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Judge Rules In Favor Of Teachers' Union In School Reopening Fight

Student with pencil working in book with laptop on the side
A Leon County judge ruled in favor of a teacher's union in the battle over the state's requirement that brick-and-mortar schools reopen.

While a Leon County judge ruled Monday in favor of a teachers union in the battle over physically reopening schools, the state quickly filed an appeal.

Leon County Judge Charles Dodson has ruled in favor of the Florida Education Association's challenge of the state's requirement that brick-and-mortar schools reopen.

Monday's 17-page decision said Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran's order overrode school boards' authority to run their own systems.

Dodson said Department of Education officials were also ignoring the constitutional requirement that the state make sure schools operate safely when they mandated reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state formally appealed the ruling Monday afternoon.

In a tweet released by spokeswoman Taryn Fenske, State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said "we are 100% confident we will win this lawsuit," and he called on parents, students, and teachers to call the FEA and "tell them to drop this frivolous lawsuit."

Citing the example of Hillsborough County, Dodson said it was unconstitutional that districts risk losing state funding if they decide to delay physically reopening schools – even if students are still being taught online.

State officials signed off on the Hillsborough County School Board’s original reopening plan before the board decided Aug. 6 to change to online-only learning for the first four weeks of the semester after hearing from medical experts.

The state turned that down and threatened to pull $23 million worth of funding to the county. Officials then negotiated a plan where Hillsborough classes will be conducted entirely remotely from today through Friday before offering in-person classes starting Aug. 31.

Hillsborough Supt. Addison Davis released a statement Monday afternoon that said they're continuing with those plans.

“At this point, my primary focus has been launching the school year. Today was the first day of our Smart Start Week, and it was a very successful day,” said Davis. “I had an opportunity to interact in virtual sessions with teachers and students and see rich conversations about how we will leverage our curriculum, and how we will move forward with the implementation of new safety protocols.

“At this time, we are slated to open on August 31 to provide parents within our community choice.”

The Hillsborough County School Board is scheduled to hold a workshop where they will discuss the ruling at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, with a board meeting scheduled for 4 p.m.

Union leaders and lawyers hailed Dodson’s order in a Zoom press conference Monday afternoon, calling it a major victory that could send ripples throughout the nation. They also asked Corcoran and DeSantis to work with them on school reopenings and closings instead of appealing.

“You lost today, Mr. Commissioner and Mr. Governor, because you’re wrong,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram, who was joined by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We won because we’re on the side of right, the side of right about public health and public safety and keeping people alive in this pandemic.”

Dodson’s ruling pointed out the hearing was conducted remotely using Zoom technology out of safety concerns.

“That was a local decision based on local conditions. Because of COVID-19, jurors and witnesses are not allowed to come into our courtrooms, almost all of which are larger than classrooms in our schools.

“Additionally, defendants’ medical expert is a distinguished research doctor who teaches at Stanford University. Although he testified it is safe enough to reopen our schools, he also admitted Stanford University will not be holding in-person classes in the fall.”

The Florida Department of Health reported Monday that nearly 560 coronavirus cases have been linked to Florida public and private schools since students and employees began reporting to classrooms two weeks ago.

More than 200 elementary, middle and high school students and 342 school employees have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 10. The department also reported a dozen “unknown” school-related cases.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
Dara Kam – News Service of Florida