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Florida Police Raid Home of Former COVID-19 Data Analyst

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  • Florida police brandishing guns conducted a raid Monday morning on the home of Rebekah Jones, a former data analyst for the Florida Department of Health who created and ran the state’s COVID-19 dashboard before being fired in May.
  • Jones, who claimed she was fired from her role after refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data to support the state’s broad reopening plans, accused Gov. DeSantis of being behind the raid and sending the “Gestapo” to silence her. DeSantis denied the claim.
  • Law enforcement said they conducted the raid while serving a warrant as part of an investigation into whether Jones illegally hacked into a state email system and sent a message to employees.
  • Jones denied having any involvement in that incident and claimed that the hardware seized in the raid had “evidence of illegal activities by the state” as well as legal proof that state officials had lied to the public.

The Saga Rebekah Jones 

Florida state police officers on Monday raided the home of Rebekah Jones, a former Department of Health data analyst who built the state’s COVID-19 dashboard and accused officials of firing her because she refused to manipulate data. 

Jones first came out with her story shortly after she was terminated from her role in May. At the time, Jones, who had been widely praised for both creating and managing the tracker, told local reporters that she had been ordered to censor data, but refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

According to emails obtained by The Tampa Bay Times, Jones had “objected to the removal of records showing people had symptoms or positive tests before the cases were announced.”

“Department staff gave the order shortly after reporters requested the same data from the agency on May 5,” the emails showed.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) denied the accusations, called Jones’ removal a “nonissue,” and claimed she was fired because she was insubordinate. He also downplayed her role in developing the COVID-19 dashboard while casting doubt on her credentials and painting her as a disruptive employee and a criminal.

DeSantis specifically pointed to unrelated charges of cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment from July 2019. The latter charge has been dropped, though DeSantis falsely claimed it was still open. He argued that these other factors were also part of the reason Jones was fired.

But Jones, who disputed DeSantis’ account, continued to fight back. In June, she launched her own dashboard of Flordia coronavirus data that she bills as a more transparent and independent alternative to the state’s tracker.

In July, she filed a whistleblower complaint against the Health Department asking for her job to be reinstated with pay. She has also reportedly been very vocal on social media, posting criticisms of DeSantis and his state agencies.

Jones’ Home Raided

The news of the raid on Jones’ home was first made public in a now-viral video of the incident she posted on Twitter.

In the video, Jones opens the doors and is escorted out of her home by an officer while several others enter brandishing firing arms. They ask who else is in her house and she responds that her two children and husband are inside before the officers point their weapons at the staircase and call for them to come downstairs, saying they have a search warrant.

“Do not point that gun at my children! He just pointed a gun at my children!” Jones can be heard yelling over the officer’s calls.

In the tweet where she shared the video, Jones also claimed that the officers, who were “serving a warrant on my computer after [Department of Health] filed a complaint” pointed the gun in her face took all her hardware, including “evidence of corruption at the state level.”

They claimed it was about a security breach. This was DeSantis. He sent the gestapo,” she wrote. 

“This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly. This is what happens to people who speak truth to power. I tell them my husband and my two children are upstairs… and THEN one of them draws his gun. On my children. This is Desantis’ Florida.”

Officials Respond

Shortly after Jones shared the video, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) confirmed in a statement that they had seized Jones’ computer equipment while executing a search warrant.

The spokesperson also claimed that when the agents arrived, they first knocked on Jones’ door and called her “in an attempt to minimize disruption to the family.”

“Ms. Jones refused to come to the door for 20 minutes and hung up on agents,” the spokesperson said. “After several attempts and verbal notifications that law enforcement officers were there to serve a legal search warrant, Ms. Jones eventually came to the door and allowed agents to enter.”

In an interview with The Times, Jones said it was not true that she refused to open the door. She claimed the delay was due to the fact that she was taking her time getting dressed because she believed she was going to be arrested. 

In a separate statement, the FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen told reporters that the agents had “entered the home in accordance with normal protocols and seized several devices that will be forensically analyzed.”

Swearingen also disputed Jones’ claim that guns were pointed at her and her children, claiming that  “at no time were weapons pointed at anyone in the home.”

As for why the FDLE was serving that warrant, according to an affidavit by an investigator with the department, it was in connection to an investigation the agency launched after the Health Department reported that an unauthorized person had illegally accessed a state government emergency management system to send a group text message to government officials encouraging them to take action.

“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” the message said. “You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”

The investigator claimed in the affidavit that he had traced the message to an IP address associated with Jones’ house. 

