According to a clarification issued by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath this week, school districts may continue to delay reopening for in-person instruction for as long as eight weeks.
Morath says the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will continue to grant funding waivers to public school districts who elect to offer virtual instead of in-person instruction for up to four weeks, and may extend the waivers for an additional four weeks if the locally elected school board votes for an extension.
Morath also notes that the agency will continue to adjust the funding waivers as the situation warrants.
Although schools will be encouraged to reopen for in-person instruction, TEA has reiterated that every parent will still have the option to choose remote learning for their own children for the entire duration of the 202-21 school year.
His statement followed the publication of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s guidance clarifying that while local public health officers may close facilities at which there has been an outbreak, they do not have power under either state law or the governor’s executive orders to order blanket closures of schools as a means to prevent the spread of COVID19.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) told The Texan that it was “absolutely crucial” that locally elected school boards make reopening decisions “based on the conditions within their own individual school district.”
“Wide-ranging preventative closure orders negate the ability of a district to operate independently based on their own decision making and circumvent the will of the school board, parents, and students,” said Taylor.
Senator Taylor also echoed Morath in saying waivers could be expanded beyond the eight week period.
“The situation remains fluid and nothing precludes further adjustment of current waiver periods should they prove necessary. School calendar responsibilities remain with local school boards, and TEA guidance offers comprehensive grace periods and accommodations to ensure districts will continue to receive full funding as they transition to serve their students.”
Prior to the attorney general’s new guidance, orders in Houston’s Harris County had also prompted a reaction from Texas Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who said local health authorities should work in conjunction with school districts and the Department of State Health Services to craft plans that would best meet specific needs.
Since the attorney general’s opinion appears to be non-binding, it is unclear as to whether county officials will rescind orders prohibiting in-person instruction.
During a regular public meeting on Tuesday, Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) asked the county attorney’s office if they needed to file a lawsuit to keep area schools closed. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said they would be looking at options in conjunction with other affected counties.
“So much of this is a direct attack on the county judge and her authority,” said Soard.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), also a member of the Senate Committees on Education and Higher Education, called on Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo to respect the opinion of the attorney general.
“Common sense prevails with this opinion by Attorney General Paxton,” said Bettencourt. “Let’s use this opinion to give the decision on opening schools back to the school boards, the teachers, the parents, and families of students. Reopening of schools can be done in a safe manner, as prescribed by the CDC and many medical doctor’s opinions.”
Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner want to keep schools closed at least through September 8, and in recent weeks urged the governor to let them order and enforce another economic lockdown.
Hidalgo has created her own alert system and since June 27 has kept the county at the highest possible level, “Severe.”
Although the Texas Medical Center reports declines in hospitalizations and ICU usage due to COVID-19, Hidalgo said it was a “grim milestone” when the total number of cases surpassed 60,000. She and Turner have continued to focus on positivity rates, which they say must be below 5 percent.
Harris County Public Health Executive Director Dr. Umair Shah says that one in four of those tested in the county is positive for COVID-19. The county now reports that there have been 69,126 confirmed cases this year.
Earlier this week, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX-01) tested positive for COVID-19, but says he has no symptoms of illness. Wesley Hunt, the Republican nominee for Congressional District 7 in Houston, has also tested positive but says he remains “asymptomatic.”
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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.