Florida teachers union believes Hillsborough County is key to victory in reopening lawsuit

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida added more than 4,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday as the state’s teachers union was back in court seeking an injunction to keep in-class learning closed after failing to reach a compromise in court-ordered mediation.

The Florida Education Association is trying to prove that local districts are being forced to either make unsafe reopening decisions or face the threat of losing millions in state funding. The union told the court that state health officials aren’t doing their job to help make safe decisions.

The first witness was Hillsborough County School Board member Tamara Shamburger.

“My understanding of the testimony from the medical experts was that it was simply unsafe to open our school building – or any building, for anyone – at that time,” said Shamburger.

Hillsborough County submitted a plan to reopen schools on Aug. 24 with options available for parents either to send their children back in-person or continue distance learning. The school board later voted to push back in-person learning by a month, starting with four weeks of online school instead.

The state objected that plan one day later. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told us last week the county would loose funding if it delayed.

“They automatically lose the categorical of transportation because they are considered virtual students. They automatically lose class size categorical because they are not in classes,” said Corcoran.

After Shamburger spoke Wednesday, the union called 51-year-old Biology teacher James Lis.

“I do not feel safe, personally,” said Lis.

Lis and his family live with his 81-year-old mother-in-law. He broke down on the stand when asked if he would report to school Friday as ordered.

“I can’t put my family at risk. I can’t put my mother-in-law at risk. And it’s a serious risk, but more so for her. And I would resign,” Lis said.

The reopening order Corcoran issued last month says decisions are supposed to be made with advice from local health officials. But during testimony, Department of Health Chief of Staff Courtney Coppola testified that the department wouldn’t advise schools whether it is safe to reopen.

“You’re not going to say whether or not school districts should be open or reopen, correct?” FEA attorney Kendall Coffey asked.

“Correct,” replied Coppola.

The case will continue Thursday with a quick decision expected from the judge. Nineteen districts are slated to open next week and 10 more on Aug. 31.

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