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Florida Judge Rules State Order Requiring Schools To Reopen ‘Unconstitutional’

The judge says the order disregards safety and denies local school boards’ decision-making power. The Florida Department of Education has appealed the ruling.

Florida Judge Rules State Order Requiring Schools To Reopen ‘Unconstitutional’

Enlarge this image toggle caption Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A Florida judge on Monday ruled against the state’s order requiring schools to open for in-person instruction by the end of August, calling parts of it “unconstitutional.” He granted a temporary injunction, putting the decision-making power in the hands of individual districts.

The emergency order was issued by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in early July as the state’s coronavirus cases surged, and mandated that all districts open “brick and mortar schools” at least five days a week for families who want to send their students back, or else risk losing already-allocated funding.

Along with teachers and parents, the Florida Education Association — the state’s largest teachers’ union — quickly filed a lawsuit, alleging the order violated a provision in Florida’s constitution requiring the state to ensure schools operate safely. They were joined by the NAACP and the NAACP Florida State Conference last week.

In a 16-page decision, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson said the order is “unconstitutional to the extent that it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards’ decision making with respect to reopening brick and mortar schools, and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August.”

“Schools should reopen when the local decision makers determine upon advice of medical experts that it is safe to do so,” he wrote.

On Monday evening, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education told NPR that the department had appealed the decision. This automatically placed a stay on the judge’s order, blocking it from taking effect until the appeal is over or unless the court rules otherwise. An FEA spokesperson said the union will return to court on Tuesday to ask the judge to reinstate his order.

In a statement shared with NPR, Corcoran said he is “100% confident” the state will win the lawsuit.

“This fight has been, and will continue to be, about giving every parent, every teacher and every student a choice, regardless of what educational option they choose,” Corcoran said. “If you are one of the 1.6 million students who have chosen to return to the classroom, a parent, or a classroom teacher that wanted to educate their student in person, we strongly encourage you to call the Florida Education Association and tell them to drop this frivolous lawsuit.”

Corcoran defended the state’s aggressive approach to reopening schools in an interview on All Things Considered last week, saying transmission rates had dropped significantly and that the educational and developmental consequences of keeping kids home outweigh the risk posed to them by the virus.

Dodson wrote that while it is not entirely clear to what extent children transmit the virus to adults, “what has been clearly established is there is no easy decision and opening schools will most likely increase COVID-19 cases in Florida.” He added that the order did not take into…

Rachel Treisman

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