Teachers unions sue Florida governor over order requiring schools to reopen amid coronavirus outbreak

National and local teachers unions on Monday filed a lawsuit seeking to block an order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisUS surpasses 5 million coronavirus cases The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election DeSantis: It's safe to hug with PPE on MORE (R) requiring schools to reopen in August despite a sustained surge in coronavirus cases in the state. 

The American Federation of Teachers and its local affiliate, the Florida Education Association (FEA), are alleging that an order requiring the resumption of in-person classes violates the state constitution's mandate on "safe" and "secure" public education.

The lawsuit, filed in state court in Miami, asks a judge to issue an injunction blocking DeSantis from going through with the statewide mandate, which the unions claim would "force millions of public school students and employees to report to brick and mortar schools that should remain closed during the resurgence of COVID-19 cases."

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The complaint was filed the same day that Florida state health authorities reported more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases for the sixth consecutive day. The state is now averaging roughly 11,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day, the highest rate in the nation by far. As of Monday afternoon, health authorities had recorded more than 5,000 deaths. 

Despite an uptick in cases, DeSantis's administration earlier this month issued an order requiring schools to open for at least five days each week in August. The order came as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE and other administration officials began pushing more aggressively for the reopening of schools in the fall, even as outbreaks in parts of the U.S. caused several states to pause reopening plans and implement statewide mask mandates.

FEA President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement Monday that the unions' lawsuit was their attempt to provide a "reality check" for the governor. Plaintiffs in the suit include teachers and parents of students.  

"The governor needs to accept the reality of the situation here in Florida, where the virus is surging out of control," Ingram said. "He needs to accept the evolving science. Everyone wants schools to reopen, but we don’t want to begin in-person teaching, face an explosion of cases and sickness, then be forced to return to distance learning."

"Florida's Constitution demands that public schools be safe. Teachers and parents want our schools to meet that basic standard," he added. 

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But Florida Department of Education spokesperson Taryn Fenske dismissed the complaint as "frivolous" and "reckless."

"Clearly the FEA hasn’t read nor understands the Florida Department of Education’s guidance, the Emergency Order, or Florida law," Fenske said in an email to The Hill. "This [executive order] 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.

"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."

Fenske warned that those funding guarantees would be eliminated if the unions' complaint succeeded. 

Monday's lawsuit argues that no public school system within Florida's 67 counties should open unless safety can be assured by local health data. Among other things, the unions allege that many local school superintendents fear the loss of state funding if they do not comply with the order. 

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"Moreover, plaintiffs are being denied the right to rely on their locally elected school board officials because the State Government Defendants are usurping their constitutional function," the suit stated.

The reopening of schools has emerged as flashpoint in the U.S. as some regions struggle to contain the coronavirus. Some states have allowed districts to decide how they will proceed, while others have called for a mix of in-person and online learning. 

DeSantis said earlier this month that if retailers like Home Depot and Walmart remained open, then schools should too. 

"If fast food and Walmart and Home Depot — and, look, I do all that, so I'm not looking down on it — but if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential," he said, arguing that online learning is "just not the same."