Judge Sides With Unions On Reopening Schools

Judge Sides With Unions On Reopening Schools

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Accusing the state of ignoring the Florida Constitution, a Leon County circuit judge on Monday sided with teachers unions that challenged a state order mandating that schools resume in-person instruction this month amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Florida Education Association and the union representing Orange County teachers filed lawsuits last month, alleging that Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s July 6 order requiring brick-and-mortar schools to reopen five days a week in August violates the Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public education. Schools districts risk losing funding if they don’t comply with Corcoran’s order, which teachers’ attorneys called “financial bullying.”

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who held a hearing in the case last week, ruled Monday that Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran and state education officials who are defendants in the lawsuits “have essentially ignored the requirement of school safety by requiring the statewide opening of brick-and-mortar schools to receive already allocated funding,” Dodson wrote.

“Schools should reopen when the local decision-makers determine upon advice of medical experts, that it is safe to do so. Our Constitution requires safe schools,” the judge said in Monday’s 17-page order.

DeSantis’ office quickly said it would appeal, which would put the ruling on hold.

“We intend to appeal this ruling and are confident in our position and in the authority of the commissioner and the governor to do what is best for our students,” DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said in an email.

Dodson’s ruling came as students continue to return to classrooms in districts throughout the state, after learning shifted online in March because of the pandemic. About 150,000 of the state’s 2.8 million schoolchildren had resumed face-to-face instruction as of last week, Jacob Oliva, the chancellor of the K-12 school system, told Dodson on Thursday.

Lawyers for the state argued that nearly all school districts have complied with Corcoran’s order requiring them to submit reopening plans for August and that no school districts joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuits. No school officials said they were coerced into reopening this month, the state said.

“But the school boards have no choice,” Dodson wrote Monday. “The districts have no meaningful alternative. 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.”

The policy “runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s long-standing admonition that the government may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests,” the judge said, quoting from another court decision.

“Because defendants cannot constitutionally directly force schools statewide to reopen without regard to safety during a global pandemic, they cannot do it indirectly by threatening loss of funding through the order,” he wrote.

Corcoran’s mandate ordered schools to reopen in August “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health” and executive orders issued by DeSantis.

“Although that language sounds good, it is essentially meaningless,” Dodson wrote. “Local school boards wanted to know — is it safe to open our schools in our county? Defendants reduced the constitutional guarantee of a safe education to an empty promise, in violation of the Florida Constitution.”

Dodson pointed to Hillsborough County, where the school board consulted with seven doctors during an Aug. 6 special meeting on whether to reopen.

School board members asked each of the doctors if they believed it was safe to reopen classrooms. Five of the seven doctors said it was not safe at the time. One physician said it was not safe that day but it might be in a few weeks. The seventh doctor, who serves as the director of the local health department, refused to give an opinion.

Based on the doctors’ responses, the county decided to delay the first day of in-person instruction from Aug. 24 to Sept 14. Distance learning was still slated to begin on Aug. 24.

But Corcoran told Hillsborough school officials they would lose funding if they did not reopen classrooms in August. The county eventually settled on restarting face-to-face instruction on Aug. 31.

“They had no real choice. Defendants arbitrarily prioritized reopening schools statewide in August over safety and the advice of health experts; and all school districts complied in order to avoid a drastic loss of state funding,” Dodson wrote in Monday’s order.

The judge also agreed with the plaintiffs’ claim that Corcoran’s order is “arbitrary and capricious,” acknowledging that such a finding is “a very high burden” to meet.

Dodson noted that Corcoran allowed Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to begin the school year remotely, due to high positivity rates for COVID-19 this summer, but rejected similar plans proposed by Hillsborough and Monroe counties.

DeSantis and Corcoran have steadfastly insisted that families need to be able to choose whether to have children return to face-to-face instruction or learn remotely. But Dodson found Corcoran’s order did not take a number of important factors into consideration.

“It fails to mention consideration of community transmission rates, varying ages of students, or proper precautions,” Dodson wrote, adding “what has been clearly established is there is no easy decision and opening schools will most likely increase COVID-19 cases in Florida.”

The Florida Department of Health reported Monday that nearly 560 coronavirus cases have been linked to Florida public and private schools since students and employees began reporting to classrooms two weeks ago. More than 200 elementary, middle and high school students and 342 school employees have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 10. The department also reported a dozen “unknown” school-related cases.

Dodson’s order pointed out that last week’s hearing, which lasted for more than two days, was conducted remotely.

“That is because it has been decided it is unsafe to hold in-person trials in the Leon County courthouse during this highly dangerous pandemic. That was a local decision based on local conditions. Because of COVID-19, jurors and witnesses are not allowed to come into our courtrooms, almost all of which are larger than classrooms in our schools,” he wrote.

During two days of testimony, teachers said they would retire and lose benefits or resign rather than risk being exposed to the COVID-19.

Under Dodson’s temporary injunction Monday, districts could reopen schools later than August without risking the loss of state education funds.

The judge said the injunction “allowing local school boards to make safety determinations for the reopening of schools without financial penalty” is in the “public’s interest.”

“This is what the local school boards were elected to do,” he added.

