Yesterday, County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a new set of stringent benchmarks she says must be met before Harris County schools should open for in-person instruction.
Hidalgo’s “Roadmap to Reopen Schools” parallels a COVID-19 threat level system established by the county earlier this summer that has rated the region as level “Red, Severe” since June 27.
The school opening benchmarks reject possible reopening dates and guidelines suggested by both the state and the Center for Disease Control, and insist schools must remain closed until Harris County meets a set of metrics including:
- reports fewer than 400 new cases per day across a 14-day span,
- has fewer than 15 percent total usage of hospital beds for COVID-19,
- reports a test positivity rate below 5 percent.
As with much of the state, data indicates that Harris County saw a peak in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in July, but numbers have been trending lower since then.
Both the county and the City of Houston also report a dramatic decrease in individuals tested although with fewer individuals seeking tests, which leaves positivity rates relatively high.
With an estimated population of more than 4.7 million, Harris County reported 989 new COVID-19 cases on August 12, with a positive testing rate of approximately 15 percent.
“We make clear it is not safe and will not be safe anytime soon to open schools for in-person instruction,” said Hidalgo.
Although Hidalgo says her benchmarks are data-focused, other elected leaders say she is relying on the wrong metrics to justify keeping schools and the local economy at a standstill.
“She needs to use numbers that are real numbers like the Texas Medical Center (TMC) data,” said Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).
According to the TMC, daily new COVID-19 hospitalizations have averaged a decline of 2.1 percent over the past 7 days. TMC notes that while “daily new cases may fluctuate for a variety of reasons, the daily hospitalization trend shows an objective view of how COVID-19 impacts hospital systems.”
“Hospitalizations should be the key statistic for any plan,” said Bettencourt. “Mathematically, I don’t see how Hidalgo’s plan would let in-classroom instruction happen until 2021.”
“We are well off half of the peak, down more than 50 percent,” Bettencourt told The Texan. “That’s where the county threat level should be shifting to orange.”
Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) expressed concern over the impact on vulnerable children and families who would be harmed by continued school closures.
“We are winning the battle against COVID-19,” said Creighton. “The single greatest threat to the employment of a single mom is to keep schools closed.”
Creighton also noted that some children rely on local schools for nutrition and other supports.
“With COVID-19 having a 99 percent survival rate and millions of Texans depending upon employment and keeping their kids learning, we need to open schools on time with appropriate safeguards.”
Both Attorney General Ken Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott have affirmed that legal authority to close or open schools lies primarily with local school district officials, and Texas Education Agency guidance says elected school board trustees should work with staff and local health boards to determine reopening dates.
Hidalgo claimed yesterday that her authority over schools was recently “stripped away,” but that some school officials had requested reopening guidelines from county government.
Although she cannot order schools to close, Bettencourt says Hidalgo is using her bully pulpit and a combination of “scare and pressure tactics” to keep the community on lockdown.
Parents and education unions have clashed over school openings across the country. A survey of New York City parents showed that 75 percent wanted their children back in school, and Governor Andrew Cuomo authorized districts to open under approved plans, but union members have consistently resisted moving forward with in-person instruction.
As early as June, the Texas American Federation of Teachers signaled opposition to school openings and union President Zeph Capo issued a statement saying “‘Hell No’ to what might look like a return to normal in August.”
Last month, Texas House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) rebuked Harris County for initial school closure orders that refused to include exceptions for homeless and foster children, special needs students, and outdoor UIL activities either on or off-campus.
Several public school districts with schools in Harris County have been working on reopening plans and several have already published plans for staggered or limited opening to parents who choose in-person instruction. Humble ISD for example will open to certain special education students on August 17 and other students on August 24. TEA guidelines allow parents to choose between online and in-person instruction this year.
While the governor has said local authorities do not have the authority to keep schools closed or order additional economic lockdowns, Lina Hidalgo says residents should adhere to the Harris County COVID-19 alert system for all activity.
“No in-person instruction should take place at our current level, red. In fact, no gatherings of any kind should be taking place right now throughout the community.”
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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.