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Capital Report: This Week's Recap Of The Legal Battle Over Reopening Brick-And-Mortar Schools

Three School buses parked next to each other in front of a building.
Robbie Gaffney
K-12 students in Taylor County returned to classes on August 24.

The legal battle over reopening Florida’s brick-and-mortar schools has been a rollercoaster. Here’s what’s transpired in the case over the last several days and what comes next as more districts prepare to start the 2020-2021 school year:

Statewide teachers union, the Florida Education Association brought the suit against the state Department of Education and Governor Ron DeSantis. The union claims the order to reopen campuses by the end of August is unconstitutional.

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson agreed. In his written ruling he said, the state “essentially ignored the requirement of school safety by requiring the statewide opening of brick-and-mortar schools to receive already allocated funding.”

The state’s order would withhold funding from districts that don’t open campuses by the end of August.

Dodson also says the state didn’t provide district school boards with local control over the decision. Kendall Coffey, an attorney for the FEA, says Dodson’s ruling gives that local control back.

“The opening decision is now in the hands of the school districts, and if in fact the school districts determine, based on their data, as we described, getting the best available local medical expertise on local conditions,” Coffey said.

Fedrick Ingram, the teachers union’s president, heralded Dodson’s decision as a victory for educators, families and school support staff. He urged the state not to appeal:

“Mr. Corcoran, Mr. DeSantis, do not spend taxpayers’ money trying to appeal this case. We’re asking you – lets work together, let’s be guided by science,” Ingram said on a press call earlier this week. “This is not a win where we go and hang our head and beat our chest. People are dying in our state. It is out of control that we do not have this virus under wraps.”

But, little over two hours after the ruling came down, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced the state’s legal team would file an appeal – a promise they made good on. That triggered an automatic stay of Dodson’s ruling – meaning school districts were still under the reopen order as long as the stay was in place.

In Leon County, home to the court where the lawsuit was heard, superintendent of schools Rocky Hanna knew that meant the district would have to go forward with in-person instruction.

“So, we’re starting school as planned on Monday,” Hanna said on a conference call.

Louis Virelli, a professor of constitutional law at Stetson University, says stays are commonly applied in high profile cases on appeal.

“When that appellate court makes a decision, if it is different than the decision the trial court made, then whatever the trial court put into effect will have to be reversed. So, if the teachers are in the classroom they can be brought out, or vice versa,” Virelli explained. “In a situation like that, the appellate court often stays the trial court decision in order to keep the status quo in place, so we avoid lurching back and forth between all these dramatic changes, while we’re waiting for the final decision on appeal.”

Judge Dodson shocked many who have been following the case by lifting the automatic stay. In his order on the matter, Dodson wrote: “Potential irreparable injury will be suffered by hundreds of thousands of school children, many teachers, and the community at large if the temporary injunction order is stayed.”

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran responded to Dodson vacating the stay in a statement saying the Department will not stop fighting” in the courts.

And Governor Ron DeSantis echoed that sentiment saying he’s still confident the state will win.

“Every Superintendent I've talked to said that the going back the first day was one of the best days they can remember in their career because people,” DeSantis said in Tampa this week. “Look, When you're out and you haven't seen your friends and stuff to be able to get back. A lot of students were happy and I know a lot of parents have been happy to have that choice.”

Now, the state is appealing Dodson’s decision to vacate the stay in the First District Court of Appeals. The News Service of Florida is reporting Friday that the state is pushing for the case to go up to the state Supreme Court.

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.