public. In addition, students are charged with daily cleaning of the shields to offset the overhead and burden on janitorial staff and/or educators as a further money-saving effort.

7.      SCS and SSB publicly promoted and touted the desk shields as part of a comprehensive mitigation campaign to demonstrate the effective steps they were taking to ensure safety measures were in effect. This is an egregious and bald-face lie to the public, thereby demonstrating that SCS and SSB do not regularly perform detailed due diligence, do not operate in truthful transactions, nor in the public’s best interest. In this action, they did not perform their overriding charter function of ensuring public health and education.

8.      The FOIA documents do not reveal how SCS originally became aware of David Dobbs Enterprises, that information is mysteriously missing from the provided documents. Who offered this vendor source and when? Who stands to benefit from this action? How many other districts obtained shields from Dobbs Enterprises? Who or what is behind the Department of Education’s contingency planning and sourcing?

9.      There has been zero accountability required of the persons who undertook this action. 

Author Shauna Lee Lange is a parent in the Sarasota County, Florida School District. These findings were subsequently submitted to the Office of Inspector General of the Florida Department of Education.