Florida teachers sue state to stop unsafe school reopening plan
Story Collins, 9, and her mother Heather Correia show their support for teachers after arriving at the Duval County School Board building, July 14, 2020 in Jacksonville, Fla. Duval County teachers and their supporters gathered in a parking lot before they drove to the Duval County School Board Building and protested plans of starting the upcoming school year with the rate of COVID-19 infections hitting record rates in Jacksonville. | Bob Self / The Florida Times-Union via AP

MIAMI—Saying Florida’s mandate to reopen brick-and-mortar schools despite the coronavirus pandemic endangers students, teachers, and everybody else, the state’s teachers union is suing the GOP-run government to stop Florida’s unsafe school reopening plan.

Forcing the schools to reopen in August without the safeguards during the pandemic not only exposes teachers and kids, but produces “an imminent threat to the public health, safety, and welfare,” says the Florida Education Association’s suit, filed July 20 in state circuit court in Miami-Dade County.

FEA’s suit flatly quotes the state constitution as requiring schools “must be reopened safely.” FEA, the joint National Education Association-American Federation of Teachers state affiliate with 145,000 members, says the plan by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, his GOP education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, and the state school board, in so many words, flunks.

“Gov. DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one,” FEA President Fedrick Ingram, told a Zoom news conference July 20. “The governor needs to accept the reality of the situation here in Florida, where the virus is surging out of control. He needs to accept the evolving science.”

“It now appears that kids 10 and older may pass along the coronavirus as easily as adults. Everyone wants schools to reopen, but we don’t want to begin in-person teaching, face an explosion of cases and sickness, then be forced to return to distance learning. Florida’s constitution demands public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard.”

The suit arises against a background that sees right-winger DeSantis slavishly following GOP President Donald Trump’s demand to reopen states and schools despite the coronavirus pandemic. The result, both figures and the suit say, is disaster.

The latest data, from Johns Hopkins University, the most-authoritative source, show that as of 9:35 am Eastern Time on July 21, 3,831,450 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, and 140,914 have died.

That includes 87,035 coronavirus victims and 1,309 deaths in Miami-Dade, home to the nation’s fifth-largest school district, cumulatively. It also includes an average of more than 10,000 cases per day, statewide, for more than a week. Florida cases skyrocketed from 757 daily as DeSantis opened up the state on Memorial Day to a high of 11,848 on July 18.

Despite the data, Trump is both campaigning for states to reopen schools, rather than continue distance and online learning, and illegally threatening to yank federal education money from those that don’t.

The suit doesn’t mention Trump, but it declares DeSantis’s policies have made the Sunshine State a new hotspot for the pandemic, endangering everybody. Five people, teachers and parents, joined FEA on the suit. AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia also spoke at the Zoom press conference.

“Tragically, Florida is now an international epicenter of the lethal and unforgiving novel coronavirus,” the suit states. “The virus has no boundaries—including impacting our state’s public schools, a centerpiece of our society and democracy. The Florida Constitution is clear: Public school onsite instruction and operations must be opened safely.”

Article 9 of the constitution “mandates ‘adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools.’” DeSantis’s and Corcoran’s “unconstitutional handling of their duties has infringed upon this mandate and requires the courts to issue necessary and appropriate relief.”

In regular English, that means the union wants the court to order the state to stop.

“Florida students, parents, teachers, and the public deserve and are constitutionally entitled to the protections needed to assure a lawful and safe reopening,” it adds. Actual physical reopening, the suit says, should occur only if and when Florida obeys Centers for Disease Control guidelines for re-starting the schools.

Otherwise, Florida endangers the teachers, the kids and everyone else, too.

“Ignoring the CDC guidelines, the state government defendants”—DeSantis, Corcoran and the state school board—’are requiring millions of public school employees and students to physically return to brick-and-mortar schools in August amidst a drastic resurgence of COVID-19 cases,” the suit declares.

Their “arbitrary, dangerous, and unconstitutional actions in the midst of the pandemic create an imminent threat to the public health, safety and welfare.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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