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FEA files lawsuit to protect health and well-being of students, educators and communities

Along with educators and parents, the Florida Education Association (FEA) filed suit Monday against Gov. Ron DeSantis, Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida State Board of Education and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez to safeguard the health and welfare of public school students, educators and the community at large. The lawsuit intends to stop the reckless and unsafe reopening of public school campuses as coronavirus infections surge statewide.

“Gov. DeSantis needs a reality check, and we are attempting to provide one,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram. “The governor needs to accept the reality of the situation here in Florida, where the virus is surging out of control. He needs to accept the evolving science. It now appears that kids 10 and older may pass along the coronavirus as easily as adults. Everyone wants schools to reopen, but we don’t want to begin in-person teaching, face an explosion of cases and sickness, then be forced to return to distance learning. Florida’s Constitution demands that public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard.” 

Frequently Asked Questions About FEA’s Lawsuit

1. What is this lawsuit all about?

FEA brought this lawsuit on behalf of 147,000 educators across the state to protect the health, safety, and lives of our students, teachers, education staff professionals, parents, and communities. Florida is tragically the new international epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit seeks to give local school districts the discretion to reopen physical school sites when it is safe to do so, and to ensure a safe reopening when the time is right. We cannot allow our students, educators, and their families to be put in harm’s way.

By requiring all brick and mortar schools to reopen in just a few weeks no matter the cost and level of preparedness, Governor DeSantis, Commissioner Corcoran, and the State Board of Education are threatening the health and safety of all Florida residents. The state’s directive does not allow for adequate planning and does nothing to ensure that the necessary safety protocols will be in place when schools open. Learning should continue through online instruction until it is safe to return to the classroom and elected officials must comply with appropriate public health official guidelines every step of the way.

2. Who are the parties?

FEA is joined by individual parents and educators as plaintiffs in this suit and in the fight to protect our students and employees in all Florida school districts. The defendants are Governor Ron DeSantis, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, the Florida Board of Education, the Florida Department of Education, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

3. What is the remedy we are asking for?

We are seeking a declaration from the court that the governor, commissioner, and mayor’s actions violate the Florida Constitution, including its mandate to provide a safe, secure, and high-quality system of public education.

We are asking the court for the following injunctive relief:

  • An order directing the governor, commissioner, and mayor from unnecessarily and unconstitutionally forcing millions of public-school students and employees to report to unsafe brick and mortar schools that should remain physically closed during the resurgence of COVID-19 in Florida.
  • An order requiring that, before the physical reopening of brick and mortar schools, each school must have adequate personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies for all employees and students; reduce class sizes to comply with physical distancing requirements; install sufficient hand-sanitizing stations; add plexiglass shields where necessary; increase staffing; increase school clinic capabilities; and take all necessary measures to protect students and staff and minimize COVID-19 transmission.
  • An order requiring defendants to develop and implement an online instruction plan aimed at all children and to make internet connectivity and computer devices available to all students, as many districts have already done, so that they can meaningfully engage in virtual instruction until it is safe to reopen physical school sites.

4. What happens if my district already submitted a plan to reopen schools in August?

Without the successful resolution of this lawsuit, school districts may be forced to alter their reopening plans under the threat of funding loss.

5. When will it go to court?

This will depend on the judge and when the defendants file their responses. Our lawyers are exploring every option for quick and meaningful relief.

6. If not in August, when will schools physically open?

We had hoped school districts would be able to begin the school year on time through remote learning strategies, yet 90% of the districts have now delayed their school start date. The lawsuit demands that brick and mortar schools should only open when school districts determine, in accordance with CDC guidelines and local health authorities, that it is safe.

7. How will I know if schools are opening in August?

Stay in touch with your school district and ask for real-time information. You can also visit our website for the latest updates.

8. Why would the FEA file a lawsuit that might keep educators out of work causing them to lose pay?

Let’s be very clear, the lawsuit is not about keeping schools closed, in fact schools will remain open with distance learning. Instead, it is about ensuring that when they do physically reopen, they meet the constitutional mandate to be “safe” and “secure.” Even before we filed our lawsuit, school districts representing over 1,000,000 students statewide had pushed back their start date – it is Corcoran and DeSantis who are pushing back the start dates by insisting that when schools reopen it must be in brick and mortar campuses. FEA’s lawsuit simply asks for a return of local control to school boards and superintendents to allow them the freedom to decide how and when to open.

9. How can I help?

Let your local and state officials know where you stand. Continue to do your part to stay safe and minimize community spread, practice social distancing and good hygiene.

Summary of FEA’s lawsuit

The Florida Education Association (FEA), along with Broward teacher Stephanie Beth Miller; Ladara Royal, an educator in Orange County; and Mindy Festge, a teacher and parent in Miami-Dade County, brought suit against Governor DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the FDOE, and the Florida Board of Education to safeguard the health and welfare of public school students and educators and the community at large.

