Florida Teachers Union Sues to Stop School Reopening Plan (2)

July 20, 2020, 4:19 PM

The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit to stop the state-mandated reopening of public schools next month.

The union is asking a Miami-Dade County judge to strike down Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s emergency order requiring all public schools to open for in-person instruction next month. Reopening schools amid a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases in the state would violate the state’s constitution, which guarantees “efficient, safe, secure” public schools, the union said in its suit, filed Monday in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit.

The union seeks a court order requiring the state Department of Education and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to instead develop an online instruction plan. The FEA doesn’t want to prevent schools from reopening in all cases, but believes those decisions should be made by local officials, FEA President Fedrick Ingram said. The suit also asks the court to mandate that any schools that reopen provide adequate protective gear to teachers and students, establish social-distancing procedures, and reduce class sizes, among other measures.

Union leaders described the Florida order as dangerous given the recent surge of coronavirus cases. The state had topped 360,000 cases and more than 5,000 deaths as of Monday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Florida ranks third in the U.S. in confirmed diagnoses behind New York, with more than 407,000, and California, with nearly 387,000. Florida also ranks third for its seven-day average of new cases and deaths, behind Texas and California.

“It shows a depraved indifference to human life that we are having this conversation in Florida right now,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told reporters Monday. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three teachers from districts near Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami.

Commissioner Blasts Union

Corcoran, the state education commissioner, disputed that the July 6 emergency order would require schools to reopen—though the order states that its primary goal is “reopening brick and mortar schools with the full panoply of services for the benefit of Florida students and families.”

Schools are already required to conduct 180 days of in-person learning a year, Corcoran said in a statement to Bloomberg Law. He claimed that the lawsuit would strip funding from school districts. Under the order, schools with a state-approved reopening plan are guaranteed certain funds based on number of students.

“This E.O. did not order any new directives regarding the requirements of schools to be open, it simply created new innovative options for families to have the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their student and family,” Corcoran said in the statement, which was issued through a spokeswoman. “Additionally, the order created guaranteed funding for districts and schools to educate innovatively, as long as they continue to provide all students, especially at-risk students, with a world-class education, no matter what option they choose.”

The lawsuit would “eliminate these funding guarantees,” he added, and serve to “completely” contradict the teachers union’s “normal outcry.”

The commissioner’s order came the same day President Donald Trump tweeted a demand for schools to reopen in the fall. The president has threatened to cut federal funding for schools that opt for distance learning.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said it is “reckless” to look at the issue in binary terms. “It’s unreasonable, it’s unnecessary, and it’s a false choice,” she said.

Cause of Action: Florida state constitution, Title IX sec. 1 (a).

Relief: Injunctive relief.

Response: DeSantis’ office did not reply to an emailed request for comment.

Attorneys: Coffey Burlington, representing the Florida Education Association.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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