Closing arguments are scheduled for Friday in a lawsuit lodged by Florida’s largest teachers union, alleging a state order that requires school districts to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction or lose funding is unconstitutional.
On Thursday, attorneys representing the state called witnesses – a Stanford University health economist and working mothers – to support their contention schools safely can provide full services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attorneys for the Florida Education Association (FEA) made their case for keeping schools closed Wednesday after they failed to reach an accord Tuesday with state lawyers during mediation.
Leon County Judge Charles Dodson is expected to rule quickly, perhaps by Friday evening, because 28 of Florida’s 67 school districts already have reopened with in-person instruction and more will do so next week.
FEA filed a lawsuit alleging Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s order mandating schools provide the “full panoply of services” violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “safe” and “secure” public education.
The order has been amended to acknowledge only local school boards have the authority to open schools and districts must offer parents options to in-person instruction or the state will withhold funding.
Florida Division of Public Schools Chancellor Jacob Oliva testified that without in-person instruction, a “COVID slide” would accelerate “learning regression” among students who don’t have access to the internet or need face-to-face attention.
Manatee County school board member Dr. Scott Hopes, an epidemiologist who served in former Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration, said he was in “a little bit of shock” when he first read Corcoran’s order, but his view has changed.
“I looked back and read the entire document, and I read it twice,” Hopes said. “I found it to be artistic and brilliant at the same time.”
Reopening schools is essential, he said, for learning-challenged students at risk of falling behind, especially in reading and math.
“They were rapidly falling behind with e-learning, that’s the one reason why I determined absolutely take the governor’s offer because Manatee County, at the time we had 53-54 percent of our third-graders not reading at grade level,” Hopes said.
Stanford University health economist Dr. Jay Bhattacharya said there is little evidence reopening schools would accelerate the spread of COVID-19.
“With the exception of one study, the literature said that schools opening and school closing have very little community effect of the spread of disease,” he said.
When asked by state attorney David Wells whether “lockdowns cure diseases,” Bhattacharya said, “No, they don’t kill disease. They delay the spread of disease, but they don’t eradicate the disease.”
State attorneys began Thursday’s hearing with testimony from three mothers, including small business owner Jennifer Tribble.
With her children at home, “I lost my revenue in small business. I couldn’t hire somebody to come in, so I was trying to do all the things and making sure (my children) were staying focused, doing all the things they were supposed to do, so it was tough. It was tough,” Tribble said.
Lindsey Arthur said without in-school instruction, her child could not access needed services.
“The kids are the kids. They are amazing,” she said. “They are wonderful, but they need that support with their teacher, paraprofessionals and with their friends to grow and learn, and it just was not possible during our e-learning experience at all.”
Laura Pope said the prospect of returning to virtual learning at home upsets her son.
“The anxiety comes in. ‘No, school. No, school!’ and then the iPad goes across the room. I can’t be part of any more damage to my son’s mental well-being – and my own,” she said.