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How Florida Returns To School Is In Litigation Limbo

Screenshot of FEA v DeSantis hearing that took place over Zoom.
Screenshot of FEA v DeSantis hearing that took place over Zoom.

Lawyers representing Florida's largest teachers' union and Governor Ron DeSantis delivered virtual closing arguments today in a closely watched case that could impact schools across the state. A Leon County judge is expected to decide early next week if Florida’s executive order mandating that school buildings reopen for in-person instruction creates an unsafe environment.

The testimony revealed the deep divide among parents, teachers, Florida school boards, and the state department of education about what’s safe when it comes to on-site education during the pandemic. The injunction hearing in the Florida Education Association v. Governor DeSantis lawsuit seeks to block the state education commissioner's emergency order from July on schools reopening. Nearly half of the state’s school districts are now open, as students return to classes—and in a few instances, return home under quarantine.

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On the Florida Roundup, Politico Reporter Andrew Atterbury, parent Adam Herman, and special education teacher Whitney Reddick joined hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross.

Here’s an excerpt from the conversation.

Tom Hudson: At the heart of this case is what is safe in the classroom for teachers and students. As you’ve watched it this week, what can you tell us about what the judge is weighing in terms of safety for teachers and students?

ANDREW ATTERBURY: It really showed the divide among people who are split over whether or not students should be sent back to the classroom. You know, for every person that the teachers’ union brought up, the state brought up someone who had a different view on why they think things should be open.

And for the state, it all comes down to choice. They say 1.6 million students signed up for face-to-face classes. And if this lawsuit prevails, then that will get turned down, and those people will lose their choice. But then the teachers argue that they don't have a choice, that they're the ones who have to be in classrooms no matter what.

Teachers are asking for leave across the state, and that's getting denied. And teachers are leaving the profession. I mean, even in some cases, the leaders say that if teachers end up in quarantine, as long as they're healthy, they'll still have to be streaming their classes for students online. So that just kind of shows you why teachers feel like this is an unsafe environment for them.

Melissa Ross: You're part of a group a thousand strong on Facebook -- Broward parents for Return to School. Tell us about your family's situation and why it's led you to call for more options for in-person instruction in South Florida.

ADAM HERMAN: Well, I have a 10th grader, an eighth-grader, and a fourth-grader. And they've all this week began their schooling virtual and online. And we have been fighting for the option to have a choice since June with our school board. And Superintendent Runcie, you know, we as parents believe that the right place for our children to be is in the brick and mortar school. And we'd like them to be there.

Melissa Ross: Certainly, plenty of other parents feel the way you do, although others are concerned about the spread of the virus. The school system where you are, saying it's simply not safe to reopen yet. What's your response to that argument?

ADAM HERMAN: Well, I think the statistics clearly show that it is safe to reopen. It's just a question of having a choice. Everything we do in life involves risk, whether we get in our car or walking down the street.

You know, there are risks involved with our children being home and being in front of a screen eight to 10 hours a day. So we need to evaluate those risks and decide what's best for our children. And again, we're not calling for everybody to be back in school or every teacher to be back at school. We're calling for the option to have a choice to make the decision that's best for our children and families. And right now, we don't have that choice.

Melissa Ross: You went back with your colleagues despite your fears. And so many of their teachers have done the same. How are you commiserating about this whole situation right now?

WHITNEY REDDICK: I do want to point out that education is teachers, and we do play a big role. But I have two paraprofessionals that are with me in the classroom for the same amount of time all day. And we have bus drivers. We have cafeteria workers. And our custodial staff that probably have a lot of pressure, too. So I just want to point out that I was speaking on behalf of all of them, and the worries that we all have as a collective educational community.

I will say that the majority of them feel the exact same way that I do. They have come to me in confidence, you know, on the sly, saying great job, I am with you. And if you don't have to be ashamed that you have apprehension about going back into a classroom, I don't think that is anything to be shameful of.

We share ideas. I did a training on how I'm going to implement rituals and routines in my classroom and just things that I really thought of because of the worry and the anxiety of not just keeping me and my family safe, but my students and the other peers there in my room. A lot of our students have multigenerational homes, and their primary caretaker would be in that high-risk category and be sort of accidentally or unknowingly sending them home with a virus that could potentially be deadly. It's nerve-wracking and it's scary. And that would really devastate me.

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Denise Royal