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Appeals Court Refuses To Revisit Florida School Reopening Ruling

Miami Dade schools.jpeg
Jose Iglesias/Miami Herald
First graders at Redland Elementary in Homestead are led into the classroom by their teacher after being dropped off by their parents on Oct. 5. It was the first day of Miami-Dade County Public Schools opened for in-person classes since the onset of the pandemic.

TALLAHASSEE --- An appeals court Monday refused to reconsider a decision that backed Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in a legal battle about the state’s push this summer to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 1st District Court of Appeal, with no explanation, issued two orders that denied motions by the Florida Education Association teachers union and other plaintiffs for a rehearing in the case. The plaintiffs in October asked for a rehearing before a three-judge panel or by the full appeals court, a request known as seeking an “en banc” hearing.

The Tallahassee-based appeals court posted the orders online Monday afternoon, shortly after DeSantis and Corcoran held a news conference in Osceola County announcing plans for the second half of the school year. As with the first half of the year, students will be able to attend classes in person or choose online instruction.

The legal fight stemmed from a July order issued by Corcoran that was aimed at reopening schools, which were shuttered in March after the coronavirus hit the state. The plaintiffs contended that Corcoran’s July order violated a constitutional guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public education, with the union concerned, at least in part, about teachers and other staff members being exposed to COVID-19.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson agreed with the plaintiffs and issued a temporary injunction in August. But the panel of the appeals court on Oct. 9 flatly rejected Dodson’s ruling, saying that nothing in Corcoran’s order “requires any teacher or any student to return to the classroom.” The panel said Corcoran’s order gave school districts discretion about how to handle the situation.

A key issue in the legal fight involved part of Corcoran’s order that dealt with the way public schools are funded. The order effectively conditioned a portion of money on school districts submitting reopening plans that included the use of brick-and-mortar classrooms, in addition to offering online alternatives.

In his Aug. 24 ruling that granted a temporary injunction, Dodson said the order left school districts with “no meaningful alternative” about reopening classrooms.

But the panel of the appeals court overturned Dodson’s ruling on a series of grounds. It said, in part, the plaintiffs lacked legal standing and were asking courts to decide “non-justiciable political questions.” Also the panel said the plaintiffs’ arguments would require courts to violate the constitutional separation of powers.

In requesting a rehearing, however, attorneys for the plaintiffs said the panel had accepted “all of the state’s arguments --- despite the trial court’s factual findings, supported by clear evidence, establishing that the state had abused its powers in a way that was harmful to Floridians.”

DeSantis and Corcoran have argued for months that parents and students should have a choice about returning to classrooms amid the pandemic and that many children suffer educationally when they learn online.

“I would say that closing schools due to coronavirus is probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history,” DeSantis said during the news conference Monday in Osceola County.

Jim Saunders / News Service of Florida