Teachers Sue to Keep Schools Shut as Parents Demand They Reopen

Decisions to reopen schools or keep them closed are being met with lawsuits on both ends.

The Florida Education Association, a group of teachers unions, filed suit Monday to block an emergency order to reopen schools next month despite a spike in coronavirus infections. Meanwhile, a lawsuit in New York is seeking to ensure that schools there aren’t closed for the fall term.

In Florida, the teachers unions say there’s no way the schools can meet U.S. guidelines for social distancing and the routine disinfection of surfaces such as playground equipment and water fountains. They contend that Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration is defying the state constitution’s assurance of “safe” schools.

On the other end of the argument, a woman and her two children in Brooklyn last week filed suit against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is still deciding whether to allow schools to reopen this fall. The suit claims the state’s order to keep schools shut thus far and offer only online instruction is unconstitutional because it leads to disparate treatment for students with special needs.

The two legal challenges reflect the broader political and social tensions the virus has brought out over reopening businesses, churches and other sectors. Schools have become the latest battleground as parents attempt to return to work in some states. President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold federal money if schools aren’t reopened.

Los Angeles and San Diego school districts last week said they would stick to virtual lessons when they reopen this fall.

Read More: Florida Teachers Union Sues to Stop School Reopening Plan

Additional lawsuits may be filed to require safer environments and compensation for inadequate services, legal and policy experts say. There will be negligence claims by students who fall ill, suits over privacy violations stemming from temperature checks and discrimination suits over the limits of remote education.

“If parents don’t feel like their children are getting the type of education that was promised, I think we will likely see lawsuits on that front,” said Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education.

Removing federal funding could hobble school districts with already strained budgets in providing protective gear to staff and taking other safety measures, said Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association and a kindergarten teacher.

“Without the necessary funding, and if they’re saying they’re going to cut even more, it’s going to be devastating,” Boyd said.

Whenever schools reopen, it isn’t going to be cheap.

“When you look just at the requirements to maintain safety in schools, they are very, very expensive and very difficult to enforce,” Hough said.

Mark Barnes, a partner at Ropes & Gray formerly with the New York City Department of Health, cites the logistical challenge of achieving social distancing in a school cafeteria alone. “It’s not insurmountable, but there are significant transaction costs,” he said.

One way to protect against spread would be to have a vaccine requirement, once the option is available.

“Most schools would say every child, in order to be eligible to come back to school, would have to take the vaccination, and that requirement would be largely upheld by the courts,” Barnes said.

American schools are now “very much prone to lawsuits from staff, the public, parents, you name it,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. The only answer is for Congress to step in with legislation giving schools legal immunity, he said.

“Otherwise there’ll be no protection,” he said, “and schools will be spending a lot of time, energy and money in defending themselves.”

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