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Florida's state government cannot force schools to reopen this month, a judge ruled yesterday. The state's order to reopen K-12 schools took into account the security risks posed by COVID-19 and did not give the schools a meaningful alternative, according to the ruling by Judge Charles Dodson of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County.
On July 6, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an urgent resolution: "When we reopen in August, all school boards and board members of charter schools must open stationary schools for all students at least five days a week." Schools that fail to meet this requirement could lose government funding. Corcoran, Governor Ron DeSantis, and other state officials were then sued by the Florida Education Association, a nationwide teachers' union. the NAACP; and several individual teachers and parents.
After summarizing the health risks of reopening schools during the pandemic, the judge wrote that the state's order to reopen schools "takes none of this into account". There is no mention of consideration of community transmission rates, different ages of students, or reasonable precautions, and it has been clearly stated that there is no easy decision and opening schools will most likely increase COVID-19 cases in Florida. As such, plaintiffs have demonstrated a significant likelihood of success in obtaining a judgment declaring that the Order is being used arbitrarily across Florida. "
Dodson concluded that the state order violates the Florida State Constitution "to the extent that it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school authorities decision-making regarding the reopening of stationary schools and funding for one." "After the judge determined that plaintiffs were likely to win in court, the judge issued an injunction to crush the controversial parts of the state school opening ordinance."
"The districts have no sensible alternative," the verdict said. "If an individual school district chooses safety, that is, delays the start of school until it individually determines that this is safe for its district, there is a risk that government funding will be lost even though every student is taught."
Florida has recorded 600,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 10,000 deaths to date, the ruling said.
Governor appeals, claims lawsuit is "frivolous"
The state may still force schools to reopen this month unless another court order is issued. DeSantis, Corcoran and the State Department of Education immediately appealed the verdict to the Florida First District Court of Appeals, stating in a lawsuit that the appeal "creates an auto-residence pending review."
Although Judge Dodson stated that the state is likely to lose the case on the merits, Corcoran issued a statement saying, "We are 100 percent confident that we will win this lawsuit."
"If you are one of the 1.6 million students who have decided to return to the classroom, a parent or class teacher who has wanted to teach your student in person, we strongly encourage you to call the Florida Education Association and tell them that they should drop this frivolous lawsuit, "Corcoran said.
Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said at a press conference on Zoom, "Shame on our governor and education officer for ruthlessly telling us we definitely need to have an inpatient option," according to the Orlando Sentinel.
"The teachers want to be back in school," Ingram said. "We don't want to risk our own lives."
The opinions of local experts are not taken into account
"Schools should reopen if local policymakers, on the advice of medical experts, determine that it is safe," Dodson wrote in yesterday's ruling, adding that the Florida Constitution "requires safe schools." The state "cannot constitutionally directly compel schools across the state to reopen without concern for safety during a global pandemic," which means that the state cannot pursue the same goal "indirectly through the threat of loss of funding by the Order" can achieve, wrote Dodson.
The July 6 ordinance said schools must open in August "subject to advice and direction from the Florida Department of Health [and local health departments]". However, the language about "local health ministries" did not leave room to remain closed.
As Judge Dodson wrote, the Hillsborough County School Board convened a special meeting with a panel of seven doctors on Aug. 6, 2020 to assess whether schools are safe based on current COVID-19 levels in the community to reopen. " Five of the seven doctors said it was not safe to reopen while "[o] ne of the doctors said it was not safe that day but maybe in a few weeks" and the other doctor refused, to issue an opinion.
"Based on the medical information at that meeting, the Hillsborough County School Board decided to postpone the start of in-person learning for three weeks from August 24, 2020 to September 14, 2020. Virtual learning would still be on August 24, 2020 begin, "wrote Dodson.
The state would not allow it, Dodson stated:
The next day, August 7, 2020, the superintendent and chairman of the Hillsborough County School Board received a letter from Commissioner Corcoran stating that her proposal was inconsistent with the Order. If they did not revise their plan, they would not be given the financial flexibility that would otherwise be available under the Order. After another proposal to postpone the reopening until September 7th was also rejected, Hillsborough County voted to reopen the inpatient schools on August 31, 2020. They had no real choice. The defendants arbitrarily prioritized the reopening of schools across the state in August over the safety and advice of health professionals. and all school districts have adhered to it to avoid a drastic loss of government funds.
"Extremely Unsafe Conditions"
Evidence presented in a trial "showed some teachers were told to return to classrooms in extremely unsafe conditions," with insufficient space between desks for social distancing and without "adequate personal protective equipment," Dodson wrote.
The plaintiffs showed evidence that "teachers across the state decide whether to retire, resign or put themselves and their families at risk," the verdict said. "One witness testified that because of his pre-existing condition, his doctor had indicated that if he contracted COVID-19, he would likely die. If he is forced to return to school, he will risk his life every day."
State assessor, Stanford University medical professor and physician Jay Bhattacharya, testified that it would be safe enough to reopen schools in Florida, Dodson wrote. But the same expert "admitted that Stanford University won't be holding face-to-face classes this fall. The classes there will be taught remotely because of the pandemic."
Even the trial of the state school reopening order was conducted remotely through Zoom. "That's because it has been decided that it is unsafe to hold in-person trials at the Leon County courthouse during this extremely dangerous pandemic," Dodson wrote. "That was a local decision based on local conditions. Due to COVID-19, jurors and witnesses are not allowed into our courtrooms, almost all of which are larger than the classrooms in our schools."