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Florida Judge Blocks Governor’s School Reopening Gambit (1)

Aug. 24, 2020, 7:43 PMUpdated: Aug. 24, 2020, 9:47 PM

A Florida judge struck down an order for all of the state’s K-12 public schools to reopen by Aug. 31 regardless of Covid-19 safety concerns, siding with the state teachers union that sued to block the requirement.

The Florida Education Association had argued in its lawsuit the reopening mandate from state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran violated a section of Florida’s constitution that requires the state to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools.”

State Circuit Judge Charles Dodson in Tallahassee largely agreed in an order issued Monday, granting a temporary injunction that blocks Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Corcoran from enforcing the mandate. The judge also granted the union’s request to sever the allegedly unconstitutional portions of Corcoran’s order.

“The Order is unconstitutional to the extent it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards decision making with respect to reopening brick and mortar schools, and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August,” Dodson wrote.

After the release of Corcoran’s directive on July 6, his department subsequently approved some local school systems’ plans to delay their reopenings until September, including Miami-Dade County, while denying a similar proposal in Hillsborough County—decisions that Dodson said contributed to his view of the state mandate being arbitrary.

State officials’ expected appeal of Monday’s ruling would provide an automatic stay that prevents the ruling from taking effect, said Ronald Meyer, an attorney at Meyer, Brooks, Blohm and Hearn P.A. in Tallahassee who helped represent the Florida Education Association. The plaintiffs then could ask the appeals court to lift that stay.

Intent to appeal

“We intend to appeal this ruling and are confident in our position and in the authority of the Commissioner and the Governor to do what is best for our students,” Fred Piccolo, spokesman for the governor, said in an emailed statement.

Florida officials’ push to reopen schools for in-person classes fell in line with the urging of President Donald Trump and his administration. The American Federation of Teachers, which is the nation’s largest teachers union and the parent organization for the Florida association, has opposed efforts to pressure school systems to reopen without adequate safety protocols or consideration of the local spread of coronavirus.

The judge’s ruling “is a pushback on politics overtaking safety, and the science, and the well-being of communities,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten on a video press conference Monday.

The AFT passed a resolution in July authorizing the teachers who make up its 1.7 million members to strike as a last resort if they feel school systems are forcing them to teach in-person classes without adequate safety measures.

Stated the obvious

Most Florida school systems have already reopened for in-person classes, with a handful of exceptions, said FEA President Fedrick C. Ingram. If the ruling is allowed to take effect, school systems can revisit their reopening decisions and decide whether they consider it best to use a distance-learning or hybrid model, he said.

“The court order simply stated the obvious: schools should reopen when the local decision-makers determine upon advice of medical experts that it is safe to do so,” Ingram said.

In an Aug. 22 court filing, attorneys for Corcoran and DeSantis argued the constitutional requirement for providing “safe” schools is a subjective concept and the research on how best to operate schools during the pandemic is developing.

“This policy preference expressed in the Emergency Order is consistent with the supervisory role of the State Board of Education and the Governor’s emergency powers. And, it is consistent with the wishes of approximately 1.6 million parents who have requested in-person instruction,” the state’s attorneys wrote in their filing.

The case is Fla. Education Association v. DeSantis, Fla. Cir. Ct., No. 2020 CA 001450, 8/24/20.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout)

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

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

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