Judge Strikes Down Florida School Reopening Order

Students arrive at South Seminole Middle School in Casselberry, Fla., arrive on the first day of classes for Seminole County Public Schools, Monday August 17, 2020 in Casselberry, Fla. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — A Florida judge sided with the state’s largest teachers union Monday and threw out a Florida Department of Education order mandating in-person learning at schools this month.

After a two-day hearing last week, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson ruled Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s executive order requiring the opening of brick-and-mortar schools five days a week for face-to-face instruction violated a section of the Florida Constitution that requires the “safe” operation of public 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.”

Dodson’s decision does not automatically close schools, but allows local school boards to make a determination without the fear of losing state funding.

The FEA and its attorneys proclaimed victory during a press conference held remotely via Zoom.

“I have said this from the onset, we want to teach, nothing replaces the magic that happens between a teacher and a student,” said FEA president Frederick Ingram. “We know what our jobs are. We simply do not want to risk the lives our kids, we don’t risk our own lives and by extension, our families at home.”

The state filed an appeal Monday afternoon, which puts an automatic stay on Dodson’s decision. The FEA will ask to overturn the stay.

In a statement, Corcoran called on parents and teachers to convince the FEA to drop the “frivolous” lawsuit.

“This fight has been, and will continue to be, about giving every parent, every teacher and every student a choice, regardless of what educational option they choose,” he said.

The FEA brought the lawsuit against state officials last month after Corcoran issued his order. A group of teachers and parents also joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs.

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 during last week’s 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.”

Other teachers and medical experts told the judge schools were woefully unprepared for maintaining social distancing or ensuring students wore masks.

“In my opinion, there was a lack of direction, lack of certainty, lack of definition and lack of guidance,” said Dr. Annette Nielsen about the state’s reopening plan. “These are schools, not hospitals.”

But witnesses for the state, including parents and teachers of special needs children, contended virtual learning is ineffective and sets students up for failure.

Lindsey Arthur, a special education teacher from Hillsborough County, recounted numerous problems with her students remaining attentive during virtual learning last spring. Many did not even attend the online classes.

“They are wonderful, but they need that support with their teacher, paraprofessionals and with their friends to grow and learn, and it just was not possible during our e-learning experience at all,” she testified.

Most of Florida’s school districts already opened last week and this week. It is unclear how many would close schools after Dodson’s decision.

Already, a handful of school districts have reported cases of coronavirus in teachers and students. In Martin County, coronavirus cases in the first week of opening forced nearly 300 students and 14 teachers into quarantine.

The Florida Department of Health’s latest update reported 2,095 new cases on Monday. Another 72 residents died.

According to state records, nearly 10,400 Floridians have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. More than 600,000 have contracted it.

The number of cases has trended downward over the last few weeks and the state’s percentage of positive cases has also dropped to just over 5%. 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.

In his ruling, Judge Dodson specifically referenced Hillsborough County, one of the largest school districts in the state.

This month, the Hillsborough County School Board held a special meeting with seven doctors to assess the safety of opening schools. After hearing from seven doctors, the board voted to delay in-person learning by three weeks. A day later, Corcoran sent a letter to the superintendent and school board denying their proposal and threatening a loss of funding of up to $23 million monthly.

The county’s schools opened Monday for online learning.

“Schools should reopen when the local decision-makers determine upon advice of medical experts, that it is safe to do so,” Dodson wrote. “Our Constitution requires safe schools.”

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