Florida Appeals Court Backs Governor Order Requiring In-Person Schooling

Crossing guard Queenie Howe stops traffic for students arriving at the campus of Casselberry Elementary and South Seminole Middle School, in Casselberry, Fla., on the first day of classes for Seminole County Public Schools, August 17, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — A state appeals court sided with Florida’s governor on Friday in a teacher’s union-backed lawsuit challenging an executive order requiring in-person instruction in public schools.

All of Florida’s school districts opened brick-and-mortar schools in August, so the three-judge panel’s decision will not substantially affect the school year.

The order reversed a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson.

“If school districts exercised that option, students who preferred to return to the classroom would once again need to shift to online classes — even if online instruction did not serve their mental, physical, or emotional needs,” Judge Lori Rowe wrote in a decision joined by Judges Thomas Winokur and Harvey Jay.

“Parents who chose to send their children back to the classroom would lose the right to choose the best education setting for their children,” Lowe wrote in the 31-page opinion released late Friday. “And many parents would be left scrambling to find adequate daycare for their children.”

The judges also surmised that an injunction on the order could affect federal funding and cause confusion among parents and children if school boards had to hastily reshape their plans.

“And thus, an injunction would not serve the public interest,” Lowe wrote.

Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran issued an executive order on July 6 that requires all brick-and-mortar schools to reopen next month for at least five days per week. Parents can choose to continue virtual learning.

The Florida Education Association filed the initial complaint in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against Cocoran, Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, the Florida Board of Education and Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County.

A group of teachers and parents also joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs. The litigation was subsequently moved to Leon County, home to the state’s capitol, Tallahassee.

The union claimed opening brick-and-mortar schools violated the Florida Constitution, which mandates the “safe” operation of public schools.

The union maintained opening the schools is “arbitrary, dangerous, dangerous, and unconstitutional actions in the midst of the pandemic create an imminent threat to the public health, safety and welfare.”

The governor’s office and the teacher’s union did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

In previous statements, Corcoran and DeSantis have stressed schools should give parents the choice of in-person learning for their children or virtual learning.

In late August, the circuit court sided with the state’s largest teachers union Monday and threw out a Florida Department of Education order mandating in-person learning at schools.

“The districts have no meaningful alternative,” Dodson wrote in his 17-page order granting the Florida Education Association’s request for a temporary injunction. “If an individual school district chooses safety, that is, delaying the start of schools until it individually determines it is safe to do so for its county, it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught.”

During the two-day hearing, some teachers said their school districts were forcing them to teach students in-person without regard to their unique situations.

“If there is no change, I’m going to have to explain class by class I can’t return,” said James Lis, a high school science teacher in Orlando, who helps care for his 81-year-old mother-in-law. “No, I’m not going. I have chosen my kids, my students over so many difficult things, but I can’t put my family at risk.”

Dodson’s decision did not automatically close schools — most of which were already open — but allowed local school boards to make a determination without the fear of losing state funding.

That decision was quickly appealed.

Some schools in the state experienced outbreaks as schools opened, but the number of coronavirus cases statewide is down.

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