Florida teachers unions halt dangerous GOP school reopening plan
For now, Florida teachers have halted the plans of Trump acolyte Ron DeSantos, the governor of Florida, to force children back into unsafe school buildings. | Wilfredo Lee/AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Florida’s millions of schoolkids headed back to class this week, but—thanks to their teachers’ union—not to brick-and-mortar buildings where an unsafe state plan could have exposed them, their teachers, their bus drivers, their parents and their communities to the coronavirus.

Instead, they’re “virtually” learning via computer, tablet and other electronic devices.

That’s because, just days before school was to begin, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson, ruling in the state capital of Tallahassee, brought right-wing GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’s plan to force such regular school re-openings regardless of the safety and health risks to a screeching halt with a preliminary injunction on August 24.

In a blistering opinion citing the state constitution, Dodson said reopening the buildings without complete antivirus precautions is dangerous to the teachers, school bus drivers, school staffers, kids, parents and communities.

The Florida Education Association, the joint Teachers (AFT)-National Education Association affiliate in the state, sued on behalf of teachers, parents, the union and the NAACP in Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school district.

DeSantis’s order to reopen now “is unconstitutional to the extent it arbitrarily disregards safety, denies local school boards’ decision-making with respect to reopening brick-and-mortar schools, and conditions funding on an approved reopening plan with a start date in August,” Dodson declared.

DeSantis’s plan “will, however, pass constitutional muster if its unconstitutional portions are severed,” the judge said. Unconstitutional sections ordered the schools to reopen without first determining it would be safe and healthy to do so, he explained. Schools could reopen, district by district, once public health officials certify the schools are safe.

And the teachers asked for, and Dodson agreed, that Florida must, by any way possible, “still require local school districts to provide a high-quality education, under the circumstances–the circumstances being this horrible pandemic.”

The one point the teachers union and the state agree on, the judge added laconically, is that “the ultimate plan is to get students back in school.”

DeSantis followed in the footsteps of his political mentor, GOP President Donald Trump, who has pushed hard for reopening the schools and the economy nationwide, despite the continued spread of the virus. Teachers, PTAs and unions, especially in large school districts, have resisted. Many are sticking with virtual distance and electronic learning.

Trump’s late 2018 campaign appearance for the GOPer is considered a key factor in DeSantis’s narrow win over Black Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D). DeSantis slavishly followed Trump’s lead in reopening the economy too soon. The result: Disaster in Florida in general and Miami-Dade in particular.

Since the pandemic was officially declared on March 13, Florida is #3 among the 50 states in number of people testing positive for the virus: 621,586 through 8:30 am on September 1. It’s #4 in deaths, with 11,119. Nationally, 6.031 million people have tested positive and 183,602 have died.

Miami-Dade has been especially hard hit, with 156,910 people testing positive (second among 3,142 U.S. counties) and 2,403 deaths (ninth). Next-door Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) is sixth nationwide in people testing positive, with 71,121. Of them, 1,183 died.

But when DeSantis tried the same forced quick reopening of schools, the FEA, which represents 145,000 teachers and staffers statewide, and in every county, sued, and won.

The FEA welcomed Judge Dodson’s decision, and a follow-up ruling he issued three days later barring DeSantis from claiming, falsely, the teachers wanted the judge to close all the state’s schools. To try to get that point across, FEA President Fedrick Ingram said, the state is suppressing information about vulnerability of Florida schools to “community spread” of the coronavirus—thus forcing them to reopen.

“Once again, the state has been turned back in its attempts to bully our districts,” said Ingram. “The judge clearly saw through the state’s arguments in his order today, but we have no doubt the efforts to silence educators and push a political agenda over safety will continue.”

“We will continue to fight to protect the health and wellbeing of everyone in our schools, and to ensure districts are free to make the best decisions for their communities” in opening the school buildings and classrooms “while the virus remains a threat.”

The teachers, in Florida and nationwide, have to fight Trump, too. The NEA reported August 21 he declared teachers “essential workers,” forced to go back to their jobs in brick-and-mortar buildings despite the coronavirus, just as he did to meat packing plant workers.

Then-NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, a Salt Lake City elementary school teacher whose term ended August 31, due to term limits, retorted teachers appreciate the compliment but not the danger it brings to kids, teachers, staffers, parents and communities.

Teachers are “prepping for student learning in the fall, even if the building is closed. But they will always put the health and well-being of their students first,” she said. Trump’s declaration “has no legal merit and is more of a rhetorical gambit to give President Trump and governors who are disregarding the advice and guidance from public health experts an excuse to force educators into unsafe schools.”

“Parents, teachers and school staff need a real plan to reopen school buildings safely. They don’t need a shallow heartwarming sentiment that exposes students, educators and their families to a deadly virus.”

“If the Trump administration truly valued educators, it would have listened to their concerns months ago about safety and it wouldn’t be blocking another desperately-needed coronavirus relief package that could provide schools with what they need” to safely reopen. Instead, Trump is “trying to recklessly extort educators to risk their lives.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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