Florida’s largest teachers’ union and attorneys for the state are meeting in Tallahassee Tuesday for court-ordered mediation in an attempt to come to an agreement on how to safely reopen school campuses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Florida Education Association is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education and others to stop Florida brick-and-mortar schools from physically reopening.
Last week, lawsuits filed by the FEA, the Orange County teachers union and a parent were combined. The unions are seeking a temporary injunction “to stop the reopening of schools until it is safe to do so” due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, civil rights organization NAACP and the NAACP Florida chapter joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs.
On Friday, a judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, inching the case one step closer to trial.
Both sides are currently in court-ordered mediation beginning Tuesday morning until midnight. If an agreement is not reached, pre-trial hearings will resume Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., according to the FEA.
If negotiations fail, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson will hear FEA’s motion for temporary injunctive relief against Corcoran’s emergency order for “districts to reopen physical school campuses in August or face financial penalties,” according to the FEA.
Orlando-based attorneys Jacob V. Stuart, Jr. and Billy Wieland filed their own lawsuit in what they call a grassroots effort to represent teachers and parents not a part of the union.
“Thursday night if we win the judge will enter an order and it would forbid all 67 counties from opening brick and mortar schools the next day,” Stuart said. “And it would forbid - if we get exactly what we want - it wouldn’t let any county open back up until they can prove by whatever mechanism the judge decides that they ensure teachers and students are in a safe and secure environment.”
After joining in the lawsuit with the FEA, Stuart said a judge ruled more teachers can testify and file suit and they plan on calling one as their key witness at Tuesday’s hearing. One of those witnesses is an Orange County teacher with disabilities who will report to school Friday for the first day of in-person learning.
“One of our new witnesses is Mr. Escobar, he’s a high school teacher at Gateway, a math teacher. He is quadriplegic and he has been instructed he must report as of Friday for in person teaching,” Stuart said. “He’s concerned because of a condition and what happened in an accident a few years ago that if he were to get COVID-19, he’s concerned the respiratory issues would be so great they could cause impending death.”
The attorneys shared photos of Escobar’s classroom showing what they say is only one bottle of hand sanitizer and desks that are difficult to socially distance.
“(It) clearly demonstrates there is no social distancing. You can see the desk appear to be a foot and a foot and half a part,” Stuart added. “Why the rush? We should be pushing this back 3 or 4 weeks (and) figuring this out, that’s what should be going on and that’s what we are hoping the judge is going to do.”
Earlier this summer, Corcoran issued an Emergency Order calling for brick-and-mortar schools to reopen five days a week in August.
A few school districts across the state have already welcomed students back. Central Florida’s largest school district in Orange County will open campuses on Friday. Many school districts have delayed the start of the school year to late August because of the pandemic.
As of Tuesday, nearly 580,00 people in Florida have tested positive for COVID-19 and the state’s death toll is expected to approach 10,000 by the end of the week. Since March, more than 46,200 children in Florida have tested positive for the virus, including seven who have died. The youngest COVID-19 death in Florida was that of a 9-year-old girl in Putnam County.