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Judge finds state’s order to open schools unconstitutional

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Aug 25, 2020

A Leon County Circuit Court judge has issued a temporary injunction against an emergency order issued by the state which required schools to form reopening plans by Aug. 31 or risk losing funding.

Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran issued the order in July.

Judge Charles Dodson, of the Second Judicial Circuit, issued his ruling on Aug. 24. Dodson wrote that the order by Corcoran was unconstitutional by not allowing local schools boards to find alternatives to the orders of the state. Dodson also found the provision requiring that opening plans be approved by the state to be unconstitutional.

The Florida Education Association and the NAACP filed lawsuits in July to compel Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corcoran to put on hold their plan for reopening the state’s public schools and to implement an online instruction plan due to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

The Florida Education Association filed its suit in Miami-Dade County circuit court in July, seeking to restrict the reopening of “unsafe brick and mortar” public schools and to prevent sending students and employees to those schools “during the resurgence of COVID-19 in Florida.”

The lawsuit alleged that a reopening of school during the current COVID-19 pandemic would violate the state’s constitutional requirement for schools to be safe and secure.

In his ruling, Dodson stated “our Florida Constitution requires the State to ensure our schools operate safely. Defendants, however, through the Order and its application, have essentially ignored the requirement of school safety by requiring the statewide opening of brick-and-mortar schools to receive already allocated funding.”

The suit also asked the court to make computers and Internet activity available to all students for the purpose of online instruction.

The suit called for the court to order that schools have adequate personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies for all employees and students. The motion further sought a reduction in class sizes to comply with physical distancing requirements; the installation of sufficient hand-sanitizing stations; the addition of plexiglass shields where necessary; an increase in staffing; an increase in school clinic capabilities; and for all necessary measures to protect students and staff and minimize COVID-19 transmission.

Ron Meyer, an attorney representing the Florida Education Association, said he received a notice of appeal from the state on Aug. 24. Meyer said Corcoran told him he is confident the First District Court of Appeal will overturn the decision.

Meyer said he would be requesting Dodson set aside the automatic stay which would be part of the appeal.

Cody McCloud, press secretary to the Governor’s Office, issued a statement confirming their plans to appeal.

“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,” McCloud stated.

Two lawsuits were filed against Corcoran’s order — one in Miami-Dade Circuit Court and one in Leon County Circuit Court. Dodson’s decision merges the two suits together. The Miami-Dade suit alleged that “Florida, is now an international epicenter of the lethal and unforgiving novel coronavirus. 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,” the suit states. “The Defendants’ unconstitutional handling of their duties has infringed upon this mandate and requires the courts to issue necessary and appropriate relief. Florida students, parents, teachers, and the public deserve and are constitutionally entitled to the protections needed to assure a lawful and safe reopening.”

The Florida Education Association represents more than 140,000 school employees. One of the plaintiffs is a second-grade teacher who contracted COVID-19, spent two months in the hospital, was placed on a ventilator and into a medically-induced coma. Another teacher being represented has asthma and immune system issues.

The suit notes that four people under the age of 18 have died from COVID-19 as of July 14. Locally, 17-year-old Cypress Lake High School student Carsyn Davis died from COVID-19 complications on June 23. Since then, a 6-year-old’s death has also been attributed to the coronavirus.

“We are aware of the ruling and will review it,” Robert Spicker, spokesperson for the Lee County School District, said.