How school athletics got mixed into a legal battle, COVID-19 and the reopening of schools

A coach talking to soccer players. Credit: Alistair Berg, Getty Images.

With the new school year looming, Gov. Ron DeSantis continues his push to get students into brick-and-mortar classrooms, highlighting athletic opportunities that could draw kids into traditional school settings.

The alternative would be off-campus online learning, which many educators and families support as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

With some districts starting school next week, the situation is in flux.

A legal battle between the largest teacher union in Florida and several statewide figures — including DeSantis — could determine whether it is safe to open schools in the first place.

Then comes the push for athletics.

DeSantis brought Florida sports legend Charlie Ward to a roundtable meeting Thursday to discuss the importance of athletic opportunities for Florida students, particularly for lower-income families.

Gov. Ron DeSantis at a roundtable discussion at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Credit: Source: Florida Channel screengrab

“As we look to what’s coming up in this school year — I think it’s important, I think it’s critical that we have boys and girls’ sports available for our students,” the governor said.

DeSantis brought up his personal experiences with sports — he played competitive baseball as a youth — saying that it helped him with time management and his academics.

“I just think back with me growing up playing sports — if I didn’t have that, that would have been a big void,” DeSantis said. “I think it made me a better student. I think it absolutely made me better able to work hard.”

Heisman-trophy winner Ward was there to plead the governor’s case, speaking about his experiences coaching basketball during a pandemic.

“One of the things I noticed over the course of our time during the summer was our kids were still working out, they were still playing in tournaments and those things were still going on,” Ward said. “I am a big advocate for if that is still happening, why can’t it happen all in one place where they are being supervised and have structure underneath the coach’s watch.”

Lito Sheppard, University of Florida football alumnus who played for several teams in the NFL, spoke about athletics and economic opportunities, such as scholarships that play a big role in lower-income communities.

“We have seen how kids in our communities have been affected,” Sheppard said at the roundtable. “The ones that couldn’t finish their last year, high school seasons out — some of those kids missed out on scholarships.”

Whether athletics will draw students into traditional schools is unclear.

But some teachers claim that schools are underfunded and not prepared for what it would take to reopen schools safely — that’s why the FEA took DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and other officials to court over the matter.

The lawsuit questions whether an emergency order signed by Corcoran — saying schools must reopen brick-and-mortar five days a week — violates the Florida Constitution relating to ensuring safety and security in a learning environment during COVID-19.

This FEA lawsuit has already faced complications and is time-sensitive as some school districts will open their doors next week.

Earlier this week, the original judge recused himself from the case. Then, Thursday, the case had to be transferred from Miami-Dade to Leon County’s circuit court.

In addition, the FEA has filed a motion for a temporary injunction, which asks the court to rule that the emergency order is temporarily invalidated. That would mean schools wouldn’t be forced to reopen without proper safety and protective measures.

The defendants — DeSantis, Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Board of Education, and Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez — filed a motion for the case to be dismissed entirely.

DeSantis has other concerns, though. He ended the Thursday roundtable discussion by saying that he hopes to see Florida State University and the University of Florida match off in their traditional football game. Thus far, the two rival teams are not scheduled to play this year.

“I just think it would be something that would be good for the state,” he said. “We’re going to work to see what the options would be for that.”