After 6 months of sparring, state teacher union drops lawsuit over reopening FL schools during COVID

By: - January 13, 2021 7:00 am
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Classroom. Credit: Pixabay.

Six months ago, educators and families were trying to figure out where kids would be going to school and how they would be learning — at home or in a traditional classroom — as the COVID-19 pandemic continued.

In the state capital, things were getting messy, as Florida’s Education Commissioner signed an emergency order over the reopening of schools that caused consternation and led to a lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association.

As it turned out, the lawsuit fizzled out, with the FEA filing a “notice of voluntary dismissal.”

Six months have passed since the initial emergency order. Florida students are into their second semester of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, either through in-person instruction, online learning platforms, or a mixture of both.

“The issues at stake in the lawsuit are still extremely important for students, educators and our communities… But we are no longer pursuing those goals in court,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in a written statement to the Phoenix.

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a defendant in the case along with Gov. Ron DeSantis, has been pushing for full parental choice in how their children will learn during the pandemic. He is pleased with the news of the voluntary dismissal.

“We are thrilled to hear that the FEA voluntary dismissed their meritless lawsuit challenging the reopening of schools,” Corcoran said in a written response to the Phoenix. “This action creates a fresh opportunity for all education stakeholders to refocus their efforts on ensuring that every child in Florida has access to a world class education.”

The FEA originally filed the lawsuit on July 20, challenging Corcoran’s emergency order, which mandated that “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students” even during COVID 19.

The backlash over that order was significant because the state Education Commissioner was exerting power over local school boards that usually make their own decisions. At the time, some districts didn’t think schools should be open.

The FEA’s initial concern was that forcing school districts to reopen during the pandemic conflicted with the Florida Constitution’s language about students participating in a “safe, secure” free public school system. In addition, the FEA believed the emergency order overstepped the constitutional authority of local school boards to “operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district…”

The initial lawsuit had significant relevance to the Florida Constitution, the Phoenix previously reported.

The original emergency order has been updated and revised for the 2021 spring semester, keeping most of its original intentions intact: Provide parental choice on how students learn during the COVID-19 pandemic by mandating an in-person option and allowing for other types of instruction such as online learning.

The FEA and other plaintiffs filed a notice of voluntary dismissal on Dec 23, and the statewide teachers union is moving on from the case.

The Phoenix reached out to two attorneys representing the FEA and other plaintiffs for further context on how the voluntary dismissal affects the case. One said they were not in a position to comment on the case, and the other has not yet responded.

Lewis Wilson Murphy Jr., a civil lawyer in Miami who serves as chair-elect on the Trial Lawyers Section of the Florida Bar, explained in a conversation with the Phoenix what a notice of voluntary dismissal means for a case. The conversation with Murphy did not discuss the specifics of the FEA case.

“[Notice of Voluntary Dismissal] usually marks the conclusion of a particular lawsuit,” Murphy told the Phoenix, “and it can be done for a number of reasons.”

A notice of voluntary dismissal that does not indicate that it was filed “with prejudice” means that the case could be refiled again, according to Murphy.

But while this is the case for the FEA lawsuit and it, hypothetically, could be refiled at a different date, the FEA plans to focus on other initiatives.

“We still want local districts to be allowed to make decisions for their own schools,” said Spar. “But we are no longer pursuing those goals in court. We’re looking ahead toward what will move the needle for public education in 2021 — what will most improve the lives of our students and educators, PreK-12 through higher education.”

A follow-up email from an FEA spokesperson explained that such initiatives include pushing paid leave for COVID-related absences and for teachers to have access to the COVID-19 vaccines.

The conclusion of the lawsuit leaves a question hanging: If an emergency order and the Florida Constitution are in conflict, who has authority over whether schools should be open during the COVID-19 pandemic — the state or the local school districts?

At this point, the answer is unclear.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.