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Florida Constitution Guarantees a “Safe” and “Secure” Public Education – Judges Ruling On-Tap

Photo: National Cancer  Institute/Unsplash

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Leon County Judge Charles Dodson will be spending his weekend reviewing plans from Florida’s largest teachers union and state attorneys on how they would keep reopened schools safe.

Dodson issued his order after the Florida Education Association (FEA) and the state presented closing arguments in his Tallahassee courtroom Friday, ending a three-day trial that followed Tuesday’s failed attempt at mediation.

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FEA filed a lawsuit alleging Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s order that mandated schools provide the “full panoply of services” in August violated the state constitution’s guarantee of a “safe” and “secure” public education.

That order has been amended to acknowledge only local school boards have the authority to open schools and districts must offer parents options to in-person instruction or the state will withhold funding.

FEA made its case Wednesday, with the state holding the floor Thursday. Dodson concluded Friday’s two-hour closing arguments by ordering both sides submit outlines of what they want to happen in 15 pages or less by 5 p.m.

FEA attorney Billy Wieland said Corcoran’s emergency order that forces schools to reopen or lose funding is unconstitutional and asked Dodson to declare it as such.

“What happens if I do that?” Dodson asked.

“That will return the power to the schools boards to make the decision when it’s safe to open schools,” Wieland said.

“Pouring these kids into (schools) is throwing and packing our most precious human value, packing them into a disease factory,” FEA attorney Kendall Coffey said, noting the Florida Department of Education (DOE) still has not issued guidelines for how districts should handle students and staff who test positive for COVID-19.

School boards “were almost begging the health officials, give me an answer what is safe?” Coffey said.

State attorney David Wells said 1.6 million of the state’s 2.7 K-12 public school students have chosen face-to-face learning. If schools don’t provide their constitutional right to a public education, it would have a “critical impact on 1.6 million student across 67 districts,” he said.

Dodson, at one point, interrupted Wells to ask what options other than reopening classrooms for face-to-face instruction in August districts have.

“None,” Wells said. “Well, let me say (parents) had options” in choosing if they did not want children in classrooms, but districts had no choice but to offer in-person services.

By not doing so, “they would lose their funding, right?” Dodson asked.

“No question,” Wells said. “I’m not dancing around that.”

State attorney Nathan Hill dismissed FEA’s claim that teachers are being forced to quit, retire or leave because of safety.

Fear of COVID-19 is not an “injury” in the eyes of the law, Hill said.

“We appreciate the gravity of this problem, but leaving your chosen profession is not an injury that the court can provide in the law,” he said.

In a Fox News interview Friday afternoon, Corcoran said teachers who don’t show up in classrooms because they fear COVID-19 will be “terminated.”

Although he later acknowledged only school boards can terminate teachers, Corcoran said only a “minimal 1 percent, 2 percent” of teachers have, thus far, said they won’t return to classrooms because they don’t think it’s safe.

“We’ve already opened up over a third of our districts. We have 65 percent of parents and students who have chosen to be face-to-face with their instructors,” he said. “What’s even more enlightening, is 95-100 percent of teachers showed up on that first day. They want to be with their kids. They want to teach. They want have that interaction.”

This piece appeared in the The Center Square and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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