Judge rejects Florida schools reopening mandate

Judge Charles Dodson. Photo courtesy of Glenn Beil/Democrat

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson ruled Monday that ordering “brick and mortar” schools to reopen in Florida is unconstitutional. The order is in response to a directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran stating schools will open by Aug. 31.

In Dodson’s 17-page decision, he states that the Florida Education Association (FEA) is right to worry about the safety issue raised by requiring “brick and mortar” schools to open at least 5 days a week. The FEA filed a suit against the order last month, and Corcoran responded with the possibility of withholding funding from  districts that file to comply. Even with the risk of financial loss, Dodson still believes schools should only reopen when medical experts give the OK.

“The districts have no meaningful alternative,” Dodson wrote. “If an individual school district chooses safety … it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught.”

Dodson’s decision does not mean schools in Florida would close, but instead it gives local school boards the option to decide what to do themselves without the threat of a loss of funding.

Despite the looming lawsuit, Corcoran released a statement of unwavering belief that the state will prevail.

“This fight has been, and will continue to be, about giving every parent, every teacher and every student a choice,” Corcoran said.

Dodson and the FEA represent how teachers are feeling about returning back to their classrooms. Many teachers argue that going back to in-person classes presents a great safety risk as numbers continue to rise in the U.S., with Florida continuing to report thousands of new cases daily.

According to the Florida Department of Health, the state now has a total of 602,829 cases, with 2,258 additional cases on Monday. This is the lowest daily number since June, and the directive was made as cases appeared to be slowly waning. However, to many educators, the numbers are high enough that they believe returning to school is not wise.

The staff members at Just Like Angles Childcare Center. Courtesy of Janna Johnson

Janna Johnson, the owner of Just Like Angels Childcare Center in Tallahassee, thinks students should not be asked to return to school but understands this is the reality schools are now dealing with.

“It’s important [for teachers] to keep a positive attitude for the students, parents and staff,” Johnson said.

Contrary to the belief Dodson holds, there are some Florida residents who want normal life to return as quickly as possible. Some students say that taking the correct precautions should be enough for them to return to school.

Nala Gammage, a senior at Leon High School, thinks that since Florida has opened many businesses over the last few months, schools opening should not be a problem.

“My mom isn’t too fond of me going back but I believe it is OK to open the schools especially if they can open up other stuff like movie theaters and clubs,” Gammage said.

Dodson’s decision was immediately put on hold when the state appealed the ruling. FEA President Frederick Ingram has asked DeSantis not to appeal and let the ruling stand and wants teachers and local elected school boards to work together to create a safer plan to reopen schools.