Judge sides with Florida teachers union, says districts should decide if schools should reopen

Judge strikes down state mandate requiring 'brick and mortar' schools to reopen

ORLANDO, Fla. – A Tallahassee-based judge sided with Florida’s largest teachers union Monday ruling that Florida’s blanket order to require schools to teach students in the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic is unconstitutional.

Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, along with a number of other organizations filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the state alleging reopening schools was unsafe.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office released a statement on the ruling:

“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,” Press Secretary Cody McCloud said.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson’s decision comes after a weeks-long legal battle between the union and the state. Last week, both sides presented their cases during a three-day hearing.

[RECAP: Florida’s largest teachers’ union fights to keep schools closed]

Dodson, siding with the unions, adjusted the Florida Department of Education emergency order saying the day-to-day decision to open or close a school must always rest locally with school boards, issuing a temporary injunction to allow school boards to make safety determinations without financial penalty.

The judge’s ruling was ultimately an edit of the governor’s original order, striking out portions that were considered unconstitutional including the mandate that schools must open in August.

In Dodson’s decision, he said the ultimate purpose of the order was to provide guidance and permission for schools to reopen and he worked to preserve those elements.

Court documents show the judge changed the state mandate, saying school boards may reopen brick-and-mortar schools to give parents the opportunity to send them to a physical classroom but are not required to do so nor “provide the full array of services required by law,” giving school boards more leeway on how to use their physical buildings.

[MORE COVERAGE: Here’s what the teachers union lawsuit decision means for Central Florida schools]

He did, however, leave the state’s original wording that required services must be provided to students from low-income families, homeless students, those in foster care and other vulnerable populations. Ultimately, the judge’s decision is to serve the public interest, pointing to the logic that reasoned and data-driven decisions based on local conditions would mitigate the spread of COVID-19 for the community at large.

The judge writes his decision to issue the temporary injunction is to prevent injury before damages occur, saying teachers are at risk of irreparable harm.

Though the defendants argued teachers can choose to take sick leave, retire early or file workers’ compensation claims, the judge decided these options were not adequate as a teacher must meet a certain requirement such as getting sick before taking leave. Therefore, harm or injury must happen in order for a teacher to have certain options available to them. The judge agreed the unions showed substantial evidence that some teachers are being forced to quit the profession altogether in order to avoid an unsafe teaching environment, factoring into his decision.

Ultimately, the court believes schools will reopen where it is safe and continue to reopen slowly as conditions improve during the coronavirus pandemic, meeting the ultimate goal of both parties in the case: to get students back in school.

It is unclear if school districts will stick to their reopening plans that were submitted to Florida’s Education Commission or if districts will roll back plans.

In Osceola County, Gateway High School teacher Andre Escobar was part of the teachers suing the state and testified during the hearings. He is partially paralyzed and high risk for coronavirus. He said he was given masks and cleaning sprays in his classroom for the first day of school Monday.

"It's great news," Escobar said. "I wish it would have happened a few days earlier, now it's a little complicated, but hopefully the district will do the right thing now that they have the power to."

Escobar was represented by Orlando-based attorneys Jacob Stuart, Jr. and Billy Wieland, who also represented two other Orange County teachers and an Orange County mom in a grassroots lawsuit tried that joined the state’s largest teacher’s union, FEA.

“It’s tremendous day for all teachers and students,” Stuart said. “Billy and I, we are in shock that his happened but his is a good type of shock. It puts Orange County on the legal map in terms the judge granted our motion that this will have a lasting affect throughout the history of Florida.”

FEA President Fedrick Ingram said the court order gives school districts “complete autonomy.”

“You can be guided and focused by safety and security for our schools, you don’t have to be guided by politics or funding or threats that are coming from any outside entity,” Ingram said of the decision for school districts. :You can make those decisions and have complete fidelity in doing so. Empower your communities to support your schools and do what’s right.”

School district leaders can now base their decisions to remain or reopen campus on COVID-19 data and advice from medical experts, Ingram said.

“Proceed with caution and be guided by the science,” Ingram said. “If you’re in school and there’s an uptick, then this order frees all thought, all controls, all guide rails in order to make sound decisions based on science ... We do not have to have the threat of losing funding or staff or programs through that funding of the DOE.”

Corcoran also issued a statement Monday evening about the ruling, which is embedded below.