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Hearing underway in Florida school reopening lawsuit

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A hearing is underway Wednesday in Florida’s largest teacher union’s lawsuit against the Department of Education aimed at keeping schools closed.

The Florida Education Association is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Department of Education, and Commissioner Richard Corcoran after they ordered schools to open for in-person learning by the end of the month. The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the order, claiming that it violates a constitutional requirement for safe and secure schools.

The state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but a judge denied the motion last week.

Hillsborough County School Board member Tamara Shamburger was the first witness called to testify on Wednesday.

Shamburger told the judge she was told by a panel of medical experts that to safely reopen schools, the positivity rate would have to be at 5%. When she asked if schools should reopen on Aug. 24, she said five of the seven experts said no, one said yes if the numbers continue to decrease as expected, and “there was one abstention.”

Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis wanted to start the school year with four weeks of virtual learning.

Shamburger said that after the district revised its reopening plans, she “received a surprise the state had rejected that plan, a plan that was based on medical advice.”

“We immediately went [back to the] drawing board. I felt like I was stuck between a rock and hard place being forced to chose the life of a student versus the funding of the state,” Shamburger said. “To have Tallahassee really strangle my authority and my rights as an elected board member was concerning. Now, against medical advice, we are going to be putting our teachers and students in harm’s way.”

The district settled on one week of virtual learning to compromise with the Department of Education.

Teacher James Lis gave a tearful testimony, telling a judge he would be forced to retire if he can’t teach virtually because he helps care for his mother-in-law who is 81.

“I do have concern for my own health, but my primary concern is bringing the virus home and infecting my mother-in-law,” he said. “If there is no change tomorrow, I am going to have to explain class by class to my students that I can’t return. And no, I’m not going. I have chosen my kids, my students over so many difficult things, but I can’t put my family at risk.”

Among the others testifying at the hearing are FEA president Fedrick C. Ingram and a quadriplegic teacher, according to Orlando attorney Jacob Stuart.

“He is going to have to talk to you about risking his life,” Stuart said.

“This case is not about teachers or educators who don’t want to go to work and don’t want to be with students, teachers love going to class. But, of course, they don’t want to do it that will jeopardize their safety,” said Kendall Coffey, an attorney who represents the FEA.

In Florida, there have been more than 23,221 COVID-19 cases in kids between the ages of 5 to 14, with 196 of those requiring hospitalization. There have been 85,815 cases among those in the 15-24 age range, 887 of which required hospitalization.

In-person classes have already begun in Manatee, Highlands and Hardee counties. Students in Citrus County will return to class Thursday while students in Pinellas, Polk and Pasco counties will return on Aug. 24. In-person classes for Sarasota and Hernando County students will begin on Aug. 31.

In Hillsborough County, there is concern about a medical exemption form that appears to let students opt-out of a requirement having them wear face masks.

“We can’t have kids in my classroom, exemption or not, not wearing a mask. If they say that I have to, I will be one of those teachers that will be forced to take an unpaid leave of absence,” said Sonya Hanks, who has been a middle school teacher in Hillsborough County for six years.

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