ACROSS FLORIDA — Thousands of Florida teachers are awaiting word on whether they’ll be heading back to the classroom this month after the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit asking a judge to let the school districts decide for themselves when school can safely open during the coronavirus pandemic.
On July 6, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an executive order mandating that all Florida school districts reopen schools five days a week by the end of August in order to receive state funding.
In response, the FEA filed a lawsuit July 20. The injunctive relief hearing was heard Wednesday by a judge in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida in Miami. However, the hearing was adjourned after Gov. Ron DeSantis filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The hearing is expected to continue Thursday but a decision by the judge isn’t likely until next week.
The defendants are DeSantis, Corcoran, the Florida Board of Education, the Florida Department of Education and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
In the meantime, teachers in some counties began returning to their classrooms to prepare for the arrival of students, which takes place as early as Aug. 17 in Manatee County and as late as Aug. 31 in Sarasota County.
Two days after the FEA, which represents 145,000 teachers, filed the lawsuit, DeSantis urged parents and teachers to “not let fear get the best of us and harm our children in the process.”
During a news conference July 26, DeSantis said delaying school would widen the achievement gap, posing a bigger danger to children than the coronavirus.
“Our kids are at the least risk from this virus and much lower risk than seasonal influenza,” DeSantis said. “Our kids also play the smallest role in transmission, yet it is our kids who have borne the hardest burden of the controlled measures instituted to protect against the virus.”
In its lawsuit, the FEA refutes DeSantis’ claims that children have milder coronavirus symptoms and are less likely to spread the virus.
“Gov. DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram in a news conference. “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.”
Ingram said a new study from South Korea found that kids between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do. Meanwhile, he said the jury is out on the risk of long-term damage to children who contract the virus.
DeSantis noted that no one is being forced to return to the classroom. He’s asked all school districts to include online learning options for parents and teachers who don’t feel it’s safe to return to school.
“Parents need to choose the best environment for their students, their kids,” he said. “If a teacher doesn’t feel comfortable there … I think they should be given as many options as possible.”
But in its lawsuit, the FEA, joined by individual parents and educators as plaintiffs, said the school districts don’t have adequate safeguards in place to protect students and staff.
“Florida is tragically the new international epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 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. We cannot allow our students, educators and their families to be put in harm’s way,” Ingram said.
“By requiring all brick and mortar schools to reopen in just a few weeks no matter the cost and level of preparedness, Gov. DeSantis, Commissioner Corcoran and the State Board of Education are threatening the health and safety of all Florida residents. The state’s directive does not allow for adequate planning and does nothing to ensure that the necessary safety protocols will be in place when schools open. Learning should continue through online instruction until it is safe to return to the classroom and elected officials must comply with appropriate public health official guidelines every step of the way,” he said.
He said the state should be basing its decision on how and when to reopen schools on science.
“Our state currently has more than 350,000 diagnosed cases of coronavirus and has been adding to that total by more than 10,000 cases per day, with test positivity rates averaging above 12 percent, Ingram said.
He said other countries that have reopened schools have done so only after case levels were down to nearly zero and transmission rates were low.
“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.”
The FEA is asking the court for the following injunctive relief:
An order directing the governor, commissioner and mayor from unnecessarily and unconstitutionally forcing millions of public-school students and employees to report to unsafe brick and mortar schools that should remain physically closed during the resurgence of the coronavirus in Florida.
An order requiring that, before the physical reopening of brick and mortar schools, each school must have adequate personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies for all employees and students; reduce class sizes to comply with physical distancing requirements; install sufficient hand-sanitizing stations; add plexiglass shields where necessary; increase staffing; increase school clinic capabilities; and take all necessary measures to protect students and staff and minimize coronavirus transmission.
An order requiring defendants to develop and implement an online instruction plan aimed at all children and to make internet connectivity and computer devices available to all students, as many districts have already done, so that they can meaningfully engage in virtual instruction until it is safe to reopen physical school sites.
The FEA noted that 90 percent of the state’s school districts have already delayed the start of school until the end of August to give them as much time as possible to make plans to safeguard students and teachers. The lawsuit contends that schools should only open when school districts feel comfortable that they can meet all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Several Florida school superintendents have noted publicly that, while they can mandate that students and teachers wear face masks, they can’t guarantee the ability to meet the CDC’s 6-foot social distancing guidelines. Moreover, many districts don’t have contingency plans in place if there’s a coronavirus outbreak at a school and the school must be shut down.
“FEA’s lawsuit simply asks for a return of local control to school boards and superintendents to allow them the freedom to decide how and when to open,” said Ingram.
“Educators want to return to our schools and be with their students,” Ingram said. “Distance learning is not the preferred solution for our kids, but protecting the safety and well-being of students, educators and communities must be paramount to other concerns. Keeping kids and adults healthy should be our first goal.”
“No one wants to be back in the classroom with students more than educators,” agreed Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association. “But we must do so only if we can ensure it is done in a safe way. Unfortunately, Gov. Ron DeSantis, like Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, has no plan to solve the real issues facing public schools during a pandemic, and that’s a major concern to students, educators and parents. He needs to listen to health experts and educators to do this right — and not pressure school districts to rush to reopen putting students, educators and communities at risk.”
The FEA is also receiving support from the American Federation of Teachers.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten
“The push to physically reopen schools full time without any precautions or new resources, and, most importantly, amid a skyrocketing COVID-19 surge, ignores science, safety and basic humanity,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. “Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order, as carried out by others, puts an entire generation of kids — as well as their families and their educators — at risk. While educators want to be back in the classroom, it is not possible when the state or a local region can’t ensure that schools won’t become hot spots for virus spread.”
He said this is why states like Texas and California, where coronavirus cases are surging, are delaying the start of school.
This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch