David Dayen explains why Florida’s teachers are suing to block Governor DeSantis’ order to reopen all public schools for full in-person instruction.

The short version:

1) Florida is in the midst of a surge in the pandemic.
2) Neither the state nor the federal government has put up the money to provide even minimal safety for students and adults.

First Response
Last Friday the governor of Missouri, Mike Parson, told a right-wing radio host that coronavirus would infect children and we all just have to put up with it. “If they do get COVID-19, which they will,” Parson said, “they’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.”

The nonchalance of this comment reinforces the impression of the Republican Party as a literal death cult. Not only do children suffer serious injury, and yes, die, from the virus, but as Parson appears not entirely aware, kids don’t teach themselves. And teachers and school personnel aren’t as sanguine as the Governor of Missouri of being marched into a contagious environment and playing the equivalent of Russian roulette.

The flashpoint for this is Florida, where yesterday state and national teachers unions filed suit to block Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order reopening public schools. School districts in the state begin classes as early as August 10, and teachers must report a week earlier. So this is a last-minute effort to prevent a public health disaster.

“Teachers are scared, they have a high trepidation of going back into school buildings, given that Florida is the epicenter,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We can’t make our schools vectors for the virus, infecting parents and multi-generational families at home. Our goal is to not open schools, it’s to keep schools open.”
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Florida educators have a leg up in this case, because the state Constitution states explicitly that “[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.” The words “safe and secure” are paramount here, requiring the Governor and the Commissioner of Education institute policies meet that standard, the lawsuit explains. And they have not done anything close to that.

“The only thing the [DeSantis] executive order says is that there will be a brick-and-mortar option five days a week,” Ingram told the Prospect. No guidelines and certainly no money for social distancing policies have been included. If you need to cut class sizes in half to allow children to be separated from teachers, will there be money to hire twice as many teachers? Or give overtime to the existing ones to double their workday?

That’s just the beginning. No testing and tracing regime has been instituted. No money for PPE has been allotted. No decisions have been made on band or chorus rehearsals, recess, or assemblies. If a teacher gets sick and needs to quarantine for 14 days, there’s no understanding of whether they would get their job back. Air conditioning within the schools, a critical issue in Florida, that recirculate air would need to be altered. Buses would either have to run twice as much or with twice as many drivers hired. “I can go through a myriad of issues and we can talk into tomorrow,” Ingram said. Yet no money has been put toward this purpose, in a state that has historically underfunded its schools.

Reopened schools in several countries around the world have generally led to decent results, although that’s not universal. In Israel, schools had to be shut two weeks after opening after outbreaks raged through them, and new studies show children over age 10 can spread the virus as efficiently as adults. Critically, most countries getting back to school have low and decreasing levels of the virus, the opposite of what we see in Florida, which has registered 10,000 new cases every day for the last two weeks. The initial CDC guidelines on reopening generally call for a 14-day drop in cases.

The case, which has the support of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, includes several Florida teachers. One, Ladara Royal, is a young African American man with asthma, who according to Ingram would leave the profession if forced to go back to work. Another, Stefanie Beth Miller, spent 21 days on a ventilator in a medically induced coma from COVID-19. A third, Mindy Festge, has an immunosuppressed son that she’s keeping out of high school, and doesn’t want to bring the virus home to him.

“We’re forcing these parents and teachers to make lifelong decisions,” Ingram said. “We have other teachers making out their wills because they have to go back to school.” He noted that the state started last academic year with over 3,000 classrooms without a certified teacher. That shortage is sure to increase at a time when more would be needed to properly social distance.

The lawsuit calls for emergency relief to protect the first wave of teachers and students set to enter schools in just a couple weeks. A state where over 17,000 children have already contracted the virus would be home to a grisly and uncertain experiment unless the DeSantis order is stopped. The consequences of not opening schools are tragic for students who might fall behind and parents needing to concentrate on work during the day. But the consequences of creating thousands of death traps is worse.