Florida's order to reopen schools for in-person learning is unconstitutional, judge rules

A Florida judge has ruled that an order to reopen Florida's schools for in-person learning is unconstitutional.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson issued the ruling after hearing closing arguments in lawsuits filed by the Florida Education Association and the union that represents two Orange County teachers. 

The lawsuits are challenging the reopening order issued by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran earlier this summer to require in-person learning.

The unions allege that the July 6 emergency order issued by Corcoran requiring brick-and-mortar schools to reopen five days a week in August violates the state Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public education. Schools risk losing funding if they don’t comply with Corcoran’s order, which teachers’ attorneys called “financial bullying.”

Lawyers representing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Corcoran, and state education officials, who are defendants in the case, maintain that the Constitution also requires the state to provide “high-quality education” to Florida schoolchildren.

“The order is unconstitutional to the extent it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards decision making with respect to opening brick and mortar schools, and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August,” wrote Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, in an order signed Monday.

The decision followed three days of hearings last week.  It remained unclear how the ruling would impact school districts across the state, many of which have already resumed in-person learning.

The Florida Education Association (FEA) expressed gratitude that the motion for a temporary injunction against Commissioner Corcoran’s executive order was granted and said it will take some time to consider details of Judge Dodson's ruling.

"Districts’ hands will not be tied as we continue the fight to protect students and educators in our public schools," read a brief statement from the FEA.

DeSantis’ office quickly said it would appeal, which would put the ruling on hold.

“We intend to appeal this ruling and are confident in our position and in the authority of the commissioner and the governor to do what is best for our students,” DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said in an email.

Dodson’s ruling came as students continue to return to classrooms in districts throughout the state, after learning shifted online in March because of the pandemic. About 150,000 of the state’s 2.8 million schoolchildren had resumed face-to-face instruction as of last week, Jacob Oliva, the chancellor of the K-12 school system, told Dodson on Thursday.

Lawyers for the state argued that nearly all school districts have complied with Corcoran’s order requiring them to submit reopening plans for August and that no school districts joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuits. No school officials said they were coerced into reopening this month, the state said.

“But the school boards have no choice,” Dodson wrote Monday. “The districts have no meaningful alternative. If an individual school district chooses safety, that is delaying the start of schools until it individually determines it is safe to do so for its county, it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught.”

The policy “runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s long-standing admonition that the government may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests,” the judge said, quoting from another court decision.

“Because defendants cannot constitutionally directly force schools statewide to reopen without regard to safety during a global pandemic, they cannot do it indirectly by threatening loss of funding through the order,” he wrote.

Corcoran’s mandate ordered schools to reopen in August “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health” and executive orders issued by DeSantis.

“Although that language sounds good, it is essentially meaningless,” Dodson wrote. “Local school boards wanted to know --- is it safe to open our schools in our county? Defendants reduced the constitutional guarantee of a safe education to an empty promise, in violation of the Florida Constitution.”

Read the judge's ruling (PDF).