Texas AG says schools trump health officials on class start

Tom Woodward for The Texas Tribune

By JIM VERTUNO, The Associated Press

AUSTIN — Local health officials in Texas do not have the authority to close schools to prevent spread of the coronavirus, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said this week, pushing that decision solely into the hands of school officials.

Paxton issued a “legal guidance” letter on schools amid fierce debate among local governments, health officials, parents and teachers on when schools should open in a state that has become one of the nation’s hot spots in the pandemic.

Texas has seen new confirmed virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge during July. On Tuesday, Texas reported 164 new deaths, bringing the state total to nearly 5,900, with nearly 10,000 COVID-19 patients in the hospital.

Dozens of cities, counties and school districts — including in the most populous areas — have already decided to delay school reopenings for the upcoming academic year.

Students in the Brownsville Independent School District are to start classes on Aug. 25 via 100% distance learning. Orders from Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. and Mayor Trey Mendez prohibit in-person classes until at least Sept. 8, and a resolution passed by the BISD Board of Trustees on Monday calls for no in-person classes through Oct. 8.

Los Fresnos schools, several of which are in or near Brownsville, are to reopen Sept. 8.

Shortly after Paxton’s announcement, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidance to say it will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed because of a local health mandate, citing the attorney general’s letter. Districts can receive state funding if they obtain TEA’s permission to stay closed, as allowed for up to eight weeks with some restrictions.

The change represents an about-face for the agency, which previously said it would fund districts that remained closed under a mandate. It will impact schools in at least 16 local authorities, many in the most populous counties, that have issued school closure mandates in the past month, the Texas Tribune reported.

Patrick Hammas, a spokesman for AFT-BEST, a union associated with the American Federation of Teachers and that represents Brownsville educators, said Paxton’s letter contradicts guidance from Gov. Gregg Abbott on July 16 leaving it up to local authorities to close schools during the pandemic. Now the state is trying to force schools to reopen by saying that schools that don’t won’t be funded by the Texas Education Agency.

“ It shows a lack of leadership at the state level and disregard from TEA for the lives of students and teachers during this crisis,” he said. “At AFT-BEST we hope the governor and TEA will get their act together. Don’t play with our lives and our students’ lives.”

Hammas added that forcing schools to reopen by not funding them if they don’t amounts to “economic blackmail.” He said he expects to see lawsuits and for teachers’ unions to seek injunctions to keep schools closed.

“ The fear level is just tremendous. Many members have lost family members or are going through quarantine now,” he said, adding that if TEA withholds funding, layoffs or furloughs could be unavoidable.

“ We’re at the height of this. How many teachers are going to resign if forced to go back? It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Veronica Borrego, president of AOBE, the Association of Brownsville Educators, which is affiliated with the Texas State Teachers Association, said her organization is pushing at the state and local level “to make sure that safety is the priority for everyone.”

AOBE represents all BISD employees, from custodians to administrators, she said.

Alberto Alegria, president of TVEA, the Texas Valley Educators Association, another employees’ group, expressed solidarity with AOBE and AFT-BEST.

“ We all need to stick together because we only want what’s best for our students and our employees,” he said.

In Dallas, health officials have prohibited in-person classes until at least Sept. 8 and similar orders are in place in Houston. Paxton’s letter sent them scrambling to check its impact on their decisions and set up the potential for legal challenges.

“ Our actions to save lives from this crisis should be guided by public health, science, and compassion for the health and safety of our residents — not politics,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Paxton, a Republican, said local health officials’ authority is limited to addressing “specific, actual outbreaks of disease.” He previously said local health orders closing schools didn’t apply to private religious schools.

“ While playing an important role in protecting the health of school children and employees, local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections,” Paxton said.

TEA, which oversees public schools, meanwhile piled more pressure on, telling schools they risk losing state funding if they close campuses to comply with any order from local health authorities.

Abbott, a Republican, toured parts of South Texas hit by Hurricane Hanna, but didn’t address Paxton’s guidance directly when speaking with reporters in Corpus Christi. He did say school opening decisions are best left to local education officials with input from health authorities.

“ We have a duty to ensure we do not lose a generation of students because of this pandemic,” Abbott said. “We have an obligation to step up and make sure they are educated about reading, arithmetic, and things like that, but also they are educated in how to respond to challenges that may come their way in life. Pediatricians all recommend the best learning environment for a child is going to be in the classroom.”

The Texas State Teachers Association sharply criticized Paxton.

“ We trust health experts, not the attorney general, when children’s lives are at stake,” the group said in a statement.

Herald reporter Gary Long contributed to this report

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