As COVID-19 caseload mounts, DeSantis sued by teachers over school reopening plan
TALLAHASSEE — Florida reached its sixth straight day of 10,000-plus new coronavirus cases Monday as the state’s largest teachers union sued the Gov. Ron DeSantis administration over plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction next month.
The state added 10,347 new COVID-19 cases overnight, bringing Florida’s total cases to 360,394 to date. Another 90 deaths occurred, with 5,072 Florida people now lost to the disease in the state.
While the number of coronavirus tests fell to 78,993, the lowest level in almost a week, the rate of positivity rose to 14.7%, its highest mark since July 13. DeSantis had been pointing to the lower levels as a sign that community spread was easing in some parts of Florida.
In its lawsuit filed in Miami state circuit court, the Florida Education Association said the school reopening order violates the Florida Constitution, which requires that a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system” of public schools exist.
FEA President Fedrick Ingram cited Monday’s case numbers and deaths as the “backdrop,” for the union’s action.
“No one wants to be back in a classroom and reopen our school buildings more than educators,” Ingram said. “We are teachers..that’s what we live for...But we want to do it safely and we don’t want to put people at risk.”
Joining the FEA in the lawsuit are several teachers, along with the NAACP state chapter and its national organization. Defendants are DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
The union says that decisions about the reopening of schools — whether in-person, online or a hybrid system — should be made at the local level. But there seemed to be little support among union leaders for any county moving forward with bringing students back to campus while Florida’s coronavirus numbers continue to surge.
Ingram said that a survey of FEA members found that 90% were opposed to any plan that involved opening traditional schools five days a week. He also said that 39% of teachers are considering leaving the profession this year, if their only option is returning to the school campus.
Educators said schools should do what’s best for their own communities, rather than follow DeSantis and Corcoran who they said appeared intent on meeting the goals of President Donald Trump and Education Commissioner Betsy DeVos, who want states to reopen tradition schools this fall.
“It might look very different in a community, depending on the infection rate in that community,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, who joined state officials on a call to discuss the lawsuit.
“But this order that just mimics Betsy DeVos and a federal edict that we will open all schools, all day, all week, students sitting shoulder-to-shoulder no matter what doctors say. That’s asking us to sacrifice our students and their families and our educators and their families,” she added.
DeSantis has been trying to walk back much of the order’s strictest return to the classroom language since it was issued two weeks ago.
On Monday, at an appearance in Orlando, DeSantis was heckled by several protesters who yelled, “You’re lying to the public,” when it came to his daily updates on how the state was dealing with the virus.
The governor, though, again tried to distance himself from the back-to-school order, pointing out, “I didn’t do an executive order. That was the Department of Education.”
He also said that for parents and students “choice is paramount” when it comes to the type of classroom that will reopen next month.
“Our guiding principles have been, Number 1, that ultimately parents need to be free to choose the best environment for their student, their kids,” DeSantis said. “That means if they prefer distance learning because they’re not comfortable with having kids in school, then that’s their decision as a parent.
“If people want a hybrid, (districts) can offer hybrid. And, obviously, those parents that believe kids need to be in school, we want to provide them with an option to do that as well,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis last week acknowledged that the state hadn’t moved forward with any kind of protocols for on-campus testing, isolating of students and teachers who test positive for the virus, or how to manage the possibility of quarantining an entire classroom or school.
But on Monday, the governor repeated that there were liabilities to online learning for many students.
“We don’t want folks to fall behind and we really want to focus on the best interest of our students and giving our parents the maximum amount of choices to make the best decision they can,” DeSantis said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, were plaintiffs but they are the defendants.