Judge’s order on school reopening back in effect, for now

Tampa Bay-Times | by Jeffrey S. Solochek | August 27, 2020

Saying students and staff face “irreparable injury” if his order is halted, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson on Thursday lifted the stay on his ruling against the state’s school reopening order.

The ruling on Monday found the Department of Education had overreached its authority by requiring schools to open their doors in August under the threat of potential financial penalty. But it was automatically put in abeyance after the state appealed it.

In his latest order, Dodson explained his rationale for lifting the stay, writing: “The evidence before the court plainly demonstrates that as a result of the (state’s) unconstitutional action requiring the statewide reopening of schools during the month of August 2020, without local school boards being permitted the opportunity to determine whether it is safe to do so, places people in harm’s way.”

Shortly after the order came out, the Hillsborough County School Board called an emergency meeting for 8 a.m. Friday, with a stated purpose of discussing the new development. When the board met Tuesday, members chose not to change the district’s reopening plan because the stay was in place.

Officially, School Board attorney Jim Porter said at the time, the reopening plan in effect was one the board had approved on July 23, which opened schools on Aug. 24. Dodson’s latest ruling, Porter said, means that the board’s later action, on Aug. 6, now has legal weight.

On that day, by a 5-2 vote, the board decided to offer only virtual instruction for at least the first four weeks of the school year.

”The board has to deal with that now,” Porter said Thursday. “If the board did nothing, (the Aug. 6 decision) would stay in place. That would mean three more weeks of e-learning.”

Porter noted that if the district opens campuses on Monday, it will be in compliance with the state’s reopening order, in which education commissioner Richard Corcoran called for schools to open by the end of August. Even if COVID-19 cases force the district to close schools soon after, they will still be in compliance.

However, if Hillsborough does not reopen campuses and Corcoran ultimately prevails in the case, the district risks losing as much as $200 million for having defied his order.

Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association, which filed the lawsuit, acknowledged the judge’s Thursday decision was “not the end.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said Gov. Ron DeSantis and the department intend to ask the appellate court to reinstate the stay.

“We’ll see what the 1st District Court of Appeal does,” Meyer said.

Leaders in several school districts across Florida, including Hillsborough, mentioned the uncertainty of this case when discussing whether they should continue their own reopening plans, including face-to-face classes, or change direction. So far, none has shifted course.

Union leaders, meanwhile, used their second court win to again encourage DeSantis to stop fighting the case and instead work with teachers and others to have a safe school environment based on the best scientific information available.

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.