Florida’s top teachers’ union, joined by local educators — including one from Miami-Dade County — sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state education commissioner Monday to stop the “reckless and unsafe reopening of schools” this fall amid Florida’s surging COVID-19 cases.
The Florida Education Association was joined by plaintiffs who are educators in Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange counties in the suit, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
The Miami-Dade plaintiff, Mindy Grimes-Festge, is the secretary/treasurer of the United Teachers of Dade. She and her husband, Don, have been educators for 28 years. They have a son, who is a rising high school senior with a compromised immune system and unable to return to school during the pandemic.
The lawsuit has gained traction, with the NAACP joining as a plaintiff in the suit, which names DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran as defendants. Corcoran has ordered the public schools to reopen.
“No one wants to be in back in a classroom and reopen our school buildings more than educators,” said FEA president Fedrick Ingram. “We are teachers. That’s what we do. That’s what we live for. That’s what we’ve given our lives to, to help kids and communities and families. But we want to do it safely. And we don’t want to put people at risk.”
“We should be preparing our lesson plans, getting ready for school,” he continued. “But unfortunately, the reopening of the state of Florida has been reckless.”
The FEA hosted a virtual press conference with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.
“The fact that one has to sue for what Texas did last week, what California did last week, is mind-boggling to me,” Weingarten said. She then called on DeSantis to deal with it, “being the governor I know Ron DeSantis can be.”
“He is in intense denial,” Weingarten said. “This lawsuit is about trying to get the governor, the mayor to actually do their jobs and keep people safe. …And not pit, or make people make a false choice, between education and safety.”
The suit calls for the governor and education commissioner to drop an emergency order issued two weeks ago that called for, according to the lawsuit, “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.”
The top-down order called on locally controlled school districts to plan to send children back to school for face-to-face learning five days a week. South Florida school superintendents have said they will not reopen brick-and-mortar schools if the area continues to be a hot spot, with thousands of new cases reported daily.
In a statement, Corcoran accused the statewide teachers’ union of not reading or understanding the Department of Education’s guidance, which calls on schools to operate 180 days of the school year.
“This E.O. did not order any new directives regarding the requirements of schools to be open; it simply created new innovative options for families to have the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their student and family,” he said.
“Additionally, the order created guaranteed funding for districts and schools to educate innovatively, as long as they continue to provide all students, especially at-risk students, with a world-class education, no matter what option they choose. The FEA frequently states that schools are underfunded, and if this frivolous, reckless lawsuit, succeeds it will eliminate these funding guarantees — completely contradicting their normal outcry.”
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said previously that Miami-Dade County Public Schools was in compliance with the executive order, which allowed flexibility — and funding — for plans like Miami-Dade’s.
Carvalho recently introduced eight criteria that must be met — or at least, most must be met, according to a recent interview — before schools reopen. United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats has told teachers to prepare for online instruction.
For Miami-Dade schools to open at all by Aug. 24, these eight criteria need to be met
The suit also calls on the state to develop a plan to continue online distance learning until it is safe to reopen schools.
And when it is safe to reopen, the suit said the following measures must be met:
▪ Each school must have adequate personal protective equipment for all employees and students;
▪ Reduced class sizes to comply with physical distancing requirements;
▪ Hand-sanitizing stations must be installed;
▪ Plexiglass shields where necessary;
▪ Increased staffing;
▪ Increased school clinic capabilities
The lawsuit also names Miami-Dade County Mayor Carols Gimenez as a defendant. Attorney Kendall Coffey, one of the lead lawyers on the lawsuit, explained that mayors “cannot be separated” from the decision to reopen schools, as it relies on locally driven data and local partnerships.
“We already know that this function of being the formalest voice locally … is held in the office of the Mayor of Miami-Dade County,” he said. “That voice and that leadership is an essential voice … in respect to the basic structure put in part by the Florida Department of Education.”
Ingram worried about financially punitive measures for counties like Miami-Dade, which are likely not to reopen this fall.
“We’ve seen some very courageous steps by the superintendent of Miami-Dade County,” he said. “If the superintendent does not open with brick and mortar, [that] will come with punitive measures.”
Grimes-Festge, the secretary/treasurer of the Miami-Dade union, said Miami-Dade must look out for the other 66 counties. She said Gimenez is the highest-ranking official in the county and has the ability to speak to health matters.
As the saying goes, “As Miami-Dade goes, the rest of Florida goes,” Grimes-Festge said. “That comes into perspective here. I think he takes a stand, other mayors and possibly the governor will follow suit.”
Ingram said a reported 43% of educators do not want to return to the classroom. He said the 2019-20 school year began with 3,000 classrooms without a teacher.
He also noted how a middle school teacher in Pasco County died of COVID-19 on Sunday.
“Why all this hurry without a plan to keep people safe?” asked Eskelsen Garcia, the NEA president. “We don’t want to make the pandemic worse. If you do this wrong, the school becomes germ factory. It becomes the super spreader.”
One of the other plaintiffs is Broward teacher Stefanie Miller, who told her own story of her bout with COVID-19 and the aftermath that continues to wreck her body. A 22-year veteran teacher at Fox Trail Elementary in Davie, Miller said she had no underlying health conditions when she was recovering from the flu and caught COVID-19 at the end of March.
“Twenty one days on a ventilator, two months in the hospital, eight days in rehab and now I’ve been home for six weeks getting physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy daily,” Miller said. “It’s a long journey. I don’t wish this on anyone.”
“I of course want to go back to teaching, but it needs to be safe,” she said.