WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A Palm Beach County judge on Tuesday denied a request by a group of school district employees who wanted brick-and-mortar schools to be temporarily closed over fears of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Six school district employees and the husband of a teacher were suing the School District of Palm Beach County, hoping to get an emergency injunction to temporarily stop the 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."
The lawsuit demanded that no one be allowed to return to schools "until competent, independent health officials say it is safe to do so."
On Tuesday, Judge Glenn Kelley officially denied the request, saying elected officials, not the court system, must determine "how and when businesses and government institutions will reopen and function."
"This Court cannot second guess the plan developed and implemented by the School Board," Judge Kelley wrote in his order. "The issues raised in this case clearly demonstrate the difficult choices faced by policymakers locally, statewide and nationally in dealing with a national health crisis."
Judge Kelley admitted that while "placing high-risk individuals in a classroom may not be good policy," he said courts do not intervene in policy decisions like that.
The judge went on to call the employees' concerns "real, genuine and legitimate."
READ JUDGE'S DECISION:
The lawsuit took issue with a policy, in particular, 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.
"While the School District may offer remote teaching to certain individuals, this does not create a legal right for all to teach remotely," Judge Kelley wrote in his order. "Without a clear legal right, an injunction cannot issue."
The School District of Palm Beach County released this statement to WPTV on Tuesday regarding the judge's decision:
"The School District of Palm Beach County appreciates and respects Judge Kelley's very thoughtful decision in upholding the School Board's Reopening Plan. The essence of the Court’s ruling is that it is not appropriate for a court to overrule a school board’s decisions about reopening, appropriate safety protocols, or which teachers should get to work remotely. This litigation is proof of the challenging situation created by the pandemic. We are all in this together and hope our students and teachers have a successful year, despite the challenges."
Manuel and Annette Levine, two school district employees who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, released this statement to WPTV on Tuesday:
"When my wife and I initiated the lawsuit to remain virtual until our safety could be ensured, our only concern was and still is the health and well-being of all School District of PBC employees and students. It seems that Mr. Silberberg and our attorney have another agenda in mind. We do not support the removal of Justin Katz as president of CTA , nor the removal of our School Board members. We do not support the infighting that they have sparked. Our goal was to join everyone together in mutual support as we strive for the protection of all involved.
Thank you for your understanding in this matter."
The Levines are referring to a news conference last week in which attorney Barry Silver, who's representing the school district employees in the lawsuit, as well as Steven Silberberg, a teacher at Glades Central High School who's also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, called for the recall of six Palm Beach County School Board members who supported the reopening of brick-and-mortar schools.
Silver told WPTV he plans to appeal Judge Kelley's ruling.
"How many dead teachers and students will it take before we have the right to protect the lives of teachers?" Silver said. "The rationale is that the government knows what it's doing, they've got all these resources, they know what they're doing. Clearly they don't."
According to the latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County,15 employees and seven students have tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 16.