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Florida teachers battle Gov. DeSantis over return to classrooms

The face-off in Tallahassee took on new urgency a day after Florida logged its 10,000th death from the coronavirus.
Florida Schools Prepare Buses For Reopening
School buses at the Winter Springs Transportation Hub of Seminole County Public Schools on Aug. 13, 2020 in Winter Springs, Fla.Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Florida's teachers have a message for Gov. Ron DeSantis: We're not going back to the classrooms in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic until it's safe for everybody.

For a second day in a row, lawyers for the Florida Education Association clashed with the governor's lawyers Thursday over plans to resume in-person teaching by the end of the month.

While the question over when and how to resume school continued to be debated across the country and more universities were canceling classes and sending students home amid a spike in new cases, the virtual face-off in Tallahassee took on a new urgency a day after Florida logged its 10,000th death from the coronavirus — and as the state came ever closer to joining California as one of the states with 600,000 or more confirmed COVID-19 cases.

As of Thursday morning, Florida had reported 584,047 cases and 10,066 deaths since the start of the pandemic, the latest NBC News tally showed. In the last seven days, Florida heath officials reported 26,910 new cases and 1,020 more deaths, which was a decline over the previous week.

Lawyers for the FEA used that awful arithmetic to try to convince a Leon County judge to stop the state’s order forcing school districts to resume classroom teaching at the end of August.

“We believe we laid out a convincing case to protect students and the people who work in our schools,” FEA vice president Andrew Spar said in a statement Wednesday after the first day of the legal battle ended without a compromise.

Arguing for the state, attorney David Wells said the Florida Constitution requires schools to provide students with a high-quality education and the best way to ensure that is via “face-to-face learning,” The Tampa Bay Times reported.

The FEA’s lawsuit is backed by the NAACP.

“The reckless endangerment of our children across Florida is wholly unacceptable and irresponsible,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the organization’s Florida State Conference. “We must send a message to Gov. DeSantis that we will not allow children, families and communities to be unnecessarily exposed to Covid-19.”

Most of Florida’s new cases and deaths have come since DeSantis, at the urging of President Donald Trump, began reopening the state in May. At that point the pandemic, which had already hit the Northeast hard and killed thousands of people, was just starting to be felt in the Sunshine State.

“We haven’t seen an explosion of new cases,” DeSantis said on April 29, the same day he signed an executive order to being reopening Florida after less than two months in quarantine.

Texas, another state that listened to Trump, is also on track to join California in the 600,000 case club, NBC News figures show. The state has racked-up 81,308 cases in the past two weeks. It has now reported a total of 582,709 cases and more than 11,000 deaths.

Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, announced Thursday that when school resumes on Sept. 8 the first four weeks will be virtual learning only for the district's more than 155,000 students.

Trump, who has been criticized for responding too slowly to the crisis, downplaying its danger, and pushing false or misleading information about the progress of the pandemic, did not declare a national emergency until March 13. The first case of Covid-19 was reported in the U.S. on Jan. 21.

Nationwide, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases was over 5.5 million and the death toll as of Thursday morning was more than 174,000, NBC News numbers showed. The U.S, which leads the world in both categories has accounted for about a quarter of the nearly 22.5 million cases and over a fifth of the 789,000 deaths across the globe.

In other developments:

  • There were more worrying signs that the recovery of the U.S. economy from the ravages of the pandemic was stalling. Economist had expected weekly jobless claims to fall from 963,000 to 920,000. Instead, 1.106 million people filed for initial jobless claims last week, the Department of Labor reported Thursday. More than 23 million jobs were lost when the pandemic hit. The unemployment rate was a healthy 4.8 percent when Trump took the reins from President Barack Obama in January 2017 and dipped as low as 3.5 percent in the months that followed. It’s now at 10.2 percent, according to the most recent federal labor department statistics.
  • The city council in Hoboken, New Jersey said no to a measure that would hit people with fines of $250 or more if they’re caught outside not wearing a mask against COVID-19. “It’s a little of an overreach on our part and I’m pro-mask wearing,” Councilman Ruben Ramos, Jr. said Wednesday after the council voted down the measure by a 6-3 vote. “We are putting our police officers and the people that would enforce this in a very difficult decision that I don’t want to put them in.” It remains to be seen whether there will be any blowback from the public. Before the vote, more than half of the 3,000 surveyed in this crowded little city across the Hudson River from Manhattan said they favored slapping mask refuseniks with hefty fines.
  • U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. His office said he took the test "upon being notified last night that he'd been exposed to an individual with coronavirus." Cassidy, who is a physician, said he will quarantine for 14 days. He is the second senator to catch the bug. The other was Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is also a Republican as well as a physician. Paul recovered but angered some of his colleagues by refusing to wear a mask afterward. "I have immunity," he said. Nine representatives have also tested positive.
  • Five members of the University of Notre Dame’s football team tested positive for COVID-19 and six others were ordered to quarantine just days after school officials shut down in-classroom education for two weeks. Meanwhile, North Carolina State University said it too was moving undergraduate classes online starting Monday. The reason? At least three clusters of COVID-19 infections have been discovered in the last two days "that can be traced" to frat parties, the school said in a statement. Dozens of other schools have made the decision to either suspend in-person education or go online for the rest of the semester because the number of Covid cases have exploded since students returned to campus.