Since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the closings of schools across Florida in March, the discussion regarding the reopening of schools has been debated by Floridians across the state.
On July 6, Richard Corcoran, the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, issued an executive order to reopen “brick and mortar schools,” which are schools that have physical buildings where students regularly attend class.
Under Corcoran’s order, school districts were at risk of losing state funding if they did not allow schools to reopen five days a week by Aug. 31. In response to the order, the Florida Education Association, along with various parents and teachers, filed a lawsuit against Governor Ron DeSantis, Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida State Board of Education and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Monday, July 20.
“Gov. DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one,” former FEA President Fedrick Ingram said in a news conference via the organization’s Facebook page. “The governor needs to accept the reality of the situation here in Florida, where the virus is surging out of control. He needs to accept the evolving science. It now appears that kids 10 and older may pass along the coronavirus as easily as adults.”
The FEA’s lawsuit “seeks to give local school districts the discretion to reopen physical school sites when it is safe to do so, and to ensure a safe reopening when the time is right.” The lawsuit states that school districts should determine when schools open, in accordance with the CDC guidelines and what they deem safe. It focuses on making sure reopenings will be “safe” and “secure.”
When the FEA lawsuit was heard by Florida’s Second Circuit Court, Judge Charles Dodson ruled Corcoran’s executive order unconstitutional, finding it violated the Florida Constitution and the district school boards’ constitutional authority to operate, control and supervise their own school systems.
In Article IX, Section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution, “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.” According to the lawsuit, the state’s emergency order to reopen schools disregards the health and safety of millions of students and educators across the state, and encourages the spread of the virus in all communities.
Although CDC guidelines such as social distancing, mask wearing and hand hygiene will be implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it may not be enough to adequately keep everyone safe.
“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,” Ingram said. “Florida’s Constitution demands that public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard.”
On Friday, Oct. 9, a Florida appeals court overturned Dodson’s ruling, lifting the automatic stay the decision was previously under. The court consisted of a three-judge panel of Judges Harvey Jay, Lori Rowe and Thomas Winokur.
“Nothing in the emergency order disturbs a school district’s discretion to determine when to reopen schools and whether to offer in-person instruction,” Rowe wrote in the appeals decision. “In fact, the emergency order does not require school districts to do anything. Rather, school districts retain the discretion to continue to offer students the choice of in-person instruction, to require teachers to report for duty under their contracts and to determine teaching assignments.”
Some Florida districts opened for face-to-face instruction in August, while Broward County Public Schools, Palm Beach County Public Schools and Miami-Dade County Public Schools began the school year fully online. Under mounting pressure from the Florida Department of Education and Corcoran, all three districts have since opened.
“This is my seventh year [at MSD], but my 34th year of teaching, and I feel [like] the superintendents [reopened schools because of] the pressure from the federal government and the state government in terms of funding purposes,” English teacher Debra Jacobson said.
Corcoran sent a letter to the School Board of Broward County demanding that schools reopen by Oct. 5, instead of the previously planned date of Oct. 15. The school board held an emergency meeting on Thursday, Oct. 1. During the meeting, district officials negotiated with state officials, leading to a decision to reopen Broward County Public Schools in a phased reopening beginning on Friday, Oct. 9.
BCPS students have the choice to stay at home or attend physical school.
According to state records, the dispute between the FEA and the state of Florida could result in a $1 million cost for taxpayers. The FEA plans to file for a rehearing of their case in front of the full appellate court. The central issue, despite the fact that all school districts in the state are now open for in person learning, is whether or not the Florida Department of Education exceeded its powers with the executive order and to what extent school districts maintain local control over their schools.
This story was originally published in the October 2020 Eagle Eye print edition.