WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A class-action lawsuit that aims to temporarily prevent thousands of students and school district employees from going to brick-and-mortar schools in Palm Beach County while the COVID-19 pandemic "rages" took center stage on Wednesday.
The lawsuit was filed against the School District of Palm Beach County on Sept. 18, just days before in-classroom instruction started on Monday.
"We believe the back-to-school order fails miserably," said attorney Barry Silver, who's representing six school district employees and the husband of a Palm Beach County teacher in the lawsuit, during a virtual court hearing on Wednesday. "We have discovered, since the reopening, yesterday, that there are many, many problems. It's not working the way they anticipated."
"Whether a school system is safe, secure, or high quality, these are non-justiciable politics issues that are not properly decided in a court of law," said Sean Fahey, an attorney for the school district. "The plaintiffs are attempting to present this as a life and death case. It is not."
In the suit, the plaintiffs are asking Judge Glenn Kelley to grant an emergency injunction to temporarily stop the school district from "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally forcing Plaintiffs and thousands of others to return to brick and mortar schools at this time and postponing their return until it is safe to do so."
A seventh Palm Beach County school district employee who was originally a plaintiff on the lawsuit has since dismissed himself from the suit.
The lawsuit is demanding that no one be allowed to return to schools "until competent, independent health officials say it is safe to do so."
In addition, the suit is asking that all 179 schools in the district have "adequate personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies for all employees and students," smaller class sizes, "sufficient hand-sanitizing stations," and "take all necessary measures to protect students and staff and minimize COVID-19 transmission."
READ THE LAWSUIT:
According to School District of Palm Beach County, many safety changes are now in place at brick-and-mortar schools including mandatory face masks for all children and staff members on school buses and campuses, spaced out desks in classrooms, social distancing markers on the floors, one-way hallways, one-sided cafeteria tables, improved air filters, and more frequent sanitation.
During Wednesday's virtual court hearing, school board member Dr. Debra Robinson testified that she feels it's not safe for teachers to be required to go back to brick-and-mortar schools.
"I would say no. But I also understand we can't get to zero risk," Robinson said. "I don't know that we will be able to consistently take every safety precaution possible."
On cross-examination, Robinson admitted that her opinion about the safety of schools is not representative of the entire Palm Beach County School Board.
"We have not taken a public position like that," Robinson said.
The lawsuit claims there was an "abysmal failure" on the part of the school district to prepare for the return to in-classroom instruction.
Namely, the lawsuit takes issue with a policy that allows school district employees to apply for remote work if they feel they have a medical condition that may put them at risk of contracting COVID-19 on school campuses.
Once the school district's human resources department approves an employee for remote work, it's then up to that employee's school principal to determine if they can be reassigned to a remote position.
If a remote position doesn't exist, that employee can appeal to human resources or take personal leave to remain at home.
To date, 278 employees have been assigned to remote positions, a school district spokeswoman told WPTV.
The lawsuit claims that "as a result of this chaotic situation, it appears that many principals have simply denied all requests, which will expose the Plaintiffs and thousands of others to serious risk of illness and death."
In response the lawsuit, the School District of Palm Beach County released this statement to WPTV:
"Palm Beach County Public School campuses will reopen to students, as planned and as required by the State's Emergency Order 2020-EO-06, on September 21. The District's legal team is handling the litigation of the matter and does not comment on the strategies of matters that are in litigation. As for District campuses, many efforts have been made to balance the need to have teachers in the classroom for those students who have chosen to return to brick and mortar. The District has been working hard to ensure that both employees and students have an enjoyable and safe return."
A school district spokeswoman said 944 teachers were out on Monday, but between substitutes and district employees, schools were able to cover those absences. 894 teachers were out on Tuesday.
To put those numbers into perspective, 480 teachers were absent on the first day of school last year.
On Monday, Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy expressed his gratitude to teachers, thanking them for their patience and flexibility during this ever-changing situation.
"I think all of us are in a position to make a lot of really hard choices," Fennoy told WPTV's Stephanie Susskind. "I understand this is hard. This is so hard. But I think as we push through and we become more comfortable with the situation, as we learn more and we adjust, I hope that those who are choosing to stay out will come back to work."