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

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.

The judge’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.

The judge, 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 the judge’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.

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.

The Florida Education Association is expected to hold a news conference at 3:30 p.m. Check back on clickorlando.com for updates.

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