The nation’s second largest teachers union and its local affiliate filed a lawsuit Monday against Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to block his administration from reopening the state’s schools next month.
The lawsuit filed by the American Federation of Teachers and its local affiliate, the Florida Education Association (FEA), accuses the DeSantis’ administration of violating Florida’s constitutional requirement for “safe” and “secure” public education by ordering the “reckless and unsafe reopening” of public school campuses for face-to-face instruction in August despite the state’s rising coronavirus cases. The suit argues that the order would put students and school employees at risk, as well as accelerate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Governor DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram. “The governor needs to accept the reality of the situation here in Florida, where the virus is surging out of control.”
“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,” Ingram added. “Florida’s Constitution demands that public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard.”
The lawsuit, filed in state Circuit Court in Miami, calls on the court to block the administration’s order and give control to local school superintendents and health departments to decide when schools can be reopened. The suit names as defendants the governor, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
In a press conference on Monday, DeSantis distanced himself from the emergency order issued by the Florida Department of Education regarding school reopening.
“I didn’t give any executive order. That was the Department of Education,” DeSantis said. “Obviously, if you look at the epidemic, it’s more severe in some parts than others, and I think you should recognize that.”
DeSantis said parents should be given a choice as to what is the best option for their children, whether virtual-learning, in-class schooling, or a combination of the two. Schools also need to make health accommodations for employees too if they are high risk, the governor said.
“Parents need to choose the best environment for their students, their kids,” DeSantis said. “If a teacher doesn’t feel comfortable there … I think they should be given as many options as possible.”
The Florida Department of Education’s spokesperson Taryn Fenske called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “reckless” in an email statement to The Hill.
“Clearly the FEA hasn’t read nor understands the Florida Department of Education’s guidance, the Emergency Order, or Florida law,” Fenske stated, noting that the order “did not order any new directives regarding the requirements of schools to be open, it simply created new innovative options for families to have the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their student and family.”
“Additionally, the order created guaranteed funding for districts and schools to educate innovatively, as long as they continue to provide all students, especially at-risk students, with a world-class education, no matter what option they choose,” she said.
The teachers unions’ lawsuit came on the same day that Florida reported over 10,000 new coronavirus cases for the sixth consecutive day. It was the twelfth day since the Fourth of July that the state has topped that threshold.
The state’s Department of Health reported 10,347 new cases and 90 deaths on Monday, bringing the state’s totals for the entire pandemic to more than 360,000 cases and over 5,100 deaths.
The new reported deaths brings Florida’s seven-day average to about 114 per day. Its overall deaths rank 25th in the nation per capita, or about 7 times less than highest-ranked New Jersey.
Hospitalizations for the virus continued to increase, standing at 9,452 statewide in the late morning Monday — up about 160 from the day before. Though the increase has slowed when compared to about a week ago, those additional patients have been straining intensive care units of some hospitals in the South Florida, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville areas. Statewide, 18 percent of ICU beds were available.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.