Thomas: Lawsuits Not Affecting Escambia School Reopening

Aug 27, 2020

Teachers at Ferry Pass Elementary demonstrate their COVID-19 procedures.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

A Tallahassee judge has temporarily blocked state officials from forcing public schools to reopen brick-and-mortar classrooms amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Accusing the state of ignoring the Florida Constitution, Circuit Judge Charles Dodson on Monday sided with the Florida Education Association – which claims an emergency order from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran -- mandating that schools resume in-person classes this month amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The message should be loud and clear; we are saying – with a strong recommendation to our great superintendents that we work with – we want schools fully open in the fall,” said Corcoran. “Because there is no better way to educate our kids than have that great teacher in front of that child.”

Corcoran spoke at an “Open the Schools” event earlier this year.

“Not having that world-class education with that teacher in front of that child – there is real, significant, long-term harm that that you can’t recover,” said Corcoran. “Open up the schools, let’s get the best educational environment, let’s keep everybody safe in our educational community.”

“Shame on our governor and our commissioner of education, who have recklessly told us that we had to have a brick-and-mortar option for every school district no matter what. Come hell or high water, this is what you had to do,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.

Schools risked a loss of funding if they didn’t comply with the order, which plaintiff attorneys called “financial bullying” by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corcoran. FEA Attorney Ron Meyer says the decision of if and when to reopen must be left to local school boards.

“In the face of a pandemic, local school boards in the area should rely upon medical advice and make decisions with respect to reopening, remaining open or delaying opening until it is medically feasible and safe to do so.”

“I do agree with the premise of what the judge ruled,” said Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “I think that local school boards, local superintendents should make the decisions about things such as when you start school. I don’t think that should be able to be dictated from Tallahassee.”

Thomas -- who oversees more than 40,000 students in the district – says the ruling has no impact on their operation which opened on Monday.

“We’re off to a good start; we gave all of our families three options,” Thomas said. “They could go traditional, which is face-to-face; remote or virtual. About 50 percent of the parents chose remote or virtual; it allowed us to have more distance on the bus and in most of our classrooms. And so, I don’t see us changing.”

Also moving forward are preparations for fall sports on the high school level. Practice for football, bowling, cross country, golf, swimming and diving, and girls’ volleyball is scheduled to begin on Labor Day, and Thomas says other prep is underway for the games that can begin Sept. 18.

“There will be limited spectators, especially for football; some of the other sports – you didn’t have many spectators in the gym when they were participating so I don’t think I’m going to have to limit that,” said Thomas. “But football, we definitely will limit capacity probably to 40, 45 percent. We’ll have people wearing masks, and then spread them out in a stadium.”

If the pandemic either lightens up or gets worse, Thomas says the related decisions at schools will be made locally – lawsuit or not.

“It’s going to be student-by-student, class-by-class; as you have someone who is potentially positive,” Thomas said. “Working with the health department, we’ll have to make the appropriate reaction to make sure everybody’s safe.”

Education Sec. Richard Corcoran says the state will appeal Judge Charles Dodson’s 17-page decision. Dodson had already said he would stay it to allow for an appeal.