Local school boards have rightly regained the power to decide when schools can safely reopen classrooms during this pandemic. Local boards can weigh the best medical evidence, not worry about financial penalties wielded by the state, in making such important steps. That’s thanks to Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who ruled Monday in favor of the Florida Education Association’s legal challenge to the state’s forced reopening of schools before the end of August.
The Florida Department of Education had required all 67 districts to file reopening plans that gave students the option of returning to class by Aug. 31 if the districts wanted to receive millions of dollars in state money. That was an arbitrary date that didn’t take into account the safety of doing so.
“The districts have no meaningful alternative,” Dodson wrote in his order. “If an individual school district chooses safety, that is, delaying the start of schools until it individually determines it is safe to do so for its county, it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught.”
This could directly affect Hillsborough County public schools. Based on the medical evidence, the school board had voted 5-2 to hold virtual classes for the first four weeks. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran then threatened that Hillsborough schools could lose up to $23 million monthly if the district proceeded with that plan. The board reversed course, opting for virtual classes for only the first week, then to offer in-person classes next week, barely making the end of August deadline. The board meets Tuesday and now has a chance to revisit what to do. It should act based on the latest information — what is best and safest for its students, staff and families.
Evidence, not money, should be at the core of any of these decisions. These calls are properly made at the local school board level, a fact recognized in the Florida Constitution, and reaffirmed by the judge Monday. The Pinellas County school board will have a chance as well to reopen this discussion when it meets Tuesday. The two districts may come to different decisions, which is fine so long as each is based on the best available evidence in each county.
With the rolling infection rate in Pinellas hovering at or below the level deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization, it may well make sense for schools there to proceed cautiously. They already opened their classrooms Monday. So long as protocols are followed, it may be fine to keep going according to plan as long as the district is prepared to close classrooms and even schools if the numbers spike. In Hillsborough, where the infection rate is a bit higher, it may make sense to go back to four weeks of virtual instruction — and then assess where things stand. In each case, the local school board can and should make these calls. They are closest to the people, and they are the most accountable. If residents don’t like the decisions, they can vote out the school board members, some as soon as November.
Of course, there is a wrinkle. The state appealed just before close of business Monday, and that automatically stays the judge’s order while waiting for the appeals court to decide. That means the teachers union will return to court Tuesday to ask the judge to put his order back into force. The state should not be appealing this order. It should not use money as a cudgel to beat local school boards into making decisions based on dollars, not sense.
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