Florida educators sue governor over reopening order

Teachers have increasingly voiced their concerns about reopening schools

July 20, 2020, 7:48 PM

Florida educators are suing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in response to an order requiring schools to open for in-person learning, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit against DeSantis, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez was filed by the Florida Education Association, as well as parents and educators.

According to the filing, the lawsuit asks for an injunction to stop the state officials from taking action if schools don't reopen for in-person instruction during the pandemic, and argues it is a violation of the Florida constitution to open the schools if they are unsafe.

"The Defendants' mandate wrongfully assumes that state authorities can better determine the local health risks and educational needs of students and teachers than the local officials that were elected for that purpose," the lawsuit reads. "This is arbitrary and capricious government action and violates due process."

PHOTO: Teachers stand in protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida.
Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening of schools due to health and safety concerns over COVID-19 in front of the county schools district office on July 16, 2020, in Tampa, Fla.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

When asked for comment, Corcoran said in a statement that the FEA does not understand the guidance or has not read it.

"Clearly the FEA hasn't read nor understands the Florida Department of Education's guidance, the Emergency Order No. 2020-EO-06, or Florida law," Corcoran said. "Currently, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida Statute 1001.42 (the law) required K-12 schools 'to operate 180 days' a school year. If you do the math, that equates to 5 days a week for 36 weeks."

"This E.O. did not order any new directives regarding the requirements of schools to be open, it simply created new innovative options for families to have the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their student and family. Additionally, the order created guaranteed funding for districts and schools to educate innovatively, as long as they continue to provide all students, especially at-risk students, with a world-class education, no matter what option they choose. The FEA frequently states that schools are underfunded, and if this frivolous, reckless lawsuit, succeeds it will eliminate these funding guarantees -- completely contradicting their normal outcry," he added.

A spokesperson for the mayor's office said generally they do not comment on pending litigation.

At a press conference on Monday, FEA President Fedrick Ingram said how and when schools reopen should be decided on a local level.

"No one wants to be back in any classroom and reopen our school buildings more than educators -- we are teachers," Ingram said.

"We are first grade teachers and kindergarten teachers and we are counselors and band directors and coaches. That's what we do. That's what we live for. That's what we've given our lives to -- to help kids and communities and families, but we want to do it safely -- and we don't want to put people at risk. There is a known risk that has to be mitigated by our state government, before we can enter our brick and mortar schools."

The lawsuit comes as federal officials, including President Donald Trump, are pushing for schools to reopen for in-person learning. The administration has continued to encourage a return to economic normalcy even as several areas around the country continue to experience COVID-19 outbreaks.

At a roundtable on reopening schools earlier this month, Trump said he would be "putting a lot of pressure" on governors and schools to reopen.

And at a press conference on July 9, DeSantis said, "If you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, if you can do these things, we absolutely can do the schools."

PHOTO: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks as a press conference update on Florida's response to the Coronavirus Pandemic at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida on July 13, 2020.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks as a press conference update on Florida's response to the Coronavirus Pandemic at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida on July 13, 2020.
mpi04/MediaPunch/IPx via AP

However, educators have increasingly voiced their concerns regarding returning to the classroom too soon and advocates have said it can't be done safely without additional funding.

"It's just eerie what we're hearing on the state level and what we've been hearing on the national level," National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said on Monday. "The command of Gov. DeSantis to reopen all Florida schools before it's safe is reckless, it's unreasonable, it's unnecessary and it is a false choice to either keep schools closed, stop learning or open them unsafely."

Eskelsen Garcia warned that reopening schools unsafely could become the source of a new surge of infections.

"And we know which communities are going to be hit the hardest. Black communities, Latino communities have been devastated by this horrible pandemic, because they are too often and shamelessly our poorest communities," she said.

"Our schools in our poorest communities shamefully have been so underfunded that they are more likely to be overcrowded, to have poor ventilation systems, they'll have less money for disinfectant or face masks, they won't have a school nurse for all those health screenings, all the things that the Centers for Disease Control say that you have to have," she added, also noting that students in these communities are also often cared for by a grandparent.

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