TALLAHASSEE — A high stakes lawsuit that could decide the fate of Florida classrooms is set to play out next week as a judge weighs whether to block a state mandate to re-open schools.
Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson on Thursday said he will decide Friday whether to dismiss the case, which was brought against the state by the Florida Education Association, a teachers union. But Dodson also scheduled time on Tuesday for mediation between and the teachers and attorneys representing Gov. Ron DeSantis. And he set a hearing for Wednesday on a union motion to temporarily halt a DeSantis administration directive to open classrooms.
The lawsuit and others like it are playing out across the state as schools ramp up for a fall semester already clouded by the coronavirus and chaos. Local teachers unions also are suing their school districts over re-opening plans while some school boards rehash their plans at the state’s behest.
And already at least one classroom—and a busload of students—have been quarantined during the first wave of re-openings this week.
Millions of dollars in public funds hang in the balance as school leaders race to respond to the state Department of Education’s hard-line mandate to open brick-and-mortar campuse by Aug. 31, even as Covid-19 deaths and infections rise.
“We are Wuhan as far as the rest of the world is concerned,” FEA lawyer Ron Meyer told the court Thursday. “All of the teachers in this state are wanting to go back to school. But they’re not dying to go back to school—and that’s what they’re confronted with.”
The DeSantis administration wants the lawsuit thrown out and has argued that the FEA is asking a judge to rewrite an emergency executive order.
If the court waives a state law requiring schools to physically open, it would restrict options for parents and students, lawyers for the DeSantis administration said Thursday.
“This is a political question that your honor can’t answer,” said Gunster lawyer David Wells, who is representing the state.
While the lawsuit plays out, Florida schools are jumping to meet the reopening directive issued by E Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a DeSantis appointee. While some counties have pushed back against the order, most districts are preparing to offer a mix of in-person and online courses by Aug. 31.
In one county, students started classes Tuesday, only to be forced into quarantine on Wednesday.
A Martin County elementary school student showed up at school with Covid-19 symptoms, forcing an entire classroom and the children on a bus route to quarantine for two weeks after the second day of classes, according to local press reports.
DeSantis, speaking Wednesday before the students were quarantined, said that Martin County Superintendent Laurie Gaylord had compared school re-opening to a Navy SEALs operation.
“Just as the SEALs surmounted obstacles to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, so too would the Martin County school system find a way to provide parents with the meaningful choice of in-person instruction or continued distance learning,” DeSantis said in a public address.
School leaders in Hillsborough County sought to avoid coronavirus outbreaks by spending the first four weeks of fall instruction online, a plan that the Department of Education rejected. Hillsborough’s school board now has the choice of re-opening classrooms, or going online and losing some $23 million in state funding, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
FEA lawyers on Thursday warned that more school districts will ultimately be forced to open their doors before they’re ready unless a temporary injunction is granted next week.
“We don’t have time to dally here,” Meyer said.