Judge strikes down Florida’s schools reopening order as unconstitutional

Special to redefinED

Most Florida schools, awaiting a decision in the case, already have returned to face-to-face instruction.

Renzo Downey, Florida Politics

A Leon County court has sided with Florida’s teachers union over the state’s order for schools to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, issuing a temporary hold on that order.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson found that Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran‘s order requires schools to reopen to receive funding. That “essentially ignored the requirement of school safety.”

Earlier this month, the Florida Education Association requested a temporary injunction “to stop the reopening of schools until it is safe to do so.” The union, NAACP and others filed the lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez.

The order would deny funding to districts that remain closed over concerns for public health, which is constitutionally protected, Dodson said.

“There is not room in many classrooms for social distancing,” Dodson wrote. “There is not room to put desks 4 feet apart, much less 6 feet apart as is recommended. Students entering and leaving classrooms are inherently close together.”

Additionally, not all students might wear masks, teachers don’t have adequate personal protective equipment and teachers are asked to sanitize their own classrooms between classes.

Districts could delay the school year if it means making classrooms safer, DeSantis has said. But “the districts have no meaningful alternative” to reopening if they want to keep their funding, Dodson wrote.

DeSantis and Corcoran have also said any teacher could opt out of in-person teaching. Teachers working from home could teach remote learning classes, DeSantis offered.

“But that option is not being provided to all teachers,” Dodson wrote. “Some teachers are being forced to quit their profession in order to avoid an unsafe teaching environment.”

Department of Education officials denied both Hillsborough and Monroe county school districts’ plans to delay reopening while it permitted Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties’ districts’ delayed plans. The difference was that the three hotspot counties are still under Phase 1, but the order didn’t distinguish between Phase 1 and Phase 2 counties.

However, Dodson did not throw out the complete order. Removing the requirement for “brick and mortar” classes, among other changes, would make the order constitutional in his eyes.

Several uncertainties remain about COVID-19, including to what extent children can infect adults, Dodson said. But DeSantis has pointed to studies that show low rates of transmission between children and adults as evidence that it is safe for classrooms to open.

“What has been clearly established is there is no easy decision and opening schools will most likely increase COVID-19 cases in Florida,” Dodson wrote. 

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