A Florida judge on Monday granted a temporary injunction against the state’s order requiring school districts to reopen schools during the novel coronavirus pandemic, saying in a harshly worded decision that safety concerns had been ignored.
Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, in a 16-page decision, granted the request in a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association to block the order issued by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on July 6 compelling schools to reopen five days a week for families who did not want their children to do all-online learning. Districts were threatened with loss of state funding as a consequence of noncompliance.
Dodson said that parts of the order were unconstitutional and that state officials “have essentially ignored the requirement of school safety by requiring the statewide opening of brick-and-mortar schools to receive already allocated funding.” He also said the state had wrongly removed the right of local districts to decide for themselves on safe reopening plans.
The Florida Department of Education said it could not immediately comment on the decision.
The White House said it would not comment on state matters. President Donald Trump has been pushing districts to reopen schools and threatened to withhold federal funds if they do not, though he does not have the power to do that unilaterally.
School districts can now proceed to follow through on starting the 2020-2021 school year as they want, though Corcoran may appeal the decision.
Union leaders hailed the decision as a victory for local school governance and the health of students, but some local education leaders said they wished the ruling had come before school started in dozens of districts.
Orange County school board member Karen Castor Dentel said the ruling “is not going to solve the damage that our commissioner has already inflicted.” Students returned to school campuses in Orange County in the past week.
“We were under threat of losing our funding and forced to develop models that are illogical and not based on what’s best for kids. But we had to go forward with them,” she said. “I wish the ruling came sooner. Not just that our kids are back to school but in the whole planning stages. We were planning another model that was developmentally and educationally sound and we had to scrap that.”
Dodson’s ruling said the state did not take many important health considerations into consideration when it issued the order.
“It fails to mention consideration of community transmission rates, varying ages of students, or proper precautions,” he wrote. “What has been clearly established is there is no easy decision and opening schools will most likely increase covid-19 cases in Florida.”
The judge ruled that the plaintiffs had established that the order was being “applied arbitrarily across Florida.” He sided with the plaintiffs, granting a preliminary injunction against the order and striking down parts of it as unconstitutional.
The administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, has for months been pushing districts to reopen. On July 6, Corcoran issued an order requiring that school districts reopen school buildings, though he gave a few districts in South Florida, which had extremely high coronavirus rates, permission to start the 2020-2021 school year remotely.
Other districts that wanted to start remotely were not given approval, including Hillsborough County, which was threatened by the DeSantis administration with the loss of nearly $200 million if it carried out its plan to open remotely.
The lawsuit said Corcoran’s order was unconstitutional because it threatened the safety of schools by conditioning funding on reopening school buildings by the end of August, regardless of the dangers posed by the pandemic. The lawsuit also said the order was “arbitrary” and “capricious” on its face and application.
The state said the order was a reasonable exercise of emergency powers by the DeSantis administration that balanced the constitutional rights of students to a public education against the risk of harm during the pandemic. It also said states had submitted reopening plans that included the opening of school campuses and that showed the districts wanted to proceed that way.
Dodson did not accept that reasoning, saying districts had no choice but to open buildings because of the order.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the country, said in a statement that “Dodson saw Florida’s unconstitutional executive order for what it was – a cynical edict that put fealty to President Trump over the well-being of children and educators. The judge ruled that decisions about reopening should be made locally, not dictated by the state, either directly or through funding decisions.”
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, said the decision “is a victory for students and educators from being forced into unsafe school buildings.”