Ten public school district superintendents in Harris County this week sent a letter to health department director Dr. Umair Shah objecting to the county’s stringent benchmarks for school openings.
The August 17 letter notes that benchmarks announced by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dr. Shah last week would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction” while the community waits for a cure or vaccine or for implementation of county-level contact tracing.
The superintendents’ letter includes a statement from the American Academy for Pediatrics (AAP) arguing that keeping children in social isolation not only inhibits learning, but could also prevent intervention in cases of physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression, and suicidal tendencies.
Following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and the Texas Education Agency, they also write that local school districts have worked diligently for months to plan “a responsible return to school” and have implemented health and safety measures to promote safe operations.
They also point to mounting evidence that COVID-19 impacts children and adolescents differently than other common respiratory viruses, such as influenza, and ask that such evidence be considered.
The Harris County “Roadmap to Reopen Schools” however, ties school openings to the county’s own threat level system which has remained at Level 1 “Red, Severe” since late June.
Although reports from the Texas Medical Center, the county, and the Texas Department of State Health Services indicate that positivity rates and hospitalizations have declined in the region following a July peak, Harris County’s threat level system is determined by 5 metrics, including a reference to “the availability of countermeasures.”
As far as reducing the threat level, the county says lower positivity rates or hospitalizations are not sufficient, but that “all the thresholds for the indicators must be met sustainably.”
After receiving the superintendents’ letter, Harris County Health issued a statement asserting that their metrics would not keep schools closed indefinitely until a vaccine is available and the pandemic is over, but that they would recommend phased openings when it is safe to do so.
Following Hidalgo’s announcement about the new benchmarks last week, the Cy-Fair chapter of the Texas American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union sued to stop Cypress Fairbanks ISD from bringing teachers back to campus to begin school year preparations.
A Harris County District Court judge initially granted a temporary restraining order to the union, but last weekend the Supreme Court of Texas ruled in favor of the district. Attorney General Ken Paxton also filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the Harris County trial court had committed three “core legal errors” in issuing the restraining order.
Cy-Fair ISD has resumed on-site teacher trainings and orientations and students are scheduled to return for in-person classes on September 8.
Although Judge Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced in July they would be using the health department to keep schools closed, both the attorney general and Governor Abbott have clarified that local health departments do not have the authority to keep schools closed as a preventative measure.
In addition to Cy-Fair’s Dr. Mark Henry, superintendents signing the letter in objection to county benchmarks include Dr. Greg Smith of Clear Creek ISD, Stephen Harrell of Deer Park ISD, Dr. Benny Soileau of Huffman ISD, Dr. Elizabeth Fagen of Humble ISD, Dr. Kenneth Gregorski of Katy ISD, Dr. Jenny McGowan of Klein ISD, Dr. DeeAnn Powell of Pasadena ISD, Dr. Jennifer Blaine of Spring Branch ISD, Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora of Tomball ISD.
Houston ISD in the heart of Harris County is not planning to open to in-person learning outside of county guidelines. A recent report from local ABC 13 indicates that the district lost contact with more than 7,500 students and another 25,064 HISD students were never engaged during the final months of the school year.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.