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The judge found that local school officials, not the state, should be able to determine when students and teachers resume in-person classes.
The authority to decide when students should return to school for in-person classes lies with Florida’s local school boards, not the state’s department of education, a judge ruled this week.
In a ruling that would allow school districts fearful of the spread of Covid-19 to delay the reopening of classrooms, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson said it was unconstitutional for the state to strongarm schools into opening their doors by threatening to withhold funding.
“The districts have no meaningful alternative,” Dodson wrote in a 17-page opinion. “If an individual school district chooses safety, that is, delaying the start of schools until it individually determines it is safe to do so for its county, it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Department of Education had pushed schools to reopen this fall, with the state’s education commissioner issuing an emergency order mandating all “brick-and-mortar schools” reopen for in-person instruction at least five days a week by August 31. When Hillsborough County Public Schools balked, the governor threatened to withhold up to $200 million in state aid.
The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit challenging the order. On Monday, Dodson approved a temporary injunction that blocks the order from taking effect.
“Schools should reopen when the local decision-makers determine upon advice of medical experts, that it is safe to do so,” he wrote.
But the education department quickly filed an appeal that pauses the judge’s order unless either the circuit court or an appellate court overrules it.
“This fight has been, and will continue to be, about giving every parent, every teacher and every student a choice, regardless of what educational option they choose,” said Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in a statement. “If you are one of the 1.6 million students who have chosen to return to the classroom, a parent, or a classroom teacher that wanted to educate their student in person, we strongly encourage you to call the Florida Education Association and tell them to drop this frivolous lawsuit.”
The FEA said Tuesday that it will fight the appeal and plans to ask the judge to reinstate his order.
“Local communities should have the freedom to make the best decisions for reopening or keeping open local schools,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram. “Our districts should not be ruled by reckless edicts from on high. Safety must come before politics.”
A similar legal battle is also playing out in Iowa.
The Iowa City Community School District and Iowa State Education Association sued Gov. Kim Reynolds, challenging the legality of her mandate that all schools provide at least 50% in-person instruction this year. A hearing is expected next week in the case.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.