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Lawsuits Challenge Florida’s Push to Reopen Schools Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

By Evie Blad — July 20, 2020 3 min read
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Two lawsuits challenge demands by Florida leaders that schools open for in-person instruction, even as the state faces surging rates of coronavirus cases.

The Florida Education Association joined with three educators Monday to sue Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and other officials, asking a court to strike down a school reopening directive that calls on school districts to offer full-time, face-to-face instruction to all families who want it.

The lawsuit contends that the order violates a state constitutional mandate for “safe and secure public schools.” It follows a separate lawsuit brought by an Orange County teacher and a parent over the order.

President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have held up Florida as an example as they push schools nationwide to open for in-person learning, threatening to tie federal funding to those decisions.

“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,” Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram said in a call with reporters Monday. “Florida’s Constitution demands that public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard.”

Among the plaintiffs in the union’s lawsuit is Stefanie Beth Miller, a 53-year-old Broward County teacher who contracted COVID-19 in March. After spending eight weeks in the hospital, three of them on a ventilator, she spent time in a rehabilitation facility. Now she does daily physical and speech therapy to regain her strength. Miller said she had few health vulnerabilities, other than occasional asthma triggered by illness like the flu.

“It’s a long journey,” she said on the reporters’ phone call. “I don’t wish this on anyone. I of course want to go back to teaching, but it needs to be safe.”

Officials like DeVos and DeSantis have said that, because children are much less likely to have symptomatic cases of the virus, reopening schools is relatively safe.

But union officials said they feared Florida’s schools would become vectors for spreading the illness as their state deals with some of the fastest-growing virus rates in the country. They pointed to New York Times coverage of a study in South Korea that found children ages 10 to 19 spread the virus as easily as adults.

The Florida order, issued by Corcoran, says that, when they reopen in August, “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” But those decisions are “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health” and other state orders.

Despite that order, some districts have voted to reopen under hybrid plans that allow rotating cohorts of students on campus a few days a week and require them to learn remotely from home on other days. Others have complained their local health officials don’t believe they can order them to remain closed, despite local health concerns.

“Ultimately, parents need to be free to choose the best environment for their student, for their kids... We don’t want folks to fall behind, and we really really want to focus on the best interest of our students giving the parents the maximum amount of choices to be able to make the best decision that they can,” DeSantis said Monday at a press conference that was interrupted by protesters who oppose his position on school reopenings.

School districts need to accommodate employees and students who have health vulnerabilities and may require options for remote teaching and learning, he said. He deflected questions about the reopening directive, noting that it had been issued by the state’s education department.

Corcoran tweeted out a statement in response to the lawsuit.

“Parents should choose!” he wrote. “This lawsuit is frivolous and a complete disregard for everybody’s, especially children’s, health and welfare.”

Photo: A teacher holds up a sign while driving by the Orange County Public Schools headquarters this month as educators protest a decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state education commissioner mandating that all public schools open in August despite the spike in coronavirus cases in Florida. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

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