Though most districts in Florida are now officially open, the state and educators are still locked in a legal battle over school reopenings.
The Alachua County Education Association joined as a plaintiff Aug. 12 in a case that hopes to settle the debate over who has the power to open or close school classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools must open is the latest ruling in weeks of back and forth in the case between a Florida teacher’s union and the state.
The Alachua County School Board hasn’t formally voted on a position in this case, wrote
Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson in an email. However, she said, the Board has made it clear that it believes locally-elected school boards should have more say.
The Board has had a history of asking legislators to leave power with local School Boards that are better able to meet the unique needs of communities they serve and the citizens who elect them, she said.
The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled that local school districts must reopen schools per the state’s July emergency order that required brick-and-mortar classrooms to open five days a week. Both sides are urging that the case be fast-tracked to the Florida Supreme Court, but the appeals court refused to pass the case, hinting Monday that it’s leaning toward siding with the state.
The group signed on to the lawsuit when the Florida Education Association, the main organization suing the state, opened things up to local unions to sign on, said Carmen Ward, Alachua County Education Association president.
The emergency order disregarded the safety threats to students and staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“All we want is that the local authorities have the power to act appropriately if we have an outbreak,” she said.
The order doesn’t allow the school district to do that, Ward said. Schools risked losing millions of dollars in state funding if they didn’t open, according to the order.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, alongside other plaintiffs, including the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association and the NAACP, sued the state.
The case addresses ideas about public health and safety. The state argues the order is under the executive power of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran and the Florida Department of Education to make the decision during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the FEA argued local school boards have the authority.
Last week, Charles Dodson, a Leon County circuit court judge, ruled that the emergency order was unconstitutional because there wasn’t standardized decision-making across the state. Dodson referenced the South Florida school districts, like Miami-Dade County Public Schools, that weren’t required to open.
The ruling meant local school districts would have the say on school openings. But before the end of the week, the state appealed — pausing the judge’s ruling.
The trial court judge overturned the pause after the FEA filed an emergency motion to reinstate Dodson’s original ruling.
Timothy McLendon, a staff attorney at UF Levin College of Law’s Center for Governmental Responsibility, said it’s unusual for a case to move this fast. The state’s role is to provide for the public education system. From there, local school boards are given the power to control and direct it.
In the case of the pandemic, courts have deferred to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The FEA focused its argument on constitutionality, arguing that the opening violates the Florida constitution’s provisions for safe and secure public schools.
“We don’t have their final word on it,” he said. “But we do have some hands that disagreed with the trial court and its perception of the case.”
The appellate judges didn’t agree with the constitutional framing argument, McLendon said. However, the plaintiffs were right that a key issue was the close timeline to the school districts’ start dates.
The circuit court accepted the constitutional argument against the emergency order, but the district court is leaning the other way, McLendon said.The outcome of the case could be appealed, but it would be at the discretion of the Supreme Court.
The Tallahassee appeal court’s decision may stand because it deals with executive and administrative orders, McLendon said.
However, McLendon said there’s a lot of COVID-19 lawsuits and it's possible the Florida Supreme Court could take on the case to offer a decision for similar cases.
“Have I made that confusing enough?” he said, chuckling.