08/25/2020

Union wins protection against premature return to Florida schools

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A Florida judge has ruled that the governor cannot use an emergency executive order to force school districts to open before they have determined they can do so without risking the health and safety of students and staff.

empty classroom shows empty desks all facing the left

Photo credit Getty/halbergman

The decision is one step in an ongoing lawsuit to protect the community from the spread of COVID-19: the Florida Education Association sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration July 20 for requiring schools to offer brick-and-mortar options or lose state funding. The suit argues that such a demand violates the state constitution, which provides for the health and safety of schools. While litigation will continue, the recent decision—the judge granted an injunction against the order to reopen—allows districts to make their own decisions on reopening while the case wends its way through the system.

“Our Florida Constitution requires the state to ensure our schools operate safely,” according to the order from Circuit Judge Charles Dodson. “Defendants, however, through the order and its application, have essentially ignored the requirement of school safety by requiring the statewide opening of brick-and-mortar schools to receive already allocated funding.”

“We appreciate that Judge Dodson acknowledged the crucial importance of protecting the health and well-being of kids and school employees,” says FEA President Fedrick Ingram. “We have seen little sign that is a top priority for the DeSantis administration. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran appears more focused on threatening teachers and districts.”

Recognizing that this is only a temporary injunction, Ingram says, “We plan to press ahead in court. Local communities should have the freedom to make the best decisions for reopening or keeping open local schools. Our districts should not be ruled by reckless edicts from on high. Safety must come before politics.”

The coronavirus pandemic has weighed heavily in Florida, where rates of infection are among the highest in the nation. Teachers have been writing their wills and even retiring, leaving the profession they love rather than risk their lives and the lives of their students by returning to the classroom before it is safe.

Their fears are justified: Districts that have opened are reporting cases and quarantines for students and school employees in several counties, with more reports coming in every day. Martin County, the most populous Florida county to reopen for in-person learning in the first half of August, has been forced to quarantine nearly 400 students and several educators. From Aug. 5 to Aug. 19, the COVID-19 positivity rate in Martin County was 21 percent for children under 18. Other districts that have opened for in-person instruction and then faced immediate problems with cases and quarantines include Bradford, Manatee, Okeechobee, Seminole and Wakulla.

The statewide 14-day average positivity rate stands at 15.1 percent for children under 18. No Florida county had a pediatric positivity rate under 5 percent—one of the AFT’s thresholds to determine whether schools are safe to reopen—as of Aug. 19. Several counties, such as Martin, have rates of over 20 percent for children. Eight Florida children have died from COVID-19, and nearly 600 have been hospitalized since March 1. Overall, more than 10,000 Florida residents have died from the disease.

“We agree with the judge that teachers are the foundation of public education and that public school classrooms are the best place for kids, but safety has to come first,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “It is almost incomprehensible that educators had to go to court to force Gov. DeSantis and his education commissioner to comply with the constitution and start caring about the people they’re sworn to serve.

“The good news is this decision, if not appealed, will allow us to work with districts and the community to negotiate a safe reopening based on safety and science, rather than politics.”

[Virginia Myers]