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'Victory for Students and Educators': Judge Blocks Florida School Reopening Order

"Judge Dodson saw Florida's unconstitutional executive order for what it was—a cynical edict that put fealty to President Trump over the wellbeing of children and educators."

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.

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 unions on Monday welcomed "a victory for students and educators" in Florida after a judge temporarily blocked the state's order that schools open for in-person instruction five days a week in August or risk losing funding.

"Huge!!" tweeted American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in response to the ruling.

Judge Charles Dodson of Leon County Circuit Court wrote in his ruling that the "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."

"Because defendants cannot constitutionally directly force schools statewide to reopen without regard to safety during a global pandemic, they cannot do it indirectly by threatening loss of funding through the order," wrote Dodson, adding that "what has been clearly established is... opening schools will most likely increase Covid-19 cases in Florida."

Dodson called the order's allowance that opening decisions be up to local school boards, subject to local health officials' guidance, "essentially meaningless" because "plaintiffs presented convincing evidence that state health officials were instructed not to provide an opinion on the reopening of schools."

The decision comes as new coronavirus cases in the state appear to be trending downward. Florida health officials on Monday put the state's total cases at 602,829 and the death toll at over 10,000. And, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Florida has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the nation after California.

The ruling stems from two lawsuits filed last month. One filed by the Florida Education Association (FEA) sought to block the order from Gov. Ron DeSantis and his education officials, charging that state officials "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." The NAACP and the NAACP Florida State Conference (NAACP-FL)  later joined that lawsuit as plaintiffs. Another filing came from a mother and teachers in Orange County.

In a statement welcoming the temporary injunction, FEA said that "districts' hands will not be tied as our lawsuit moves forward to examine the order's constitutionality."

"We appreciate that Judge Dodson acknowledged the crucial importance of protecting the health and wellbeing of kids and school employees," FEA President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement criticizing defendants Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, both Republicans.

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"Commissioner Corcoran appears more focused on threatening teachers and districts," said Ingram.

According to National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, Dodson's decision "is a victory for students and educators from being forced into unsafe school buildings. Our number one priority is and has always been the health and safety of students, educators, and their families."

Both Eskelsen García and AFT's Weingarten put the ruling in the context of the Trump administration, as both the president and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have pushed for brick-and-mortar school reopenings without safety protocols in place.

"Judge Dodson saw Florida's unconstitutional executive order for what it was—a cynical edict that put fealty to President Trump over the wellbeing of children and educators," said Weingarten.

She called it "almost incomprehensible that educators had to go to court to force Governor DeSantis and his education commissioner to comply with the constitution and start caring about the people they're sworn to serve."

Eskelsen García, in her statement, added: "Across the country, schools are struggling to physically reopen safely because of the Trump administration's failed response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their lack of leadership—and kicking the can down to governors to implement an ad hoc patchwork—has created chaos, uncertainty and, frankly, cost lives."

"Gov. Ron DeSantis, like Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, has shown he has no plan to solve the real issues facing public schools during a pandemic, and the rhetoric out of his administration is appallingly reckless," said Eskelsen García.

The Florida Department of Education has already announced it's appealing the decision.

If the court issues a stay, warned Weingarten, "then Gov. DeSantis will be responsible for the mounting toll on the community of his arbitrary and capricious agenda."

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