Union leaders and lawyers hailed Dodson’s order in a Zoom press conference Monday afternoon, calling it a major victory that could send ripples throughout the nation. They also asked Corcoran and DeSantis to work with them on school reopenings and closings instead of appealing.

“You lost today, Mr. Commissioner and Mr. Governor, because you’re wrong,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram, who was joined by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We won because we’re on the side of right, the side of right about public health and public safety and keeping people alive in this pandemic.”

— News Service staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

15 Responses to "Judge Sides With Unions On Reopening Schools"

  1. Great question Mr. Lyle. Who immediately comes to mind are Romney, Portman, Sasse and T. Scott. List would have been a lot longer 5 years ago.

    Reagan made me a conservative. His ideals and respect for the office are what I measure all against. He wasn’t perfect, but nobody is. I am learning to accept that the definition has changed.

    1. That was a good answer, MG.

      I like Romney, but I think he is a little disgruntled and judgmental.

      Hang in there things will get better and if you are truly a conservative you know that prayer is important.

    1. Hmmm. I think you should ask the media, Amazon, Social Media companies, Macys, NFL, NBA, Harley Davidson, Apple, HBO, Glenfiddich, Goodyear Tires and many more if Mr. Trump is the answer to the cancel culture.

      Every day he recommends I stop doing business with someone. If that’s important to you, he’s not your guy.

      1. There’s a huge difference between Cancel Culture and a boycott. Boycotts have been around forever. Cancel Culture is a relatively new phenomenon in which someone’s reputation and usually livelyhood is targeted for complete annihilation, often due to something they did or said many years ago, regardless what they have done or said since.

        But you knew this, of course.

      2. Enjoying your Democrat Kool-Aid? And you voted for Gillum probably… too bad, so sad…

        All I know is I buy Goya products and will vote in person so the Democrats can’t cancel out my vote.

        It’s funny that their voting manipulations always seem to trip them up and backfires so I will sit back and watch the show.

        Don’t get Swept Away by the red tsunami because it’s coming.

        1. Name calling aside, thank you for your predictable response(s)

          I’m just a conservative who hopes to some day have another conservative to vote for.

          1. I don’t mean to jump in… well, actually I do… but, I take your point well. Out of curiosity though… can you toss a name or two out there of a person sitting in office today (DC or otherwise) that might fit your profile of a “conservative”?

            A sincere question. And in the interest of somewhat “full” disclosure… I know, am acquainted with, and/or are quite familiar with several office holders who call themselves conservative.

  2. Does anyone remember electing a union to determine what is a safe environment in which our children can attend school? I sure don’t. The union represents the teachers who apparently believe they will not be safe back in the classroom doing their job. So…when did teachers become a special class? How are they more important than other essential workers such as the policeman, fireman, or the checkout person at Publix all of whom show up every day to do their jobs. Folks, it’s time for the teachers to suck it up, put their big boy or girl pants on and get back into the classroom. And, please, don’t tell me students can take online classes which is an unfunny joke and no where as effective as being in a classroom.

  3. I wonder if these clown show Marxist Doctors, Unions, teachers and judges even bother to use data to make decisions. This from the CDC as of 8-19-20:


    Florida had a total of 607 Covid-19 deaths for those under 55 years of age, 10 deaths for those under 25 years of age. With a population of approximately 21.5 million, the Covid death rate in Florida for under 55 years of age is, wait for it, 0.00283%. The Covid death rate in Florida for under 25 years of age is, 0.00005%.

    As of August 19th Pneumonia deaths in Florida for those under 55 years of age was 781 and under 25 years of age was 19. Thats a 0.00364% Pneumonia death rate under age 55 in Florida and 0.00009% death rate for under 25 years of age.

    TLDR, most teachers and students have a greater chance of dying from Pneumonia in Florida than Covid.

    Even European Democratic Socialist countries recognize this and have had schools open for months now. Do they hate their kids and teachers too? Let’s get real, we are beyond any real science with this nonsense. I never voted for Trump and I’m not blind to what’s right in front of me. This now has all to do with TDS on steroids dialed up to 11. Marxism is on the march and they are using this virus as a tool to beat the heck out of all us. #walkaway

    Push the panic and hysteria until November.

  4. The Public Indoctrination School System (PISS) and their unions are allowing their hatred for a Nation to walk themselves right out of a job. Parents; exercise your right to choose a better option for your children… their future depends on it.

  5. Over – Under?

    Two teams of lawyers + judge/court resources + 14-witnesses + 100-exhibits x 3-day hearing = $250,000.

    1. And worst of all the outcome was 100% known to both sides.
      Everyone knew lefty Judge Dodson would side with the union.
      Now what?
      Take it to uber leftist Fed Judge Hinkle and spend $500000.00 + for the same outcome?
      Sorry to be so negative but there does not look like anything positive will ever be the outcome. Unless the Governor has an ace up his sleeve the liberals will rule the day every time in a Leon County/Fed Judge Hinkle court challenge.

      1. Take a deep breath, Snide. You’re all wrapped up around the axle.

        This was a state court ruling. It does not have any of the elements needed for removal to Federal court.

        Even if it did, N.D. Fla. wouldn’t have substantive jurisdiction.

        It will go to the 1st DCA and be reversed.

        Dodson and Dempsey are why we absolutely should not be electing judges. Athenian democracy is unruly and disgusting.

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