However, as IT experts explained to the Tallahassee Democrat: “An IP address identifies the location  that an Internet connection was made but doesn’t prove that Jones sent the text message.”

Jones Denies Hacking Accusations

Jones denied the allegations while speaking to reporters later on Monday. In an interview with The Times, she said that she was not a hacker and would not have known how to enter the system and send the message.

“DeSantis publicly said I’m not a data scientist, I’m not a computer scientist and I wouldn’t even know what to do if I saw a database, and now he’s accusing me of hacking one,” she said. “It’s a real 180 there. I’m not a hacker. I don’t hack. I don’t know s— about computers. I know how to do statistics.”

In another interview with CNN, Jones claimed that the language in the unauthorized text message did not match the way she talked and contained obvious errors that she would not make.

“The number of deaths that the person used wasn’t even right,” she noted. “They were actually under by about 430 deaths. I would never round down 430 deaths.”

Jones also told CNN that she has not had access to any Health Department systems for six months and that all information she had was accessed legally from reports or sent to her from other people still working for the government.

She additionally claimed that some of the drives taken by the police contained legal “proof that (state officials) were lying in January about things like internal reports and notices from the CDC,”  as well as “evidence of illegal activities by the state.” 

“This is what happens when you challenge powerful and corrupt people,” she said, again accusing DeSantis of orchestrating the raid. “If he thinks this is going to scare me into silence, he’s wrong.”

DeSantis, for his part, has denied any involvement in the raid.

“The governor’s office had no involvement, no knowledge, no nothing, of this investigation,”  In a spokesperson for his office said Monday, adding that the FDLE launched the investigation before anyone knew about Jones’ alleged involvement.

See what others are saying: (The Tallahassee Democrat) (The Tampa Bay Times) (CNN)

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Amanda Gorman Wows the Nation With “The Hill We Climb”

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  • Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, impressed the nation when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history.
  • Gorman’s said the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol inspired her to focus on a message of hope, community, and healing in her poem.
  • Big names like Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Barack Obama, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have all praised her work.

Amanda Gorman Becomes Youngest Inaugural Poet

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wowed the nation on Wednesday as she spoke of healing, unity, hope, and what it means to be American while reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

At 22-years-old Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 16. She then became the first national youth poet laureate in 2017. 

Now, her books are topping Amazon’s Best Sellers list and they are not even scheduled to be released until the fall.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden became a fan of Gorman after watching her give a reading at the Library of Congress. She then suggested that Gorman be a part of the ceremony. 

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried,” Gorman recited during inauguration. “That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.”

Like President Biden, Gorman has struggled with a speech impediment and has been open about her experience overcoming it. She actually used poetry as a tool to correct it. First, she used it as a way of expressing herself without having to speak. Then she used it to bring her poems to life.

“Once I arrived at the point in my life in high school, where I said, ‘you know what? Writing my poems on the page isn’t enough for me,” she told CBS News. “I have to give them breath, and life, I have to perform them as I am.’ That was the moment that I was able to grow past my speech impediment.”

What Inspired “The Hill We Climb”

Gorman said the inaugural committee gave her freedom and flexibility when it came to choosing what to write about. She was well on her way before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those events then influenced her writing. 

“It energized me even more to believe that much more firmly in a message of hope, community and healing. I felt like that was the type of poem that I needed to write and it was the type of poem that the country and the world needed to hear,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  

That message came across clearly and the insurrection was depicted in part of “The Hill We Climb.”

“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy and this effort very nearly succeeded,” she said. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future history has its eyes on us.”

Nation Impressed by Gorman

“Wow…Wow, I just, wow you’re awesome,” Cooper said when closing his interview with her. “I am so transfixed.” 

Lin-Manuel Miranda also cheered Gorman on. “The Hill We Climb” notably references a line of scripture that appears in a “Hamilton” song. Gorman also said she used to sing the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” to help her say her R sounds and correct her speech impediment. 

“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise!” Oprah Winfrey wrote. “Brava Brava Amanda Gorman! Maya Angelou is cheering—and so am I.”

Winfrey also gave Gorman a ring with a caged bird on it—a reference to the famous Angelou poem— which Gorman wore during the inauguration. 

Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the onslaught of praise, saying that her words will lead the nation. 

Former President Barack Obama echoed that idea as well, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gorman promised to run for president one day. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times)

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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban

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  • President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil. 
  • Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
  • The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions. 

Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.

That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.

Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.

The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”

It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead. 

Biden To Block Trump’s Order

Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.

“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.  In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.

With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect. 

It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.

Source: Whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions

Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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