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Pasco teachers seek to upend state school reopening order

The United School Employees of Pasco has decided to file for an injunction against required in-person classes.

LAND O’LAKES — The leaders of Pasco County’s school employee union said Friday they will ask a court to stop the state’s emergency order requiring in-person instruction by the end of August.

They said they wanted to bring “common sense” to the tense debate over whether Florida should reopen campuses, often referred to as the “bricks and mortar” option, or continue with only the online learning offered by schools in the spring.

“We will be filing for a temporary injunction to the emergency order by the Department of Education,” United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace said. “We feel that it’s important that we do not put lives in danger. Once the (COVID-19) numbers subside to a satisfactory level, then it would be appropriate to have a conversation about a return to bricks and mortar.”

The filing is planned for next week, he said.

Peace made his announcement one day after the Orange County teachers union sued its district over reopening plans, and less than two weeks after the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education to overturn the emergency order. He spoke shortly after the latest data revealed a fourth consecutive day of record-level coronavirus deaths in the state.

Hillsborough County teachers union leaders said they also are exploring their legal options relating to reopening. Officials from the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association did not immediately return calls.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and other top state officials have held firm that they believe schools should be opened for families that need the option. But they also told the Orange County district this week it has flexibility to operate schools according to local needs without getting added permission — a position that seemed to contradict the emergency order, as the Orlando Sentinel reported.

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

The United School Employees of Pasco has tried to convince its local officials to follow the state’s assurances that districts have the flexibility they need. Its representative council recently asked the School Board to cancel plans to hold face-to-face classes starting Aug. 24, and instead move to an all-online model until the county sees 14 straight days of declining virus positivity rates, with an overall rate below 5 percent.

“Currently in Pasco, we are nearly twice the positivity rate as when the stay at home order was given” in April, Peace said. “If it was good enough for us to stay at home back then, why in the world would we want to send people into a risky environment right now?”

The situation has raised concerns among all levels of district employees.

Pasco County school bus driver Maryann Brini
Pasco County school bus driver Maryann Brini [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Bus driver Maryann Brini, a USEP vice president, noted that many workers will have close contact with large numbers of students if the in-person approach advances.

“We don’t know, are these kids really going to keep their masks on? We’re going to be right there,” Brini said. “What’s really scary is we know that kids are kids. This could wind up being a joke (for them). ... There is no joke to this.”

Wiregrass Elementary School teacher Renee Marsella
Wiregrass Elementary School teacher Renee Marsella [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Wiregrass Elementary teacher Renee Marsella had similar concerns about coming into contact with hundreds of students weekly as her school’s STEM specialty instructor.

“We haven’t had young kids together to say how it’s going to spread,” said Marsella, who volunteered to return to campus so others with greater needs could have online positions. “We don’t understand what the rush is.”

Superintendent Kurt Browning said he understood the worries being raised. But he did not see any way around the emergency order, which states as its first requirement, “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.”

He said the department’s letter to Orange County schools did nothing to convince him that funding wouldn’t be jeopardized if districts do not adhere to the written order. If anything, he suggested, it confused the matter.

Plus, Browning added, nearly two-thirds of Pasco families have indicated their intention to send their children back to classrooms. And some teachers also have said they’re ready to return, he noted, though recognizing the district might face a staffing problem if too many decide not to do so.

“I understand the concerns,” Browning said. “But we also have an obligation under the order to return to bricks and mortar.”

Peace acknowledged that position. That’s why, he said, the USEP is prepared to seek court action.

“I want to be clear,” he said. “We are not saying we don’t want to go back to school. We just don’t want to go back to bricks and mortar right now. We are just asking for some common sense.”