Judge ponders Florida's school reopening fight

With more than 150,000 Florida children already in their desks, the state and teachers unions squared off Friday in a legal battle over Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s mandate that local school officials resume in-person instruction this month amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who is slated to issue a ruling early next week, heard closing arguments in lawsuits filed by the Florida Education Association and the union that represents Orange County teachers.

The unions allege that a July 6 emergency order issued by Corcoran requiring brick-and-mortar schools to reopen five days a week in August violates the state Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public education. Schools risk losing funding if they don’t comply with Corcoran’s order, which teachers’ attorneys called “financial bullying.”

But lawyers representing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran and state education officials, who are defendants in the case, maintain that the Constitution also requires the state to provide “high-quality education” to Florida schoolchildren.

“It’s a tough balance,” Nathan Hill, an attorney with the Gunster law firm who represents the state, told Dodson on Friday.

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DeSantis and Corcoran have steadfastly insisted that families need to be able to choose whether to have children return to face-to-face instruction or learn remotely. Classrooms were shut down in March as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the state, and children were forced to use distance learning the rest of the spring.

Although DeSantis and Corcoran have said publicly that teachers with medical conditions should be accommodated during the pandemic, local school officials have denied some educators’ requests to teach remotely.

As more than two dozen school districts reopened over the past two weeks, teachers and school workers throughout the state are opting to quit or retire early and lose benefits rather than return to the classroom and risk being exposed to COVID-19, according to the unions.

“In reality, they haven’t been given a choice. They’re being forced back into the classroom,” Billy Wieland, who represents the Orange County teachers union, argued Friday.

Educators are deciding whether to give up their “entire livelihood,” their retirement benefits, and “their passion,” he added.

“They have a choice that they need to give all of that up and quit their job, or they need to return to the classroom and put their lives at risk,” Wieland said.

But Hill said the state has to balance “competing constitutional obligations” of safety and high-quality education.

During testimony this week, the unions spotlighted the potential risks to teachers’ health, while the state focused on children’s educational needs.

“One group is going to be hurt” when weighing the competing interests, Hill acknowledged.

“Somebody loses in that situation,” Hill argued. “This is a tough balance, but we are required to balance not only safety, but everything. And this is a reasonable way that we’ve decided to do it.”

It is unclear, however, how many families plan to choose face-to-face instruction. Jacob Oliva, the chancellor of the K-12 school system, said Thursday that about 150,000 of the state’s 2.8 million public-school students had returned to class over the past two weeks. The state’s lawyers contend that 1.6 million families have opted for in-person instruction.

School districts that don’t comply with Corcoran’s mandate risk losing state funding. Dodson noted Friday that Hillsborough County would have lost more than $220 million, after Corcoran rejected the county’s plan to delay the start of in-person teaching until next month.

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“What choice did the districts have but to submit a plan in accordance with the emergency order? You lose a lot of funding if you do that, right. … So, the school districts didn’t have a choice but to open,” Dodson told the state’s lawyers.

“There’s no question about that. I’m not going to dance around it,” David Wells, another lawyer who works for the Gunster firm, replied.

Dodson also raised questions about a portion of the emergency order that requires schools to reopen five days a week in August, unless state and local health officials say otherwise.

Local health officials, who work for the state Department of Health, would not tell county school boards or superintendents whether to reopen, and leaders at the state health agency wouldn’t instruct local officials, either, Dodson pointed out.

“I saw these school board meetings where medical people were saying, ‘Hey, we don’t give advice on that,’” Dodson said.

Kendall Coffey, an attorney who represents the Florida Education Association, called Corcoran’s caveat about reopening based on health officials’ advice “pure fiction.”

Corcoran’s order was crafted without the input of any medical professionals and “marginalizes safety,” Coffey argued.

“The school boards are willing to and have tried to engage medical advice,” Coffey said. “They don’t want kids hurt. They don’t want kids sick. They don’t want teachers, family members, to die. But they have effectively been bludgeoned by this order.”

Dodson asked the unions to explain what they want him to do.

Coffey suggested that the judge order the state not to penalize school districts financially if they hold off on reopening until next month.

“We’re not asking this court to shut down the Florida schools. That’s not at all what we’re asking,” he said, adding that Dodson should try to give school boards “the latitude that they need and that they deserve with these tremendously difficult issues.”