Fla. Judge Lifts Automatic Stay On School Reopening Plan

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (August 27, 2020, 10:25 PM EDT) -- A Florida judge on Thursday lifted an automatic stay placed on an earlier order that shredded Gov. Ron DeSantis' move to open all schools by Aug. 31, saying the governor's plans could cause irreparable harm to students and teachers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had appealed Judge Charles Dodson's Monday order blocking them from going ahead with an executive order mandating that Florida's brick-and-mortar schools open five days a week despite the ongoing risk posed by the virus.

That appeal put an automatic stay on the order under Florida court rules, but Judge Dodson on Thursday lifted that stay, saying the administration's argument in favor of pausing the ruling "drastically misstates what the temporary injunction did and did not do."

"It did not order that Florida's schools statewide be closed. This court does not have authority to enter such an order," the judge said. "What the order did, for the reasons stated, is require that local school districts be given authority under their individual circumstances to open or close the local schools."

The judge said the ruling had to be kept in effect to protect "hundreds of thousands of school children, many teachers, and the community at large."

In the order for the injunction, Judge Dodson ripped the DeSantis administration for using Executive Order 6, issued on July 6, to strong-arm school districts into reopening by threatening funding cuts. The judge said this "essentially ignored the requirement of school safety" by effectively demanding that teachers and students return to "extremely unsafe conditions."

Less than two hours later, however, DeSantis filed notices of appeal in the two cases referenced by the order, which were consolidated before Judge Dodson for pretrial purposes. That appeal led to the automatic stay.

The first of the challenges to DeSantis' executive order was filed July 19 by students and teachers in Orange County, and the second was filed in Miami on July 20 by the state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, along with several individual educators and parents.

Judge Dodson previously rejected the state's bid to dismiss the suit brought by the FEA but urged the union and the state to hash out their differences and come to an agreement.

In a statement on Thursday, FEA President Fedrick Ingram called the state's actions in the case an attempt to "bully" school districts.

"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," Ingram said.

Commissioner Corcoran said the administration will continue the legal fight and appeal Thursday's decision.

"This decision only creates greater confusion for the approximately one million students who have started in-person learning throughout 56 brick and mortar school districts, the nearly 100% of teachers who have joyfully come back to teach their students, and all the parents who made the choice of what was best for their child," Corcoran said.

The plaintiffs in the FEA case are represented by Kendall Coffey, Josefina M. Aguila and Scott A. Hiaasen of Coffey Burlington PL, Ronald G. Meyer of Meyer Brooks Blohm & Hearn PA, Lucia Piva, Mark Richard and Kathleen M. Phillips of Phillips Richard & Rind PA and Kimberly C. Menchion of the Florida Education Association. The plaintiffs in the Orange County case are represented by Jacob V. Stuart PA and William J. Wieland II of Wieland & DeLattre PA.

The governor and state entities are represented by David M. Wells and Nathan W. Hill of Gunster.

The cases are Florida Education Association et al. v. DeSantis et al., case number 2020-CA-1450, and Bellefleur v. DeSantis, case number 2020-CA-1467, in the Second Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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