Students leave Lake Brantley High School after the final bell on Thursday, August 27, 2020. The Seminole County school district, like its counterparts across the state, opened schools for in-person classes this month.(Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel) (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Florida’s order to reopen schools stands — for now — after appeal court ruling

Unions

Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | August 31, 2020

In a victory for state education leaders, an appeals court said Monday that Florida’s school reopening order did not force students back to campus, nor teachers back into classrooms, and should remain in effect while the lawsuits challenging its constitutionality move through the court system.

The ruling by the First District Court of Appeal put on hold a decision issued last week by a circuit court judge in Tallahassee. That judge, ruling in favor of the teachers who had sued, said that the state’s controversial July reopening order was unconstitutional because it required Florida’s public schools to open “brick and mortar” campuses five days a week starting in August.

But appeal court judges, in the order released Monday, said they expect the state will win the case eventually, so they put the lower court’s ruling on hold during the appeals, saying it had “caused confusion and uncertainty for students, parents, and teachers.”

Those judges noted that when the circuit judge issued his ruling last week more than 700,000 students were already back in school for face-to-face lessons and by this week 1.6 million would be, all returning “under plans that local school districts carefully crafted.”

The 1.6 million represent about 57% of the state’s public school enrollment.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who signed the reopening order and called the lawsuits against it “frivolous,” said Monday during a press event in Tallahassee that the appeal court ruling was a “great decision.”

His reopening order, he added, gave parents choices, and more than 40% opted for online options. But more realized that what was best for their children was a “world-class teacher standing in front of those kids, imparting wisdom and knowledge,” he said.

The Florida Education Association — the statewide teachers union and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits — called the appeal court ruling disappointing, but said it would continue to press its case.

“The reopening order is still unconstitutional, and local districts still should be allowed to make the best and safest decisions for everyone in their schools. We will press ahead in the appellate court,” said Andrew Spar, the union’s vice president, in a statement.

Corcoran signed the school reopening order July 6, requiring public schools to open their campuses in August for five-day-a-week classes for parents who wanted their children to have in-person education. They could also offer online lessons but would not receive full state funding for those, unless in-person education also was an option.

The Orange County school district, which opened campuses Aug. 21, said it could have lost $22.5 million a month if it did not comply with the state order.

School leaders in Central Florida, and across the state, struggled this summer with how and when to open schools. During heated school board meetings and at protest rallies some teachers and their unions argued it was unsafe to open campuses during the coronavirus pandemic. But plenty of parents also pleaded for their children to receive in-person education when the 2020-21 school year started.

In the end, all local districts offered parents several online options but also opened for in-person classes this month.

One school in Osceola County announced last week that it would close for two weeks after staff members tested positive for the virus. And hundreds of students and teachers in Orange and Seminole counties are under quarantine as a result of positive cases in those schools.

In July, several Orange teachers and an county mother sued to challenge the reopening order, as did the education association. The two cases were merged and heard two weeks ago in Leon County Circuit Court.

Judge Charles Dodson ruled in their favor, striking down the reopening order, which he said “disregards safety” and “denies decision making” by local school boards.

The state immediately appealed Dodson’s ruling and later asked that the case, because it is of “great public importance,” go immediately to the Florida Supreme Court. There has not been a decision on that request.

In the appeal court ruling, the judges wrote that “nothing” in the state’s reopening order “requires any teacher or any student to return for in-person instruction at a brick-and-mortar school.”

Parents could choose that option for their children, but also had online options. If teachers were assigned to teach in-person that was an issue between them and their “employing school districts,” not the state’s leaders, the ruling said.

And school districts, the judges added, did not join the lawsuit against the state.