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 that 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.