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Teachers Sue To Block Florida's School Reopening Mandate

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Even though coronavirus cases in Florida have been hitting record highs, the state's governor has been pushing for schools to fully reopen next month. And that is now being met with stern resistance. The state's largest teacher's union has confirmed it is suing Governor Ron DeSantis as well as his education commissioner. Their argument is that the state order is not only reckless but also unconstitutional. We have NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner with us covering this. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Can you just take us through how we got here?

TURNER: Yeah. So two weeks ago, the governor's education commissioner issued this executive order which basically requires schools to offer in-person instruction for five days a week for any family that wants to send their child to school. The state argues, you know, getting kids back into classrooms is best for kids, especially vulnerable students - children with disabilities, kids who are food insecure or maybe living with adults who can't work from home. Here's Governor DeSantis yesterday.

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RON DESANTIS: We don't want folks to fall behind. And we really, really want to focus on the best interests of our students and giving the parents the maximum amount of choices.

TURNER: Now, David, there is some flexibility in the order for the input of, say, local public health officials. But plaintiffs are clearly worried that schools are going to be forced to reopen before they feel it's safe.

GREENE: Well, so what exactly are they arguing legally in court here?

TURNER: So one of the plaintiffs is a teacher who contracted COVID-19 back in March. She spent eight weeks in the hospital. And she and her fellow plaintiffs are arguing the Florida constitution requires that kids receive a safe education. And they say if you look at infection rates in Florida right now, it's just not safe. Florida is leading the nation with 53 new daily cases per 100,000 people. Now, a little bit of context, David, when you look at the rates in other countries - like, say, Japan or France - when they reopened, they were around one new case per 100,000. So here's Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, which backed the lawsuit.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: None of the countries in the developed world that opened up opened up with this kind of surge. It's dangerous to kids. It's dangerous to teachers.

GREENE: And then, Cory, the last thing we heard right there - dangerous to kids, dangerous to teachers - can we say those things with certainty based on what we know?

TURNER: So here's what we know. Children are not getting seriously sick in general. But we are less certain of the role they play in spreading it. There is strong evidence that young kids don't spread it easily. Then again, there's new research out of South Korea that suggests that may change by age 10, when there is evidence that they do spread it. The governor and his administration are right that being out of school is hurting a lot of kids. But it's just not clear, with infection rates where they are in Florida, that it's safe for schools to reopen.

GREENE: So is this the kind of lawsuit, Cory, that we could see have an impact on, you know, decisions by other school districts and other unions, maybe, around the country?

TURNER: You know, I think some really important background here, David, is that this order has been held up by the Trump administration as a kind of shining example for what they think needs to happen right now. The trick is, since this order came about two weeks ago, infection rates in many states across the South and West have risen so much that the dynamic might be changing.

We saw a similar order to this in Texas. And yet, their state leaders on Friday actually backpedaled a bit and told districts - you know what? - you can start remote-only for two months if you really need it. And we're also hearing - even in Florida in spite of this order - several big districts are basically coming out and saying, we don't think we can do this safely. And we're not going to.

GREENE: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, thanks so much.

TURNER: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.