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Back-to-school battle: Judge temporarily blocks order requiring Florida schools to reopen, state appeals

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A Florida judge ruled in favor of teachers on Monday in a lawsuit that was filed over the reopening of schools in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Shortly after the decision was handed down, the state filed an appeal.

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson granted a motion on Monday for a temporary injunction against an emergency order signed by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in July. The order said all brick-and-mortar schools throughout the state had to reopen in August and provide full services at least five days a week.

The state’s largest teachers union said in a lawsuit that the order put lives at risk.

The judge’s ruling on Monday struck portions of the reopening order he deemed unconstitutional.

“The judge didn’t order all schools have to be closed. What he said was those parts of the commissioner’s order that conditioned funding upon arbitrarily opening brick and mortar schools before the end of August is unconstitutional,” Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer said.

The Florida Education Association tweeted after the judge made the decision Monday saying, in part, “Districts’ hands will not be tied as we continue the fight to protect students and educators in our public schools.”

Just about two hours after the union declared victory, state officials filed an appeal, which invoked an automatic stay of the judge’s order. It will be up to the union to go to Judge Dobson and ask for it to be lifted.

“We’ve said it all along, and we will say it one million times – we are 100% confident we will win this lawsuit. 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,” Commissioner Corcoran said in a statement.

The teachers union and the state wrapped up their final arguments in court on Friday, after three days and 18 hours of testimony. In court, attorneys for the Florida Education Association pleaded with the judge to keep public schools closed, saying districts were being forced to reopen or lose millions in state funding.

Attorneys for the state argued that the COVID-19 risk is not great enough to keep schools closed.

Corcoran also defended his order while attending an event at the White House earlier this month.

“It does the opposite and cements the point that we’re giving maximum flexibility to teachers, students and parents,” he said.

The state had said reopening decisions were supposed to be made with advice from local health officials. But, throughout the trial, DOH officials repeatedly said they would not advise schools whether it is safe to reopen.

The decision from Judge Dodson came on the same day students in Hillsborough County Public Schools returned to learning virtually. The district had voted to start school with four weeks of distance learning, but the state intervened. The district eventually settled on just one week of learning online.

In the end, the judge agreed that Hillsborough County became the poster child in this case. The union described the state’s treatment of the county as “bullying.”

“The county did everything that it had in its power. It assembled a panel of doctors who unanimously – except for the Department of Health doctor who said that he couldn’t weigh in – said that schools aren’t safe to be open right now,” said Meyer.

8 On Your Side has reached out to Hillsborough County Public Schools to see if this changes their plans. We are still waiting to hear back.

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