The message delivered Thursday in defense of Florida’s school reopening order differed little from the words Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeated for weeks: Children need face-to-face learning, and the risks of COVID-19 are not great enough to take away that opportunity.
A steady stream of parents, teachers, health experts and government officials hammered home that point as witnesses under the guided questioning of lawyers for the state. Defending against a lawsuit filed by Florida’s teachers union, they aimed to convince Leon County Judge Charles Dodson not to halt the order requiring schools to provide in-person classes by the end of August.
Dodson, who heard testimony favoring the injunction on Wednesday, plans to hear closing arguments on Friday and issue an opinion early next week.
He has a lot of information to weigh.
Like the first day’s hearing, Thursday began with a witness from Hillsborough County — the district that the plaintiffs argued best illustrates the state’s arbitrary actions in dealing with plans to reopen. Where the first day featured Hillsborough School Board member Tamara Shamburger complaining about the state’s overreach, the second day brought special education teacher Lindsey Arthur, who said remote learning set her students back.
She said her students struggled with the online model, if they even participated. As a result, they regressed academically and emotionally.
The answer, Arthur suggested, is to return to in-person education. Students need to be with their teachers and friends to grow, she said.
“I think it will be normal,” she said. “I empathize with those who have concerns. But I feel if we follow all the guidelines … I do feel safe.”
To further that point, the defense introduced two parents — a mom from Orlando with a gifted son, and a mom from Palm Beach Gardens with a son who has autism.
Each explained how the time away from school created problems for their children, despite their efforts to help them succeed in classes from home.
Jennifer Tribble, of Orlando, shared how her gifted son found remote learning unchallenging, and struggled to pay attention. Her other son, who has reading difficulties, went backwards in his abilities, she said.
Meanwhile, the isolation made them lonely and inactive, she said.
“It is hard to get them out of the house to do anything,” Tribble said. “They are both very excited to go back to school.”
Laura Pope, whose teenage son has autism, said being out of school was fine for him for the first week or two. After that, he had lost his usual routine and his progress was derailed. Now he’s more anxious than before, she said.
She said he won’t participate in any more remote learning, as it did not work for him. She has trained her son to wear a mask, and will wait until it’s safe to send him back for his education to resume.
“I can’t be responsible for doing any more damage to my son’s well being. And my own,” Pope said.
Two medical experts on the first day argued that reopening schools cannot be safe until virus positivity rates are below 5 percent. To counter that position, the defense brought in its own expert — Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University — who contended that COVID-19 is not as dangerous or as lethal as the others claimed.
Bhattacharya said his own research, and other materials he has studied, indicate that children do not pass the virus to adults, though they do pass it to other children. He discounted other studies that say otherwise, arguing they were speculative.
He also presented studies that he suggested demonstrate that the virus is more widespread than testing results indicate, which means it is less lethal than some say. Closing schools would have limited effect, he said: “Lockdowns delay the spread of the disease. But they don’t eliminate it.”
People need to balance the positives of reopening against the risks, he added. And from his perspective, it’s time to reopen the schools.
State chancellor Jacob Oliva shared that perspective. Oliva, who works for the Department of Education, said officials initially thought school closures would last a few weeks, and students would be back on campus by May.
When they saw the pandemic was not dissipating, he said, discussions immediately began about how to get through the summer and then return to schools, because of the need to provide services for students. Children in poverty are most in need of what schools provide, he said.
“Those students stand the most to lose as far as exacerbating achievement gaps. We need to do everything we can as soon as we can,” Oliva said.
Beyond that, he said, many parents wanted to send their children back to school. The state wanted to meet those needs, as well.
Under cross examination, Oliva faced questions about why the state appeared to force school districts to reopen, even if their own medical experts advised otherwise. Hillsborough County again came up as the primary example.
Oliva insisted that the state relied upon local decision-making, but also used its oversight authority to ensure state goals were being achieved. He rejected the notion that the state turned down Hillsborough’s plan to delay reopening for four weeks, as well as alternatives to slowly reopen beginning with the most at-risk groups.
Hillsborough officials could have provided data school-by-school to demonstrate why they had to be closed, or if a percentage of students could be served, but they did not, Oliva said. He defended the state’s emergency order on reopening, saying it gave schools the opportunity to protect their funding.
District officials across Florida have argued that the state has used the order as a cudgel to force them into actions they might otherwise not take.
At the end of the hearing, attorney Jacob Stuart, who represents teachers and parents from Orange County, asked Judge Dodson to consider a temporary stay of the reopening order. Orange County students are set to return to in-person learning, and one of his clients said he would quit his teaching job if required to teach face-to-face classes.
Dodson rejected that request, as he did on Wednesday, saying he wants time to weigh the arguments before he makes a decision.