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Florida’s largest teachers’ union sues to stop school reopening mandate

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran

(The Center Square) – Florida’s largest teachers union filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Florida Department of Education’s mandate that all schools reopen next month and offer “the full panoply of services,” including in-person instruction.

The lawsuit, filed in Miami by the 130,000-member Florida Education Association (FEA), argues the order violates Florida’s Constitution, which requires the state to provide “safe” and “secure” schools.

The lawsuit names Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida State Board of Education and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez as defendants and calls on them to “stop the reckless and unsafe reopening of public school campuses as coronavirus infections surge statewide.”

The lawsuit also seeks a court declaration that defendants are imposing “arbitrary and capricious demands” on public schools by the “full opening” executive order issued by Corcoran on July 6.

FEA also launched a petition Monday that asks voters to endorse their demand that DeSantis use his authority to nix Corcoran’s order.

“Gov. DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one,” FEA President Fedrick Ingram said. “The governor needs to accept the reality of the situation here in Florida, where the virus is surging out of control. He needs to accept the evolving science.”

Ingram cited still-debated evidence that “kids 10 and older may pass along the coronavirus as easily as adults.”

“Everyone wants schools to reopen,” he said, “but we don’t want to begin in-person teaching, face an explosion of cases and sickness, then be forced to return to distance learning. Florida’s Constitution demands public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard.”

The FEA lawsuit said few, if any, of Florida’s 4,500 K-12 schools are ready to safely welcome 2.9 million students within weeks.

“Before schools reopen, they must have adequate personal protective equipment and other supplies, reduced class sizes, social distancing, staffing, and school clinic capabilities in compliance with CDC guidelines and other health authorities,” the lawsuit said.

As hecklers taunted him Monday in Orlando, DeSantis said he did not understand the point of FEA’s lawsuit or of one filed Sunday by an Orange County teacher and parent.

Kathryn Hammond, a pregnant middle-school teacher with a child enrolled in the Orange County Public School District, and Monique Bellefleur, a parent of three, want the courts to stop districts from conducting face-to-face learning.

“Teachers, staff, and children are at severe risk of exposure to COVID-19, which will no doubt lead to serious illness and death,” their lawsuit said. “The unsafe opening of public schools will also worsen the spread of COVID-19 throughout our communities, state and country.”

“First of all, I didn’t give any executive order,” DeSantis said, noting the order mandates schools open but does not require parents send children into them.

School districts are offering parents options that include online distance learning, a hybrid of in-person and digital curriculum and in-class instruction.

“Ultimately,” DeSantis said, “parents need to choose the right environment for their children.”

The Department of Education order ensures students who need access to programs only available in person can receive them, DeSantis said.

“We see problems that have developed with kids falling behind” because they don’t “have reliable access to computers, access to healthy meals,” he said.

“If a parent has a child who may have underlying conditions, of course they should be able to opt for virtual” schooling, DeSantis said adding teachers and school staff also have options.

“If a teacher doesn’t feel comfortable, they should be given as much options as possible,” DeSantis said. “These are unique circumstances. In any employment situation, you need to take precautions so people are protected.”

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