Two days of testimony wrapped up Thursday in a closely watched challenge to a statewide mandate that Florida schools reopen in August, with witnesses for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran saying it is critical that children return to classrooms as soon as possible.
Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson is slated to issue a decision early next week in lawsuits filed by teachers unions challenging Corcoran’s July 6 order requiring schools to resume in-person instruction this month amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Florida Education Association and the union representing Orange County teachers are alleging that the order violates the state Constitution, which guarantees a right to “safe” and “secure” public education. The NAACP recently joined as a plaintiff in the lawsuits, which were consolidated by Dodson.
The unions maintain that teachers and other school employees are choosing to retire early and lose benefits or quit rather than risk being exposed to the highly contagious coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. Schools risk losing funding if they don’t comply with the mandate.
DeSantis and Corcoran have staunchly argued that parents need to be able to choose whether to send children back to classrooms for face-to-face instruction or to have them continue learning remotely. Schools statewide were shuttered as the virus began to spread throughout Florida in March.
As it defended Corcoran’s order in court Thursday, the state relied on Florida’s public-schools chancellor, a special-needs teacher, parents whose children attend charter schools and a Stanford University health economist, who said research shows it’s safe for children and adults to be back in classrooms.
David Wells, a lawyer who represents the state, asked Jacob Oliva, the chancellor of the K-12 school system, why the emergency order required schools to open in August.
“One, we’ve got parents that are asking for this and almost demanding this of us. Two, we know that distance learning may not have worked for everyone,” Oliva said.
Schools provide an environment where parents, students and others go to “stay connected,” Oliva said, and are the “hub” of communities.
“Schools do more than just educate students,” he said.
More than two dozen school districts have reopened, and about 150,000 children had returned to classrooms as of Thursday, Oliva said. Schools in additional counties will reopen next week.
Attending school is critical for vulnerable children whose families are poor, who have learning disabilities or who don’t speak English, Oliva added. Keeping schools shuttered would have a far-reaching negative effect, he said
“If we’re not able to open schools and provide that safety network, it could have devastating impacts on the local community and their needs,” Oliva said.
Corcoran’s order requires schools to reopen by Aug. 31, unless state and local health officials say otherwise. But health officials have refused to weigh in on whether children should return to campuses.
School districts that don’t comply with the mandate risk losing state funding, which is based on an October survey of the number of students in classrooms. Another survey takes place in February.
Florida Education Association lawyer Kendall Coffey told Oliva that Corcoran could have waived the funding requirement statewide, as he did for COVID-19 hotspots in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Districts “are threatened with a large financial penalty if they don’t do it your way,” Coffey observed.
Oliva, however, said the emergency order came at the request of “school leaders and finance directors,” who were concerned about a potential fiscal hit if students’ families opt to keep them at home this fall.
“We have families who also have a part in this reopening plan, that know that distance learning was not the best fit for their child,” Oliva said. “We have an obligation to provide a conducive learning environment to support those students and families.”
The state’s witnesses emphasized that children with disabilities require in-person instruction, pupils from poor families need free meals provided at school, and students need the emotional support they get from teachers and being around their peers.
Jay Bhattacharya, director of the Stanford Center for Demography and Economics of Health and Aging, said the health risks for children returning to school are almost nil.
“Kids do not pass the disease on to adults at any appreciable rate,” the professor said. “The risk that kids pose to adults is very, very small, even if they’re positive.”
Studies from around the world show that school starts and shutdowns have “very little effect” on community spread of the disease, Bhattacharya said.
“For a whole host of reasons, it’s better to have kids in school than not,” the Stanford professor stressed.
Hillsborough County teacher Lindsey Arthur said the district’s online learning system doesn’t work for her developmentally disabled students, who require the one-on-one attention they receive in the classroom.
“They’re amazing and they’re wonderful, but they need that support. They need to be with their teacher, with their paraprofessionals, with their friends, to grow and learn. And it’s simply not possible during our eLearning experience at all,” she said.
Remote learning also is problematic for Laura Pope’s 16-year-old son Christopher, who has autism, the Palm Beach County mother said. Her son doesn’t understand why he’s doing schoolwork at home, she said.
Pope dropped online learning earlier this year because it frustrated her son and “he would throw the iPad and then become self-injurious or aggressive toward me,” she said.
“So it didn’t work out so well,” she added.
Pope said her son, who attends a charter school, would not resume distance learning when classes start after the summer break.
“I can’t be part of doing any more damage to my son’s mental well-being at this point. And my own,” she said.
Distance learning was troublesome for Jennifer Tribble’s two sons, who are both under age 10, the Orlando mother said. The coursework was too easy for one of her sons, who is gifted. Her other son “really regressed” with his reading progression, Tribble said.
“I don’t want to call myself a failure, but if I ever failed at anything it’s been this shutdown and trying to manage everything,” she added.
The state’s defense Thursday focused on children, while the plaintiffs during testimony Wednesday spotlighted the potential dangers for teachers and other school employees.
Lawyers for the Orange County union wanted Dodson to stop schools in the Central Florida county from opening Friday as planned. But the judge denied the request.
Lawyers will give closing arguments in the case at noon on Friday, and Dodson said he expects to issue a ruling early next week.
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