Teacher lawsuit challenges Florida’s school reopening order

The order violates a constitutional requirement for safe and secure schools, the lawsuit argues.
Pinellas County teacher Marissa Silkie-Rees joined colleagues and supporters in a protest last week over plans to reopen school campuses as COVID-19 cases rise. On Monday in Tallahassee, Florida's teachers union announced a lawsuit challenging a state order that calls for campuses to open in August.
Pinellas County teacher Marissa Silkie-Rees joined colleagues and supporters in a protest last week over plans to reopen school campuses as COVID-19 cases rise. On Monday in Tallahassee, Florida's teachers union announced a lawsuit challenging a state order that calls for campuses to open in August. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published July 20, 2020|Updated July 20, 2020

The labor union representing thousands of Florida public school teachers sued Monday to block the opening of in-person classes, which state officials want to see happen on campuses by the end of August.

The lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, education commissioner Richard Corcoran and others was filed in circuit court in Miami, a city emerging as the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

As lead plaintiff, the Florida Education Association contends that ordering an unsafe return to on-site instruction at public schools is a violation of Florida’s Constitution, which requires the provision of “safe” and “secure” schools. Two nationwide unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, joined an announcement of the litigation in Tallahassee.

Corcoran called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “reckless,” and asserted in a statement that the teachers’ union did not read and does not understand his July 6 executive order to reopen school buildings to students by Aug. 31.

It “did not order any new directives regarding the requirements of schools to be open, it simply created new innovative options for families to have the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their student and family,” Corcoran said.

“Additionally, the order created guaranteed funding for districts and schools to educate innovatively, as long as they continue to provide all students, especially at-risk students, with a world-class education, no matter what option they choose.”

Related: Florida schools ordered to reopen in August, if conditions allow

Corcoran and a majority on the State Board of Education have argued in recent weeks that the order simply gives families the option of sending their children to physical schools, to meet their learning needs and to allow working-class parents to hold down jobs and support the economy.

However, that’s not how many school districts are interpreting it.

Local school officials are treating it as a directive they must follow, as it is tied to their funding from the state. Earlier Monday, a majority of the Hernando County School Board expressed serious reservations about opening schools in August, but said they were unwilling to defy the order.

The unions say the state is pushing school districts to open prematurely as the rate of COVID-19 cases is increasing. They contend the districts lack the time and money to enact safety measures that would truly protect students and staff.

Related: Do Florida school buildings have to be open in August? The answer isn't so clear.

As of Monday, Florida had reported more than 360,000 COVID-19 cases with a death toll of more than 5,100. And, as schools were closed when the pandemic struck in March, it is impossible to predict what will happen if they reopen while the illness is rampant.

“If you do this wrong, the school becomes the germ factory,” said National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, who joined attorneys and plaintiffs for a virtual news conference. “It becomes the super spreader. It becomes the source of the new surge in your community.”

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The suit refutes the frequent statement by DeSantis that children rarely contract, spread or suffer ill effects from the virus.

“As of July 9, 2020, the Florida Department of Health reported over 17,000 cases in children under 18 years old, 213 hospitalizations, and 4 deaths,” the lawsuit says. “The harsh reality is that Florida had a 31 percent positivity test rate among children as of last week. The adverse medical impact on our children is currently being studied and observed.”

The state union is joined in the litigation by Broward County second-grade teacher Stefanie Beth Miller; Orange County middle school teacher Ladara Royal; and Mindy Festge, a teacher and parent in Miami-Dade County. All three spoke on Monday.

“I would never imagine why answering the divine call of an educator can place my life in jeopardy,” said Royal, 35. Festge, 51, said she has a son with a chronic digestive disorder and compromised immunity.

Miller, 53, is recovering from COVID-19. Her voice hoarse, she described her 21 days on a ventilator, two months in the hospital and eight days in rehabilitation before going home for six weeks of physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“It’s a long journey,” she said. “I don’t wish this on anyone. I, of course, want to go back to teaching. But it needs to be safe.”

Miller added: “There is no way children can sit in their seats for six hours, wearing masks, and not feel the stress of this situation.”

The plaintiffs also include Victoria Dublino-Henjes and Andres Henjes, the parents of two elementary school students in Pinellas County. Both of their children suffer from respiratory issues and are at higher risk of serious complications if exposed to the virus, the suit says.

Fedrick Ingram [Courtesy of the Florida Education Association]
Fedrick Ingram [Courtesy of the Florida Education Association]

Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, criticized state leaders, saying they were rushing to open Florida’s economy and expecting schools to follow suit.

“Maybe we went back too early,” he said. “Maybe we were reckless with beaches. Maybe we were reckless with bars and restaurants. But we cannot be reckless with public schools. We cannot be reckless with children’s lives, or with those who pour their souls into these kids every day.”

The suit notes that Texas and California, now undergoing virus surges similar to Florida’s, are taking steps to slow the start of school. It also mentions New York, which is proceeding cautiously despite having knocked down its infection rates.

The union is seeking an injunction that would stop state government from forcing school districts to reopen campuses. The labor leaders insisted Monday that they want schools to open, but safely, and with proper supplies and protective equipment.

As things stand now, Ingram said surveys show 5 percent of educators think their workplaces are very likely to be safe this fall.

“An overwhelming majority, 90 percent, are in opposition to opening schools five days a week at this time,” he said. And 39 percent are considering leaving the profession, he said.

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