TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s largest teachers union has been joined by the NAACP in its lawsuit seeking to keep schools closed. That lawsuit went before a judge Wednesday who will decide whether a state order requiring in-person learning in all 67 counties by the end of August is constitutional.
The Florida Education Association is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Department of Education and Commissioner Richard Corcoran over the order arguing that the order is unconstitutional given that school districts are run by elected boards. The union is trying to prove local districts are being forced to make unsafe reopening decisions or face the threat of losing millions in state funding.
The state argued that not dismissing the case would invalidate the choice of Florida’s parents who weren’t being represented in court.
Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who last week denied a motion from the state to dismiss the lawsuit, began hearing arguments Wednesday after court-ordered mediation had not reached an agreement.
Union attorneys told the court that state health officials aren’t doing their job to help make safe decisions and called Hillsborough County School Board member Tamara Shamburger as the first witness.
“My understanding of the testimony from the medical experts was that it was simply unsafe to open our school building or any building for anyone at that time,” Shamburger said.
Hillsborough submitted a plan to reopen schools Aug. 24, then voted to push back the opening one month. The state objected, and Corcoran told the county it would lose funding if it delayed.
“They automatically lose the categorical of transportation because they are considered virtual students. They automatically lose class-size categorical because they are not in classes,” Corcoran in an interview last week.
Then the union called 51-year-old biology teacher James Lis, who lives with his 81-year-old mother-in-law and broke down on the stand when asked if he would report to school Friday as ordered.
“I do not feel safe personally,” Lis said. ”I can’t put my family at risk. I can’t put my mother-in-law at risk. And it’s as serious risk, but more so for her, and I would resign.”
The state’s reopening order said decisions are supposed to be made with advice from local health officials, but Department of Health Chief of Staff Courtney Coppola testified Wednesday that the department would not advise schools whether it is safe to reopen.
“You’re not going to say whether or not school districts should be open or reopen, correct?” FEA attorney Kendall Coffey asked.
“Correct,” Coppola replied.
The case will continue Thursday with a quick decision expected from the judge since some school districts have already opened, students returned in Duval County on Thursday, 19 districts are slated to open next week and 10 more on Aug. 31.
As of Friday, there had been more than 8,300 COVID-19 cases in children under 18 since the beginning of August, with 100 of those requiring hospitalization.