TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The debate over reopening schools is coming to a head in the state of Florida.
The largest teachers' union in the state, the Florida Education Association (FEA), is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education over the emergency order issued in July mandating all schools open their doors by the end of August.
Attorneys with the FEA are arguing the executive order violates the Florida Constitution because they say it does not promote a "safe" and "secure" school system due to the coronavirus pandemic. The suit seeks to allow local districts to make the best and safest decisions on reopening physical campuses, without the threat of funds being withheld by the state
Attorneys representing the defendants, including DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, argue that 1.6 million Florida students have asked to return to in-person learning and the Florida Constitution requires school districts offer that option.
They say the emergency order actually offered a benefit to districts rather than a threat because, in the state of Florida, districts get a certain amount of funding per every student who attends traditional in-person learning. For students who attend through a county or state virtual school, the district gets significantly less.
The emergency order secured in-person funds for the anticipated large number of students who would now elect online learning due to the unprecedented pandemic.
Union attorneys see it differently because the funds are only guaranteed if districts open all their schools for the students who want to attend in-person learning calling it "financial bullying" from the state.
Hillsborough County has been the poster child of this lawsuit.
The FEA attorneys called on Hillsborough School Board member Tamara Shamburger during the hearing to detail the advice she was given by medical experts at that Aug. 6 special meeting where the Hillsborough school board voted to start school in an online format for the first four weeks.
Shamburger then explained how the state rejected their amended plan on Aug. 7, ultimately forcing the district to open its doors by Aug. 31 despite mediation efforts by the Hillsborough Superintendent.
Last week, Superintendent Addison Davis announced the district was at risk of losing more than $200 million if it didn't open schools by the end of the month.
However, attorneys with the defendants put a teacher from Hillsborough County on the stand who advocated for in-person learning for her special education students.
The teacher explained that her students would often get distracted and couldn't get through more than a 15-minute lesson. She also testified that she feels comfortable and safe to return to in-person learning.
Another focus of the hearing is wording in the executive order:
"Absent these directives, the day-to-day decision to open or close a school must always rest locally with the board..."
Union attorneys say the state is silencing Department of Health directors from offering recommendations on reopening schools.
In the case of Hillsborough County, all but one of the medical experts on their panel at the special board meeting on Aug. 6 recommended the district hold off from opening their physical school buildings until coronavirus transmission rates dropped. Dr. Douglas Holt, the Director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, refused to offer a recommendation to the board.
Closing arguments wrapped up Friday afternoon. Circuit Judge Charles Dodson is expected to deliver a ruling next week.