Statewide teacher union files lawsuit against FL Gov and officials to protect safety of children and school staff

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With COVID-19 cases still surging, students may -- or may not --be filling up classrooms as the new academic year begins. Credit: Pixabay.

The Florida Education Association, with the support of national teacher  unions, filed a lawsuit Monday after weeks of backlash and concern about an emergency order requiring brick-and-mortar schools to reopen five days a week this coming school year.

“We have got to do something about this emergency order because it is putting people in peril,” said Florida Education Association president Fedrick Ingram. He also said that the order should be rescinded.

“Our governor and our (state education) commissioner cannot ensure safety that these young people are not going to be spreaders” of COVID-19.

The FEA announced the lawsuit during a virtual news conference on Monday and said in a news release that it was filed in a state circuit court in Miami. In addition to the FEA, the plaintiffs include Broward teacher Stephanie Beth Miller; Ladera Royal, an educator in Orange County; and Mindy Festge, a teacher and parent in Miami-Dade County.

The defendants are listed as Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida State Board of Education and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

The lawsuit comes after weeks of controversy following an emergency order signed by Corcoran. The order says that “upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.”

With the new academic year looming, many districts were planning to do alternative instruction, such as in-classroom and online learning.

The lawsuit focuses on the constitutional expectation of Florida to provide a safe learning environment for students, as COVID-19 infections continue to surge.

As of Monday, the Department of Health reported more than 360,000 coronavirus infections, with the largest numbers in Miami-Dade (87,035 cases), Broward (40,976) and Palm Beach (26,426) counties.

“The Florida Constitution is clear: public school onsite instruction and operations must be opened safely,” the lawsuit reads.

“The Florida Constitution mandates ‘[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.” (Bold-type text occurs in the copy of the lawsuit.)

“Florida students, parents, teachers, and the public deserve and are constitutionally entitled to the protections needed to assure a lawful and safe reopening.”

The National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), both national unions, joined in the news conference Monday.

In a written statement, released on twitter, Commissioner Corcoran responded to the FEA lawsuit. He said that the FEA hasn’t read, or understands, the FDOE’s guidance, the emergency order, or Florida law.

At a State Board of Education meeting last week, Corcoran also claimed that the news media misreported the emergency order because they didn’t read it.

Corcoran’s written statement says this emergency order “did not order any new directives regarding the requirement of schools to be open, it simply created new innovative option for families to have the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their student and family.”

Corcoran is a lawyer and former state House Speaker but not an elected official. He described the FEA lawsuit in part as “frivolous” and “reckless,” should it succeed in the courts.

National Education Association President, Lily Eskelsen García, highlighted that much of the narrative bares a striking resemblance to how the Trump administration would like to reopen.

“It’s just eerie, what we’ve been hearing on the state level and what we’ve been hearing on the national level,” she said during the virual news conference. “It is a false choice: to either keep schools closed, to stop learning, or open them unsafely.”

The lawsuit highlights the contradictory language in the emergency order—simultaneously requiring that brick and mortar schools “must” open at least five days per week for all students and also acknowledging that “absent these directives, the day-to-day decision to open or close a school must always rest locally with the board or executive most closely associated with a school.”

“Defendants cannot have it both ways,” the lawsuit declares.

“The Plaintiffs seek a declaration from this Court that the Department of Education Emergency Order No. 2020-EO-06 is arbitrary and capricious and therefore violates the Florida Constitution and any additional relief the Court deems just and proper.”

The lawsuit also claims that the emergency order interferes with Floridians’ right to public health and safety and therefore seeks to prohibit “all named Defendants from taking actions to unconstitutionally force millions of public school students and employees to report to brick and mortar schools that should remain closed during the resurgence of COVID-19 cases pursuant to the CDC and other federal guidelines as well as the overwhelming opinion of medical and epidemiological experts.”