In the middle of the resurgence of COVID-19 in Florida, this case alleges:

  1. COUNT I: Seeks a declaration from the court that the Governor, Commissioner, FLDOE, and Board of Education’s (the State Defendants) actions and inactions are unconstitutional. Article IX, Section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution requires the adequate provision for a safe and secure public-school system that allows students to obtain a high-quality education. The state’s emergency order requiring all brick and mortar schools to open at least five days a week starting in August is patently unsafe—it disregards the health and safety of millions of students and educators across the state and propagates the spread of the virus in our communities.
  2. COUNT II: Seeks a declaration from the court that the State Defendants are putting arbitrary and capricious demands on public schools. The unfunded Emergency Order is unreasonable, confusing, and inconsistent. Although, pursuant to the order, the requirement to physically reopen all schools in the next weeks is subject to the advice of local health authorities, the state has been silencing local health departments that caution the public about reopening schools amid a resurgence of this deadly virus. Defendants are not basing their decisions on how and when to reopen schools on science and data.
  3. COUNT III: Seeks and order from court enjoining the State Defendants (as well as Mayor of Miami-Dade County Carlos Gimenez) from forcing millions of students and educators to report to unsafe schools that should remain physically closed during the spike of the pandemic; ordering Defendants to implement a meaningful online instruction plan with accessible internet connectivity and computers; ordering that before schools reopen they must have adequate PPE and other supplies, reduced class sizes, social distancing, staffing, and school clinic capabilities in compliance with CDC guidelines and other health authorities.

Media coverage of FEA’s lawsuit

Coverage of the lawsuit has been extensive. Below are just some of the stories on FEA’s push to protect students, employees and communities.

FEA’s Letter to Florida’s Surgeon General

July 16, 2020

Scott A. Rivkees, M.D.
Florida Surgeon General
Florida Department of Health
4052 Bald Cypress Way, Mail Bin A00
Tallahassee, FL 32399

Dear Dr. Rivkees:

On behalf of the Florida Education Association, a union of teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, front office staff and more, we are writing to solicit your expert opinion and firm direction for local health officials and administrators across the state who are tasked with reopening Florida’s schools as set forth in the Florida Department of Education’s emergency order 2020-E0-06.

Teachers, staff and even students will be called on to potentially expose themselves to a life-threatening virus and there are still many questions left unanswered. School districts are being denied written guidance they solicit as directed by the executive order. Our members want to be back in their schools teaching and working with the students. However, they want to make sure that the reopening of schools protects their health and safety and the health and safety of the students.

Frankly, we are asking you to officially state your expert opinion as the state’s top health officer and to provide clear direction to the 67 county health departments under your supervision. This guidance is essential to the clarity needed for local public health officials and school decisionmakers to safely navigating reopening our schools.

At a minimum, these local officials need to know that they can follow your official directive and provide written guidance on questions like:

  • What specific recommendations and parameters should county health department officials use to determine the safest course of action for establishing how to re-open schools for in-person instruction?
  • What statewide minimum standards should be required of students, staff and building facilities for reopening schools? And, could those standards be dropped if they are too onerous to implement or if students or staff are unwilling to comply?
  • What actions should the school take to mitigate exposure and prevent further exposure to the community if a student or staff member is exhibiting symptoms?
  • What role does the local health department officer have in the determination that a classroom, building or campus be closed?

We are closely reading the order, the administrative directives and are familiarizing ourselves with the CDC guidelines. Our communities are counting on us to be there for them and your guidance would go a long way helping to achieve these expectations. We must ensure the health and safety of our students, their families and our public school employees.

Sincerely,

Fedrick Ingram
FEA President

FEA’s Letter to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer

July 21, 2020

Jimmy Patronis
Chief Financial Officer
Florida Department of Financial Services
200 East Gaines Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0301

Dear CFO Patronis,

On July 6th, Richard Corcoran, Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education (Department), issued an emergency order [see DOE ORDER NO. 2020-E0-06] requiring that all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students. We do not argue the soundness of that mandate here nor do we detail the dramatic surge of coronavirus cases in Florida that show no sign of slowing.

The purpose of our letter is to request that state workers’ compensation coverage be extended to all district school employees.  The Commissioner’s emergency order clearly states that education is critical to the success of the State of Florida and to fulfill the requirement when schools open, frontline school employees will be required to have substantial contact with populations known or suspected of carrying COVID-19. 

As you pointed out in your March directive 2020-05, the State Surgeon General and State Health Officer have declared a Public Health Emergency exists in the State of Florida as a result of COVID-19; and we are seeing dramatic numbers of positive cases.  You have been afforded the authority to suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute of that agency, if strict compliance with that statute would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with this emergency.

On behalf of the nearly 150,000 members of the Florida Education Association, and all school district employees, we are requesting, as you did for other frontline workers, that you direct the Division of Risk Management to process Workers’ Compensation claims, as the primary coverage before any district insurance, for any district employees who test positive for COVID-19,  as compensable claims for occupational disease pursuant to Section 112.1815, Florida Statutes, and Chapter 440, Florida Statutes, unless the State of Florida can show, by preponderance of the evidence, that the district employee contracted COVID-19 outside his or her scope of employment.

We fully endorse the sentiment in your March order that these critical employees deserve to know we’ve got their backs if they get sick. Workers’ compensation insurance can cover a portion of lost wages and medical costs so that districts and employees don’t have to worry as much. As you have rightly said, “Providing this important coverage to our men and women on the front line is just the right thing to do.”

We look forward to your favorable and timely response to this request

Sincerely,

Fedrick Ingram
FEA President