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Teachers Sue Florida Governor for Order to Reopen Schools in Defiance of 'Basic Human Needs for Health and Safety'

The state's "push to physically reopen schools full time without any precautions or new resources, and, most importantly, amid a skyrocketing Covid-19 surge, ignores science, safety, and basic humanity."

School counselor Chloe Gerbec and teachers Malikah Armbrister and Brittany Myers stand in protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening of schools due to health and safety concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

School counselor Chloe Gerbec and teachers Malikah Armbrister and Brittany Myers stand in protest in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening of schools due to health and safety concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Teachers in Florida—where coronavirus cases continue to surge—filed a lawsuit on Monday to block a state-ordered physical reopening of schools in August, saying, "There is no rational basis for ignoring science and evidence-based data."

The lawsuit (pdf), filed by the Florida Education Association (FEA), names as defendants Gov. Ron DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida State Board of Education, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The educators say the cohort "cannot legally deny students, public school staff, their family members, and the public with whom they come in contact within the public-school system their basic human needs for health and safety."

"Gov. DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one," FEA president Fedrick Ingram said in a statement. "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."

"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 that public schools be safe," said Ingram.

New data validates the educators' concerns. Reporting on Monday showed the state continuing a five-day streak of the daily number of coronavirus cases surpassing 10,000, and Florida hospitals are running out of ICU beds.

What's more, the long-term health effects of the virus are unknown. New research from South Korea showed that children 10 and over can transmit the coronavirus as easily as adults can, and recently obtained Centers for Disease Control and Prevention materials warned that "full-sized, in-person classes" posed the "highest risk" of spreading the coronavirus compared to online learning or smaller classes with social distancing. 

Yet President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continue to push for in-person learning in fall without a clear safety plan. And in Florida, Gov. DeSantis has sounded a similar note and dismissed the public health threat, while Commissioner Corcoran this month ordered schools to reopen for in-person learning for the fall term—despite the state being what the lawsuit called "an international epicenter of the lethal and unforgiving novel coronavirus."

"The state constitution guarantees safe schools," the lawsuit says, and requiring students and staff to go back to school buildings in Augusut while "in the midst of the pandemic create[s] an imminent threat to the public health, safety, and welfare."

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"Many counties, including Miami-Dade County, are not even at Step 1 of the reopening process under CDC guidelines," which include a downward trajectory of Covid-19 cases over a 14-day period. The lawsuit accuses state officials of disregarding CDC guidelines. Further, "The Emergency Order comes with severe pressure by the state government defendants to physically reopen schools or face the loss of critical funding for public education. This threat pits students and safety against vitally needed funds for schools."

The filing adds that local health officials, who have the ultimate say on reopenings, have been silenced. From the lawsuit:

The Palm Beach County Health Director who cautioned about the risk to children "got a call from the surgeon general of the State of Florida that told her to keep her mouth shut and not speak about it. . . Not only did she get the call, but other health directors from around the state got the same call that they should not get involved with the school districts' decisions on whether or not to reopen schools. Silencing medical experts who advocate for the safety of our children is unconscionable.

"Reopening schools in the middle of a Covid-19 resurgence, and without the proper plan, resources, and safety precautions will inevitably exacerbate the spread of the virus, jeopardize public health, and ultimately cause longer closures," says the lawsuit.

Backing the legal action is American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who said in a statement that the "push to physically reopen schools full time without any precautions or new resources, and, most importantly, amid a skyrocketing Covid-19 surge, ignores science, safety, and basic humanity. Gov. Ron DeSantis' order, as carried out by others, puts an entire generation of kids—as well as their families and their educators—at risk."

Weingarten also cast blame at the federal level.

"Further complicating getting our schools physically open again is the abject failure to date of both the president and the Senate to follow the House of Representatives' lead to provide schools with the resources they need to fund safe reopening plans," said Weingarten. "Here in Florida, the governor has a constitutional obligation to make schools safe, and he's failed."

"If he won't look out for students' and teachers' best interests, we will," she said.

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