Hearing set in Florida school reopening lawsuit

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As students in a dozen counties return to classrooms this week amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson has scheduled a Thursday hearing in a lawsuit about Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s mandate that schools reopen campuses.

The Florida Education Association teachers union is challenging Corcoran’s July 6 emergency order requiring schools to reopen in August, unless state and local health officials say otherwise. The union alleges that Corcoran’s directive violates the state Constitution, which guarantees Floridians the right to “safe” and “secure” public education.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corcoran have repeatedly said all school districts need to offer in-person instruction to parents who want to send their kids back to school, after the pandemic forced campuses to shut down in March and required students to shift to online learning. Under Corcoran’s order, school districts outside of Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties risk losing state funds if they don’t open bricks-and-mortar classrooms.

Only one county --- Hillsborough --- has defied the mandate.

Lawyers representing DeSantis, Corcoran and other state education officials are asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, which originally was filed in Miami but was transferred to Tallahassee on Friday. Dodson was assigned to the case this week, after Leon County Circuit Judges Angela Dempsey and John Cooper recused themselves.

In a motion asking that the case be dismissed, the state’s lawyers argued that Corcoran’s order “does not mandate that all students and teachers return to school in person in August” and that his directive “contains no absolute, state-wide mandate requiring in-person classes without regard to health or safety.”

But Kendall Coffey, an attorney who represents the FEA, told reporters last week that the emergency order, which requires schools to offer “the full panoply of services” to students, “has had the effect of … financially and otherwise intimidating school boards.” School districts, teachers and students “have been left with a confusing and inconsistent mandate as they try to navigate reopening,” the FEA’s lawyers wrote Friday in a response to the motion to dismiss.

“Teachers, fearing for their lives, have rushed resignations and retirements, even with retirement penalties. Florida deserves much better than confusing commands concerning life and death issues.”

The union is also asking Dodson to expedite the case, slated for an online hearing Thursday morning.