Judge strikes down Florida's schools reopening order as unconstitutional; state appeals
A circuit judge in Tallahassee has ruled that Florida's schools reopening order, requiring "brick and mortar" schools to be open amidst a coronavirus pandemic, is unconstitutional.
Circuit Judge Charles Dodson granted a request for a court order to bar enforcement of the directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
Dodson wrote in his decision that the Florida Education Association (FEA) established that irreparable harm would be caused if schools were to reopen on a date set by officials in Tallahassee.
He struck down any requirement that brick-and-mortar schools be open at least five days a week and that reopening plans have to be approved by Corcoran.
In a statement, Corcoran said: “We’ve said it all along, and we will say it one million times — we are 100% confident we will win this 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.
"If you are one of the 1.6 million students who have chosen to return to the classroom, a parent, or a classroom teacher that wanted to educate their student in person, we strongly encourage you to call the Florida Education Association and tell them to drop this frivolous lawsuit.”
Dodson wrote that schools should “reopen when the local decision-makers determine” it's safe to do so after the advice of medical experts. And that should happen without the threat of a financial penalty from the state affecting the decision.
FEA President Federick Ingram said that was all the teachers had asked for: To let the decision be made by local elected officials and health experts.
“The Court simply stated the obvious: Schools should reopen when the local decision makers determine upon the advice of local health experts that it is safe to do,” Ingram said.
Instead, Dodson said the state's order took the decision away from elected school boards and superintendents and forced them under the risk of financial penalty to comply.
“This is what local school boards were elected to do,” the judge wrote about local control of schools.
“(But) the districts have no meaningful alternative,” Dodson said. “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.”
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The FEA, the statewide teachers' union, filed suit last month against an emergency order issued by Corcoran to reopen public schools by Aug. 31, unless state and local health officials say otherwise.
But health officials refused to weigh in on whether children should return to campus. And Corcoran warned if schools weren’t reopened, he would have to withhold funding from the district.
The FEA argued the coronavirus makes it unsafe to return to the classroom at this time.
Attorney Bill Wieland suggested to Dodson that there was no reason for Cocoran to pick Aug. 31 as the reopening date over any other day. He said Corcoran had failed to consult medical experts when he crafted the order, and his legal team did not provide any testimony that it is safe to return to the classroom.
Dodson agreed the FEA presented evidence that an irreparable harm would occur if the order stood and that the union's legal team had demonstrated an injunction, or court order against the state's directive, will "serve the public interest."
He struck down provisions in Corcoran’s order that brick and mortar schools should be open at least five days a week and the requirement that school reopening plans need to be approved by the Commissioner.
What remains is the mandate to provide a uniform public education. “It all goes back to the language in the Constitution which says local elected school boards shall operate, supervise and control schools,” said Ron Meyer, an attorney for the FEA.
“In the face of the pandemic, local school boards should rely on medical advice to make decisions in respect to reopening, remaining open or delaying opening,” he added.
FEA will next seek an order overturning the automatic stay and that decision would be up to the 1st District Court of Appeal.
Ingram pleaded with DeSantis not to appeal and let the ruling stand. And he called on Florida school superintendents to work with teachers on a plan to reopen brick and mortar schools safely.
“You have complete autonomy as a local school district to do what is necessary for your schools and you have the full support not only of this court, but also the FEA,” Ingram said in a direct appeal to superintendents and school board members.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
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