As children throughout Florida return to classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a Leon County circuit judge on Thursday fast-tracked lawsuits challenging Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s mandate that districts reopen brick-and-mortar schools this month.
Corcoran’s July 6 emergency order requires schools outside of South Florida to reopen five days a week in August and offer “the full panoply of services” to students and families, unless state and local health officials say otherwise.
The Florida Education Association teachers union filed a lawsuit challenging the order, alleging that the directive violates the state Constitution, which guarantees Floridians the right to “safe” and “secure” public schools. The Orange County teachers union filed a similar lawsuit.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran, and state education officials are asking Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the unions want the judge to supersede the executive branch’s authority.
Dodson on Thursday consolidated the lawsuits and ordered a Friday morning hearing on the state’s dismissal request. The judge also ordered mediation among the parties on Tuesday and scheduled a two-day hearing next week, if he allows the case to proceed and the state and the unions don’t reach an agreement.
The Republican Governor and Corcoran have steadfastly asserted that families need to be able to choose whether to send their children back to school or to use distance learning, which began after classrooms were shuttered in March as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the state.
Schools in at least a dozen counties reopened this week, and nearly all of the state’s 67 school districts are expected to restart in-person instruction before the end of the month. Schools in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, which have been COVID-19 hotspots, are exempt from Corcoran’s reopening mandate.
Florida Education Association lawyer Ron Meyer told Dodson that teachers throughout the state are retiring early and resigning rather than risk exposure to the highly contagious respiratory illness.
“There can be no doubt that just rushing to open public schools here in Florida, brick and mortar, is going to create the same kind of mess that we are seeing across the country, where you open them and then you end up closing them because there is COVID transmission being identified,” Meyer said during Thursday’s hearing, which was conducted via Zoom.
But David Wells, an attorney with the Gunster law firm who represents the state, told Dodson that distance learning is inadequate for many students, especially those with special needs.
“The disadvantaged — because they are English-language learners, because they have individual education plans, because they come from unsafe homes — are visited even more with the problems of virtual education,” he said.
Meyer, however, argued the Florida Constitution gives local education officials — not Corcoran — the power to operate and supervise schools while the state has the “paramount duty” to provide “safe and secure” schooling.
Corcoran’s emergency order “has just basically stepped across all the constitutional lines” by demanding in-person instruction this month, Meyer said.
“We are faced with the real dilemma of it not being safe to do so,” he added. “We’re faced with serious imminent, irreparable injury.”
But Wells said granting the unions’ request to block Corcoran’s order would have the opposite effect, by “depriving the parents and children of their constitutional right to a high-quality education.”
He also said that the vast majority of Florida families have signed up to send their children back to school in person.
“The parents of 1.6 million children have asked to be able to be taught face-to-face, in an atmosphere where it’s undisputed that all students receive less from virtual education,” Wells said.
DeSantis echoed that position on Thursday.
“There are a lot of parents out there who really do want to see in-person instruction again,” he told reporters during a news conference in the Capitol.
Having children back in school “just makes it easier on the families,” he said.
“There’s just no way you can say that the distance learning is the same as getting that in-person instruction,” DeSantis said.
Children experience learning gaps when they’re not attending classes, DeSantis said. And he called teachers “the first line of defense” to identify abuse and neglect of children.
“All those things really counsel in favor of having this choice,” he said.
Thursday’s hearing came a day after DeSantis made national headlines when he compared school district officials’ efforts to restart face-to-face instruction with obstacles the U.S. Navy Seal team faced when they killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
In a video address, the governor said Martin County Superintendent Laurie Gaylord told him that she thought of the school re-launch as a mission “akin to a Navy Seal operation.”
“Just as the SEALs surmounted obstacles to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, so too would the Martin County School system find a way to provide parents with a meaningful choice of in-person instruction or continued distance learning,” DeSantis, a former Navy prosecutor, said.
The Governor also praised teachers for “keeping society going” with in-person instruction.
Also on Wednesday, Corcoran joined President Donald Trump for a school-reopening event at the White House, where the education commissioner boasted of his July order and scoffed at the legal challenges.
“We are being sued by the union bosses, and they are disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful,” he said.
Republished with permission from the News Service of Florida.
David E Bruderly
August 13, 2020 at 6:47 pm
Governor DeSantis and Commissioner Corcoran,
I have two grandchildren attending Florida K-12 public schools, one in Martin County and one in Gilchrist County, and two attending college, one in Columbia County and one in Alachua County.
I am formally notifying you that, in my professional opinion, Emergency Order 2020-EO-06 endangers the health, safety and welfare of my grandchildren. The terms of this order are arbitrary and capricious. Rather than establish standards and protocols for rapid testing, contact tracing and isolation that would provide a means of controlling community spread and empower local school boards to enact reasonable protections for my grandchildren, you have sidestepped good engineering practice and imposed conditions and restrictions on local school boards that are NOT only inadequate to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections, but actually interfere with their ability to make informed judgments about appropriate actions.
I just retired after 50+ years of real world experience as a professional engineer in Florida working in the fields of environmental science and engineering. Much of my work required that I develop, approve and / or implement environmental sampling and testing plans designed to define and, if possible, quantify risks to public health, safety and welfare. I have worked with many Florida lawyers in the design and execution of such sampling and testing programs. I have defended my work before administrative hearing officers.
I understand that each of you are lawyers, in addition to being politicians. As state employees you may have sovereign protections from legal liability, but you are not shielded from ethical and moral responsibility for the consequences of your decisions. Emergency Order 2020-EO-06 will have consequences.
Unlike Florida lawyers, professional engineers are required to take an oath that requires us to use our education and experience to protect public health and safety. Florida law and rules governing engineering practice require notification of responsible individuals when I observe actions, or failure to act, that endanger public health, safety and welfare.
You and Governor DeSantis have failed to implement health and safety plans, standards and protocols, including the capability to rapid-test, contact trace and isolate students, staff and teachers, sufficient to justify Emergency Order 2020-EO-06 to reopen schools by the arbitrary date you have selected.
Furthermore, recent news articles report that the Governor’s Office has hindered, rather than expedited, the ability of local school boards to access the professional services offered by local public health officials; services that local school officials depend on to determine rates of viral transmission and community spread needed to make informed decisions about how and when to reopen schools. This is unacceptable.
Given the fact that positivity rates throughout Florida exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines of 5.0% I must insist that you rescind your Emergency Order 2020-EO-06 and instead authorize local school officials to make decisions about opening schools based on public health criteria, not political expediency or public opinion polls. Public schools should NOT be opened unless and until community spread of the COVID-19 has been brought under control, in accordance with guidance issued by the WHO.
COVID-19 is not like the flu; young people are NOT immune to adverse effects from infection. In fact, medical journals are reporting severe impacts on the cardio-vascular system as well as lungs, liver and kidneys. There have been many inaccurate and misleading public statements about this virus. The EO demonstrates total disregard of common sense public health protocols. I no longer have confidence in your ability to make informed, objective decisions, especially decisions that will irreversibly and irretrievably impact the health, safety and emotional well-being of my grandchildren.
If ANY of my four grandchildren contract COVID-19 I will hold each of you personally responsible for their illness and associated costs and damages. Furthermore I will demand that each of you be held accountable to the maximum extent of the law, and in the court of public opinion, for your reckless and, in my opinion, negligent decision making.
As former naval officers, you know that the Captain is responsible for his ship and the health and safety of his crew — the health and safety of my grandchildren are your responsibility.
Acta non verba,
David E. Bruderly PE-Ret.
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