Governor, Education Commissioner balk at judge’s ruling and file appeal to keep public schools open

Sarasota District Schools, Transportation. Photo from Facebook page, Sarasota District Schools, Transportation.

Within hours of what was considered a court win in a crucial case over school reopenings, a fight continues over who’s in charge of Florida public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leon Circuit Judge Charles Dodson on Monday granted a temporary injunction to block a requirement that would force districts to reopen brick-and-mortar schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That mandate would be considered unconstitutional, according to the judge, and the Florida Education Association considered the injunction as a win in the lawsuit between teacher union officials and the governor and other state officials.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But late afternoon Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and other defendants in the case, quickly appealed Dodson’s decision.

“We’ve said it all along, and we will say it one million times – we are 100% confident we will win this lawsuit,” Corcoran said in a statement. “This fight has been, and will continue to be, about giving every parent, every teacher and every student a choice, regardless of what educational option they choose.”

Corcoran added: “If you are one of the….students who have chosen to return to the classroom, a parent, or a classroom teacher that wanted to educate their student in person, we strongly encourage you to call the Florida Education Association and tell them to drop this frivolous lawsuit.”

Complicating the legal battle further, the appeal triggers an automatic stay on the temporary injunction. The appeal will go to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

That leaves the situation on hold as even more schools open this week in Florida during the COVID-19 crisis. Some school districts, already open, have had run-ins with the virus, causing quarantines of students and teachers.

The ruling by Dodson — a decision backed by the Florida Constitution and a case with national implications — concerned a state emergency order that could risk the safety of public schools as COVID-19 infections were rising.

“The order is unconstitutional to the extent it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards decision making with respect to reopening brick and mortar schools, and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August,” according to Dodson.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in May. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.

The controversial emergency order signed by Commissioner Corcoran was designed to require schools to be open at least five days a week. It provided an option for families who did want to send their children to a traditional school with in-person instruction.

However, some districts didn’t feel that was the best move during a pandemic, and believed local school boards had the power under the Florida Constitution to make the decision — not the state.

At the same time, families are able to opt out of traditional classroom instruction and choose online learning instead.

The temporary injunction strikes the language in the emergency order that compels school districts to open brick-and-mortar schools, as well as the requirement to submit a reopening plan for approval by the Department of Education. The temporary injunction does not affect the rest of the emergency order.

The judge’s ruling said, “An injunction in this case, will allow local school boards to make safety determinations for the reopening of schools without financial penalty.”

That’s a reference to the issue at the court hearing, about whether the state would withhold funds if districts didn’t comply to the expectations of the emergency order.

In press conference Monday afternoon, the FEA and their lawyers acknowledged that the fight is not over.

FEA President Fedrick Ingram called on DeSantis and Corcoran to “not waste taxpayer dollars” on an appeal.

“Shame on a governor who would take us on appeal,” said Ingram. “Shame on a Commissioner of Education who would spend taxpayer dollars to try and reinvent some kind of privileged defense when you already have been proven that you are wrong.”

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.