Florida puts students, teachers at risk despite union lawsuit

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As COVID-19 cases in Florida continue to number among the highest in the nation, teachers and other school staff there are preparing their wills and dreading the risk of re-entering crowded classrooms and hallways, worrying about the health and safety of their students, their families and themselves. Some are retiring early. But despite a union lawsuit that accuses the governor and other state officials of failing to provide a safe work environment, classroom doors have begun to swing open, come what may.

teacher wearing mask in empty classroomPhoto credit: vlada_maestro/iStock/Getty Images Plus

“Members are reaching out to me just about in tears,” says Eric Rodriguez, president of United Teachers of Suwannee County, where schools opened Aug. 10. There is no mask mandate and not much effort at social distancing, he says. His members, many of whom are over 60 and at risk for contracting COVID-19, are torn: “They want to go back, but they can’t go back to what they know is unsafe.”

The situation in Florida is playing out across the country as districts nationwide make decisions about in-person or remote learning. If the Sunshine State is any indicator, physically attending school is not looking good. After just four days in physical classrooms, Suwannee County schools have already reported cases of COVID-19. In Martin County, nine elementary school students, along with children who rode on the same school bus, have been forced into quarantine after a student came to class with COVID-19 symptoms. They will shift to remote learning, along with classmates who had already signed up for that option. Because the district considers teachers to be essential workers, they may be required to continue to report to school if they show no COVID-19 symptoms.  

“The FEA is not trying to stop the start of school,” says Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, which brought the lawsuit against the governor and other state officials. “We are trying to stop an unsafe, forced reopening of campuses that will put our students and educators at unnecessary risk. We are trying to inject reason into the process of educating children during a pandemic, and to protect our communities from a resurgence in virus cases and deaths.” Standardized social distancing, sanitizing and testing as well as low virus levels are among the necessary measures to keep everyone safe.

In the courts

The lawsuit, filed July 20, claims that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emergency order to open schools—which also ties opening to state funding—violates the state constitution’s mandate that schools be safe and secure. On Aug. 14 a judge rejected the governor’s motion to dismiss the case. Mediation is scheduled for Aug. 18, and the hearing for FEA’s motion for temporary injunctive relief against the emergency order will be held Aug. 19 and 20.

Meanwhile, schools are reopening across the state, and educators are pushing back. Protests began in July, including car parades in Orange County and targeted actions in front of the Hillsborough County school district office. In Pinellas County, protesters held signs with chilling messages such as: “I can’t teach from the grave” and “How many teacher and student deaths are you OK with?”

At this point, districts have the option of fully opening schools, opening remotely or moving to a hybrid system in which families can choose the arrangement they prefer—but the districts lose funding if they refuse to provide a brick-and-mortar option. And the pandemic requires more funding, not less—for things like sanitizing, protective gear, and Wi-Fi access for those who are learning remotely, as well as professional development for teachers to master the best ways to teach remotely.

45 safety concerns

Teachers at Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School “want Gov. DeSantis to attack the COVID-19 virus, and not the Title I schools that serve the students who are at greatest risk for contracting coronavirus,” states a press release from the FEA chapter at the school, a Title I school attached to Florida A&M in Tallahassee. The chapter points to 45 safety concerns and high COVID-19 infection rates in Leon County as reasons for caution. More than 95 percent of the school’s “students, teachers, faculty, staff and administrators identify as Black or Hispanic, and 81 percent of teachers surveyed have underlying health concerns that make them at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus, or serve as primary caregivers to family members who have high-risk health concerns.”

“Everyone wants schools to reopen, but we don’t want to begin in-person teaching, face an explosion of cases and sickness, then be forced to return to distance learning,” says Ingram. “Florida’s Constitution demands that public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard.”

FEA, with the AFT’s help, will continue to fight for safety. “The push to physically reopen schools full time without any precautions or new resources, and, most importantly, amid a skyrocketing COVID-19 surge, ignores science, safety and basic humanity,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order, as carried out by others, puts an entire generation of kids—as well as their families and their educators—at risk. Here in Florida, the governor has a constitutional obligation to make schools safe, and he’s failed. If he won’t look out for students’ and teachers’ best interests, we will.”

[Virginia Myers]