Florida judge moving quickly on school reopening fight

VIDEO: As students in more than a dozen Florida counties return to classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a Leon County circuit judge fast-tracked lawsuits challenging Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s mandate that districts reopen brick-and-mortar schools.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As students in more than a dozen Florida counties return to classrooms this week 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.

Judge Charles Dodson held his first hearing on lawsuits challenging Corcoran’s order that schools offer in-person learning five days a week. At his first hearing on the suits, Dodson 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.

If Dodson allows the case to proceed, the two sides would have a couple of days to mediate before he would hear arguments Wednesday to issue a temporary injunction.

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. The Orange County teachers union filed a similar lawsuit.

“Look, we all want to go back to school. All of the teachers in this state are wanting to go back to school, but they’re not dying to go back to school and that’s what they’re confronted with,” Ron Meyer, the FEA’s attorney, argued on Thursday. “Your honor, just as we’re all on a Zoom hearing because it’s not safe for us to gather in a courtroom, why would it be any more safe for us to expect our teaching staff, our custodians, our bus drivers (be) present to public schools for seven-hour days in classes of 25 or 30 children and not expect to be putting them at risk?”

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.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corcoran have repeatedly said all school districts need to offer in-person instruction to parents who want to send their children 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 last Friday.

The union’s goal is that all 67 counties are able to make their own decision about when and how they should reopen without fear of taking a hit to their state funding.

“The people of Florida have spoken in the Constitution that local school boards should make those decisions informed by the best advice that they can get. That power has been taken away by the emergency order,” Meyer said.

Wells said the union’s lawsuit is an aim to close school buildings against the wishes of many families.

“It asks you to invalidate the choice of the parents of 1.6 million children who’ve asked to be able to be taught face-to-face in an atmosphere where it’s undisputed that all students receive less from a virtual education,” Wells said.

While the union’s lawsuit isn’t specifically calling for any school closures, its attorney said the state of the pandemic would make it too dangerous in many school districts.

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.”

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On Thursday, Corcoran toured Dixie County High School, which opened Monday. Superintendent Mike Thomas was pleasantly surprised by the attendance.

“We’ve had over 90% turnout in our four schools in our district,” said Thomas.

But on day two in Martin County, on the other side of the state, nine students were sent home to quarantine after one student showed symptoms.

“We know we are going to have COVID cases. Of course it’s going to happen,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran said what’s important is how schools respond when there is a case.

“What we are saying is, No. 1, don’t panic because we know those facts, and No. 2, be surgical, not sweeping,” Corocan said. “So I think Martin County has done a great job.”

Both the governor and education commissioner continue to argue that they believe children will be better off in class than stuck at home.

“They are avoiding those things that are of huge consequence, whether its suicide, drug overdoses, food insecurity,” said Corcoran.

In a video address Wednesday, 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.

At a public meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Corcoran told President Donald Trump: “We said, ‘You have to open up, as an option, five days a week for school children.’ And now, in Florida -- we’re in August -- our first schools are opening up this week. And throughout August, we’ll have -- all 67 of our districts will open.”

Corcoran didn’t mince words about what he thought of the legal challenge while speaking at Trump’s forum Wednesday.

“But the reality is, of the districts that opened up this week, six of them have almost 100% teacher participation. You know what teachers want? Teachers want to be back in the classroom with their kids. Even if they have an underlying condition, they want to be back and that’s what we’re seeing in Florida,” he said.

The commissioner said all six of his children who are in public school will be heading back to classrooms on Thursday. Corcoran said Florida has the largest virtual school system in the country, but schools must reopen for students with unique abilities because virtual options don’t suffice for their particular kind of learning.

“But I completely respect and wanted to honor the decision of a parent who says, ‘Well, what about -- I -- I don’t feel safe.’ I think the evidence is overwhelming. We’ve all seen it. But ... you have that right. If you want to do distance learning, we’re going to do the best possible way. But to the other 70%, 80% of us, we have the right, too, to go back and have our kids get that world-class education,” he said.

Since some schools have already reopened and the rest are due to resume before the end of the month, the union is asking Dodson to expedite the lawsuit.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.