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Legal Battle Over Reopening Schools Advances

The Florida Education Association's lawsuit alleges the Education Secretary's order violates the state constitution.
The Florida Education Association's lawsuit alleges the Education Secretary's order violates the state constitution.

Siding with teachers unions, a Leon County circuit judge on Friday refused to toss out lawsuits challenging Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s mandate that school districts reopen classrooms this month.

But Judge Charles Dodson said his decision to deny the state’s motion to dismiss the case doesn’t mean that the challenges to Corcoran’s July 6 emergency order will be successful.

During an hour-long video hearing, the judge also encouraged attorneys representing the unions and the defendants --- Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran and other state education officials --- to settle the dispute by Wednesday.

“This is a case that cries out for the parties to get together at this mediation and come up with an agreement. It’s a very complicated case. I know that. And between the governor and the education commissioner and the plaintiffs, I’m confident that if you all work really hard, you can do that, and I’m very hopeful that you can,” Dodson said.

The Florida Education Association statewide union last month filed a lawsuit alleging that Corcoran’s order violates the state Constitution, which guarantees Floridians the right to “safe” and “secure” public schools. The Orange County teachers union filed a similar legal complaint, and Dodson consolidated the cases.

Corcoran’s directive requires school districts to reopen brick-and-mortar classrooms five days a week in August and offer “the full panoply of services” to students and families, unless state and local health officials say otherwise. COVID-19 hotspots --- Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties --- were exempt from the mandate.

The legal wrangling comes as children, teachers and school workers return to classrooms throughout the state. Schools in 13 counties reopened this week, and another 14 will reopen in some fashion next week, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske. The agency has approved August reopening plans for 55 schools districts, Fenske said in an email on Friday.

DeSantis and Corcoran have zealously defended the need to give families the option to choose whether children learn online or return to classrooms. Schools statewide were shuttered in March as the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease known as COVID-19, began to spread throughout Florida.

David Wells, an attorney who represents the state, urged Dodson to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the controversy over school reopenings is a policy matter under the authority of the executive and legislative branches, not the courts.

More than half of Florida families have decided to send their children back to school in person, Wells said. At least 1.6 million of the state’s roughly 2.8 million schoolchildren will be at their desks this month, he added.

While Wells acknowledged that the Florida Constitution says it is a “paramount duty of the state” to provide “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality” education to Floridians, he said Corcoran’s emergency order took those requirements into account.

“It’s a balancing between safety and a balancing between high quality, a balancing between protecting the students and protecting the teachers and protecting the staff and the community, and providing that high quality education,” Wells, an attorney with the Gunster law firm, told the judge.

But Florida Education Association lawyer Ron Meyer said returning to school amid the pandemic is causing many teachers to resign or retire early and give up benefits, while creating anxiety for many others.

“They, as a result of this executive order, are going to be exposed to harm as they return to public schools, because of the lack of proper attention being paid to the requirement that there be safe and secure public schools,” he said.

Schools shouldn’t be punished financially if local officials decide it’s safer to postpone the onset of face-to-face instruction, Meyer argued.

“What we’re saying is whether the children are seated in their classroom or seated in their home or other location, being instructed by live instruction through the internet, the funding shouldn’t be a problem. But what we have here is an emergency order that basically says you only get funding if you do it my way. We think that’s arbitrary and capricious,” he said.

Monique Bellefleur, one of the plaintiffs in the Orange County lawsuit, is a middle-school teacher who is pregnant and has two children, including a son who is immunocompromised, according to court documents.

“Our client is in a difficult position of choosing whether or not to pursue her career and provide for her family or risk her health and well-being. Those are questions that should not be made and should not be forced,” Jacob Stuart, who represents the Orange County plaintiffs, told Dodson on Friday.

The judge ordered the parties to hold mediation all day Tuesday. If they don’t reach a compromise, Dodson scheduled a two-day hearing to begin Wednesday morning.

Whether schools should resume face-to-face instruction has become a political flashpoint in Florida and throughout the country, as parents, teachers and district officials juggle the perils of exposure to the highly contagious virus and the benefits of in-person instruction.

Corcoran this week participated in a roundtable on school reopenings at the White House with DeSantis’ close ally, President Donald Trump, who is also pushing for schools to reopen.

The education commissioner, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, boasted of his mandate and berated the legal challenges during Wednesday’s event.

“We are being sued by the union bosses, and they are disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful,” he said.

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