Attorney: Florida education commissioner can’t force schools to reopen

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – School officials in Miami-Dade and Broward said they will decide when and how to open despite the state order calling for all schools to reopen for face-to-face instruction in August.

Duval County Public Schools has still not released its latest plan to reopen after the emergency order dropped earlier this week.

The News4Jax I-TEAM spoke with an attorney with experience advising school boards who said the Florida Constitution gives the school board the sole power to make reopening decisions.

The emergency order issued by the Florida Department of Education on Monday does give some flexibility to school boards to defer to local health departments and to take advice on how best to open schools for their area.

News4Jax asked the State Board of Education on Thursday what would happen to school districts that don’t open all schools five days a week. So far, we have not received an answer.

School districts across Florida are slightly deviating from an order to reopen schools for face-to-face instruction five days a week.

In Miami-Dade County, health officials are still seeing a surge of new COVID-19 cases. The county now has the highest death toll in the state from the novel coronavirus.

The superintendent in Miami told CNN on Wednesday the district will not reopen schools until the beginning of Phase 2 in that area.

“At a time when hospitalizations are up, at a time when ICU beds are up, at a time, when quite frankly, restaurants have been emptied out shuttered, it is counter-intuitive to mandate students to come back to school at full capacity,” said Alberto M. Carvalho, Miami-Dade Superintendent.

In an interview with CNN, Broward Superintendent, Robert Runcie, called the emergency order “guidelines.”

“Somewhere around July, the first week of August, we’ll make a call as to what model we will have in our schools when we open August 19,” Runcie said. “What that looks like is going to be defined by what state we are in relative to our community.”

Duval County Schools says it’s still working to refine plans for reopening schools on Aug. 10. It’s holding off on answering questions until plans are finalized.

Tallahassee attorney and the former legal counsel for the Florida School Boards Association said that under the Florida constitution, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has no authority to force schools to reopen for in-person instruction.

“When we first saw the emergency order we thought it was an overreach by the commissioner of education,” attorney Ronald Meyer said. “It’s clear in the Florida Constitution, it’s the locally elected school board that is given the constitutional authority to supervise, operate and control the schools. So we believe it’s up to the local school board to decide if and how the school reopening would occur.”

Meyer said there may be fears from districts that Gov. Ron DeSantis or Corcoran would withhold funding if they don’t comply with the emergency order.

“I just can’t believe our governor, our commissioner of education would penalize students by withholding funding simply to assert their authority that we believe they don’t have,” Meyer said.

Duval County Schools said it will be in a position to answer questions for parents and teachers next week.

At this point, News4Jax has already asked about busing, how the district will choose the teachers who will give in-person instruction and about hazard pay.

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