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Statewide Teachers Union Sues DOE Over Its School Reopen Mandate

The front windshield of a bright yellow school bus fills the frame of this photo.
Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash

Statewide teachers union the Florida Education Association is suing the state Department of Education.

The lawsuit challenges the agency’s mandate to school districts that they open brick and mortar campuses in the fall.

Under DOE’s emergency order, in-person instruction must resume along with all services schools usually offer, five days a week. That’s if local or state health departments don’t say otherwise.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran gave the order about two weeks ago – that’s how long it took for the FEA to file a legal challenge. Fedrick Ingram is the union’s president.

“We are advocating for schools to start with distance learning, to protect our communities, our students and our educators,” Ingram said on a conference call Monday. “Once the rate of infection is under control and falling, and we have the resources to safeguard our school families – then and only then should students return to brick and mortar schools.”

In a statement rebutting the FEA lawsuit, Corcoran wrote he thinks the union “hasn’t read nor understands the order.” He argues it doesn’t cover any new ground in terms of directives, as state statute requires schools to operate for a minimum of 180 days per year.

Corcoran also points out the order provides flexibility to districts in allowing them to get funding for students who choose distance learning.

Meanwhile, the union says its suit is all about ensuring safety. On the FEA’s video call announcing the litigation were three teachers who are named plaintiffs. Broward County teacher Stefanie Miller says she became severely ill from the virus.

“So, by the end of March, I caught COVID. 21 days on a ventilator, two months in the hospital,” Miller told reporters.

Ingram added during the call that the union’s concern goes beyond students and teachers, to support staff.

“There is an educational village around us. That’s cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, and paraprofessionals, and security monitors – some of which are at work right now, preparing schools, trying to do the very best they can with very limited funds, with very limited materials, and very limited support. They’re putting their lives on the lines right now,” Ingram said.

The FEA also named Governor Ron DeSantis as a defendant in the suit. At a press conference Monday, DeSantis appeared to distance himself from Corcoran’s decision to put out the order, but is still advocating for campuses going online:

“Well, first of all, I didn’t give any executive order – that was the Department of Education, they have a board, and they do different things. My view is, we’ve got to work together, and I want to work with all the school districts,” the governor responded to a question from media. “Obviously, if you look at the epidemic throughout Florida, it’s more severe in some parts than others, and I think that you should recognize that. But I also think that we’ve got to be guided by the evidence and the data, and make sure that we’re putting the interest of kids first and giving parents the choices that they deserve.”

The statewide teachers union’s complaint alleges reopening schools in the midst of the pandemic is unconstitutional, citing language in the state’s principal document that public schools must be “safe” and “secure.”

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.