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Florida’s Legal Case Around the Back-to-School Debate

Tensions in Florida – and across the country – are at an all-time high among parents as we navigate the back-to-school season. I am a father of two young children and I can personally attest to the confusion around making the complicated decision between virtual learning or an in-person school experience. This dilemma is certainly magnified by the fact that top state officials are also struggling with this controversial question.

On Jul. 6, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran mandated that schools reopen five days a week for families who didn’t want to engage in virtual learning. Commissioner Corcoran threatened to revoke state funding if districts did not comply. Following this decision, teachers, parents, and the Florida Education Association promptly filed a lawsuit.

On Aug. 24, Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson granted an order that temporarily restrains the Florida Department of Education from penalizing any school or district that chooses not to reopen brick-and-mortar options. Dodson deemed the mandate to be “unconstitutional to the extent that it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards’ decision making with respect to reopening brick and mortar schools, and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August” (via NPR).

It’s likely that this will be an ongoing debate following Judge Dodson’s temporary decision. The Florida Department of Education has followed up with an appeal to Dodson’s order. The appeal will automatically stay the impact of the decision, in all likelihood, until after schools have reopened.

The question remains whether the potential consequences of virtual learning outweigh the increased risk of spreading the virus. Across the country, we are seeing schools backtracking on their reopening plan as outbreaks happen within the buildings, and quarantines are issued. Other safety concerns include lack of space to accommodate social distancing, lack of PPE, and the risk associated with staff or children bringing the virus home to a more vulnerable population. On the flip side, for parents of children with special learning needs or low-income families, the need for a brick-and-mortar school is much greater.

This contention will come to a head as officials continue to interpret the Florida Constitution in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications to the health and safety of the greater community.

One particular line in the Jul. 6 state emergency order is under intense scrutiny: “Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar at least five days per week for all students, subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health.”

Adversaries of the state emergency order are contending that it clashes with the Florida Constitution in regards to who’s actually in charge of public schools—the state or the local boards.

Should the decision to reopen rest in the hands of local districts or is it more clear to set a statewide ruling to reopen the physical doors to learning? Only time will tell as we follow the evolution of this case closely.