As the president of the Florida School Boards Association, it is my job and the job of all school board members across the state to help inform their communities on current public education issues.

No issue is more important right now than the safe reopening of Florida’s schools.

That single issue — the safe reopening of our public schools — has in the last month found itself the topic of multiple court cases that wound through two judicial circuits, have been consolidated, and are currently pending in the 1st District Court of Appeals. Most people expect the final case to wind up in Florida’s Supreme Court.

You have probably seen the headlines announcing finding in favor of the Florida Education Association, teachers and parents, an injunction, an appeal, a stay, a motion to vacate the stay, an order vacating the stay, a reinstatement of the stay, and briefs due. Whew.

It is a very complicated and nuanced legal wrangling involving state agencies, the executive branch, judicial processes, school districts, the teachers’ union, and various courts. It is confusing even for those of us involved in the associated systems.

For ease of understanding, this is my attempt to simplify it.

Where did it begin?

On July 6th, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued DOE Order No. 2020-EO-06 (commonly referred to as the Executive Order). In it, the commissioner addressed several issues pertaining to “the health, safety, and welfare of persons connected with Florida’s public schools.”

There is language in the Executive Order which affirmed that schools would start in August. Also, the Executive Order made clear that the districts and charter schools would need to provide brick and mortar schools open five days per week, not just virtual options, and offer the full services required by law.

Districts were required to submit a reopening plan addressing these things and, with an approved plan, districts will receive reporting flexibility that, among other items, provides flexibility for districts to receive full per-student funding.

It is this reporting flexibility that will ensure districts the stable funding they need to continue to provide the full services students and families need. Because the Executive Order does not relieve school districts from opening brick and mortar schools, the status of brick and mortar schools is the crux of the issue.

Status: Executive Order in effect

On July 20, the Florida Education Association, teachers, and parents filed a lawsuit in Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami Dade County (the lower court), alleging a violation of Florida’s Constitution guaranteeing safe schools and that the physical reopening of schools would cause irreparable harm.

The suit seeks to allow brick and mortar schools to remain physically closed during the resurgence of COVID-19, require a plan ensuring all children have internet connectivity and devices, and make sure that before physical reopening of schools, each school has adequate equipment and supplies, ability to comply with distancing requirements, and other protective measures.

While in the Miami Dade lower court, a number of motions and hearings occurred. The eventual outcome was the consolidation of two related cases and an expedited transfer of the consolidated case to the Leon County lower court, determining that a case of statewide impact belonged in Leon County.

On Aug. 19, 20, and 21, the lower court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the matter, with testimony from both sides. On August 24, the judge issued a temporary injunction, ruling that portions of Commissioner Corcoran’s Executive Order were unconstitutional, and struck those portions of the Executive Order. The effect of the injunction stopped the directives set forth in the commissioner’s Executive Order.

Essentially, the judge’s ruling affirmed local school boards as the decision making authority for these important decisions and for the school boards to have the reporting flexibility school districts need. With this ruling, individual school boards could be able to alter opening dates and plans if they determined it was the best decision for their community.

Status: Executive Order no longer in effect

Then what happened?

On the same day as the Judge’s temporary injunction order, the state filed a Notice of Appeal to Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal (DCA, also known as the higher court). Because the issue involves the state, an automatic stay of the lower court’s order occurred. This put aside the lower court’s order and reinstated the Commissioner’s Executive Order.

Status: Executive Order back in effect

On Aug. 25, lawyers for the teachers, parents and now others (NAACP Florida State Conference) officially filed a motion seeking to vacate the stay, which was granted by the lower court.

Status: Executive Order no longer in effect

On Aug. 27, lawyers for the state filed an emergency motion with the higher court to reinstate the automatic stay. The state also requested immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court.

On Aug. 28, the higher court could have referred the case directly to the Florida Supreme Court — where most expect the case to eventually land — but declined to do so.

It did, however, reinstate the automatic stay.

Status: Executive Order back in effect

What is the next step?

As of this writing, school districts must still operate under the directives of the original July 6 Executive Order by Corcoran.

Required briefs from both sides are due by 6 p.m. Wednesday, with additional briefs due by 6 p.m. Sept. 9.

As mentioned earlier, this case is expected to land at the Florida Supreme Court. Regardless of the next or final judicial determination, local school boards continue to lead their districts, ensuring an innovative, dynamic framework for learning. Though the 2020-2021 school year is starting out differently than previous years, ensuring a high quality education for all students in the safest possible environment will always be our purpose.

Jane Goodwin is a member of the Sarasota County School Board and president of the Florida School Boards Association.


Load comments