In a significant development in the debate over reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Florida state judge on Monday issued an injunction that blocks a state order that required most school districts in the state to open their campuses five days a week by Aug. 31 or face a significant loss in state aid.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles W. Dodson said that the defendants in the lawsuit—Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and the Florida Department of Education—"arbitrarily prioritized reopening schools statewide in August over safety and the advice of health experts.”
The temporary injunction is a victory for the Florida Education Association, the NAACP and its Florida state conference, and several teachers and parents who filed two lawsuits to block Corcoran’s July 6 order. The plaintiffs had argued that the state order violated a provision of the state constitution requiring safe schools.
The suits were moved to Leon County, the home of the state capital of Tallahassee, where Dodson presided over three days of testimony and arguments on Zoom video last week. The case is one of several percolating around the country over the reopening of schools.
Dodson rejected arguments from the state defendants that because no school district had joined the suits and that 60 districts had submitted “brick-and-mortar” reopening plans, the districts themselves supported the state order.
“But the school boards have no choice,” Dodson said in his opinion in Florida Education Association v. DeSantis. “If an individual district chooses safety, that is, delaying the start of schools until it individually determines it is safe to do so for its county, it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught.”
The state has permitted the Miami-Dade, Broward County, and Palm Beach County schools systems to conduct remote learning until at least Sept. 30 because they are at the center of the coronavirus resurgence in Florida. But Dodson highlighted the experience of the Hillsborough County district in the Tampa area.
In an attempt to comply with the state’s order that ostensibly gave districts control over school reopening decisions “subject to the orders of the Florida Department of Health and local health officials,” the Hillsborough County school board called a special board meeting on Aug. 6 with a panel of seven doctors.
Five doctors said it was not safe to reopen the district’s schools as of that time, the sixth doctor said it may be safe within a few weeks, and the seventh, the director of the local health department, declined to give an opinion, the judge noted.
The Hillsborough County district submitted a plan to the state that would have delayed reopening campuses by three weeks after Aug. 31, which the state rejected, as it did a plan to delay reopening by one week. The school board then voted to reopen on Aug. 31.
“They had no real choice,” Dodson said. While the state’s order suggests local boards control the decision subject to the advice of health officials, that language “is essentially meaningless.”
“Plaintiffs presented convincing evidence that state health officials were instructed not to provide an opinion on the reopening of schools,” the judge said.
Dodson said the medical evidence about COVID-19 presented by both sides “is clearly still in flux and difficult to parse.”
The state’s order failed to consider community transmission rates, the varying ages of students, and proper precautions for the pandemic, he said.
“What has been clearly established is there is no easy decision and opening schools will most likely increase COVID-19 cases in Florida,” Dodson said.
The judge ordered the problematic provisions of the state’s July 6 order to be severed from the rest of the order.
“The order is unconstitutional to the extent it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards decision-making with regard to reopening brick and mortar schools, and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August,” Dodson said.
[UPDATED 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 24] The state education department issued a statement late Monday saying the decision has been appealed.
“We’ve said it all along, and we will say it one million times--we are 100 percent confident we will win this lawsuit,” Corcoran, the state education commissioner, said in the statement. “This fight has been, and will continue to be, about giving every parent, every teacher and every student a choice, regardless of what educational option they choose. If you are one of the 1.6 million students who have chosen to return to the classroom, a parent, or a classroom teacher that wanted to educate their student in person, we strongly encourage you to call the Florida Education Association and tell them to drop this frivolous lawsuit.”
Fedrick C. Ingram, the president of FEA, said in a statement that the union appreciates “that Judge Dodson acknowledged the crucial importance of protecting the health and well-being of kids and school employees. We have seen little sign that is a top priority for the DeSantis administration. Commissioner Corcoran appears more focused on threatening teachers and districts.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the ruling “Huge!!” in a tweet and issued a statement that said: “The judge ruled that decisions about reopening should be made locally, not dictated by the state, either directly or through funding decisions. He found for educators who have been trying to keep kids, families and our communities safe since April.”
FEA is an affiliate of both the AFT and the National Education Association.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.