Florida Teachers Urge Judge to Halt Full School Reopening

Students arrive at South Seminole Middle School in Casselberry, Fla., on Monday for the first day of classes for Seminole County Public Schools. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — James Lis, a high school science teacher in Orlando, has taught in Florida’s public schools for the last 21 years. But if he is forced to teach his students in-person on Friday, when Orange County schools open, he will resign.

“If there is no change, I’m going to have to explain class by class I can’t return,” Lis said through tears during an emergency injunction hearing on Wednesday. “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.”

For eight hours, teachers, medical experts, a school board member and a union president implored Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson to halt the opening of brick-and-mortar schools as the state continues to wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, brought a lawsuit against state officials last month after Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an executive order that requires in-person learning this month for at least five days per week.

FEA’s lawsuit seeks to block that order. The union claims opening brick-and-mortar schools violates the Florida Constitution, which mandates the safe operation of public schools.

A group of teachers and parents also joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs.

“Any opening of the schools will bring about some type of risk, but a greater risk is the closing of the schools,” David Wells, who is representing Governor Ron DeSantis and the Department of Education, told the court during opening statements.

Corcoran and DeSantis, who are both named in the suit, have stressed schools should give parents the choice of in-person learning for their children or virtual learning.

But some teachers, like Lis, say the district is forcing them into face-to-face instruction and not giving them a choice to opt-out.

Lis and other teachers testified they are woefully unprepared to maintain CDC guidelines in their classrooms.

“I was given a gallon of hand sanitizer and one can of cleaning wipes,” Lis said, adding the school offered face shields but ran out of face masks.

Andre Escobar, a math teacher in Osceola County, said his school gave him a face mask and a box of tissues.

Both teachers said they would be solely responsible for cleaning classrooms between periods. Then there’s the issues of bathrooms, which frequently run out of paper towels, and the cafeteria, in which students will have to remove their masks to eat.

“These are things that do not give me a lot of confidence,” Lis said.

For Escobar, who is quadriplegic, catching the virus could be a death sentence, he said.

“My doctor said it would be unlikely for me to survive,” he told the court.

Dr. Annette Nielsen, a pediatric doctor who is on a medical advisory committee for the Orange County school system, ripped apart the manual detailing the state’s reopening plan during her testimony.

“In my opinion, there was a lack of direction, lack of certainty, lack of definition and lack of guidance,” she said. “These are schools, not hospitals.”

Frederick Ingram, president of the FEA, testified that teachers are deciding to retire early.

“Frankly, education professionals and teachers across the state are panicked and afraid,” Ingram said. “Of course they want to go back to school, they just want to do it safely.”

Eleven districts across the state have already reopened schools. In Martin County, possible Covid-19 cases in the first week of opening forced nearly 300 students and 14 teachers into quarantine.

Other school districts plan to open later this week, next week and Aug. 31.

The Florida Department of Health’s latest update reported 4,200 new cases on Wednesday. Another 174 residents died, state records show, bringing the death toll over the last six months to more than 10,000. Half of those deaths occurred in the last month.

Although the number of cases has trended downward over the last few weeks, the state’s percentage of positive cases has hovered around 10%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization advise a positivity rate of 5% or less indicates the virus is under control.

Dr. Thomas Burke, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Global Health Innovations Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, said placing children in schools before the positivity rate gets below 5% would cause an “explosion” of cases.

“Over 5% the risk for rapid surge of disease that will harm the population and overrun the health system is magnified immensely,” he told the court.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Dodson suggested his decision may not come until next week.

“Waiting undercuts what this emergency relief was sought for back in July,” one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Jacob Stuart Jr., told the judge.

But Dodson was not swayed.

“I just don’t think I can make an off-the-cuff decision of this magnitude without looking at the evidence,” he said.

The hearing continues on Thursday with testimony from the state’s witnesses.

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