At a press conference last Friday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that the county health authority would issue new orders effectively prohibiting most schools from conducting in-person instruction at least through September 8.
The order, posted late Friday, was signed by appointees Dr. Umair Shah of the Harris County Health Authority and Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Authority.
Noting that the authority to close schools lies with local health authorities rather than the Texas Education Agency, Shah and Persse’s order effectively prohibits all public and non-religious private schools from conducting any in-person instruction at least through September 8, 2020.
The order also prohibits any sports, clubs, or other extra-curricular activities or competitions either on or off-campus until the county permits schools to open. Each school system is also required to submit a written plan for re-opening to be approved by county and city public health authorities.
Huberty, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, told listeners on KSEV radio that he had communicated with Judge Hidalgo and county officials on Thursday evening and requested modifications to protect the most vulnerable students.
His requests included an exception for students with special needs to receive in-person instruction.
“These kids are the most vulnerable kids we have in our population and they have not been in school now for six months,” said Huberty.
Other modifications Huberty requested included allowing homeless and foster children without connectivity to have in-person instruction, allowing young children of teachers conducting online instruction to attend school with their parents, and allowing UIL activities such as sports and band practices to proceed under proper social distancing and health protocols.
None of Huberty’s requests were included in the county orders.
Huberty said he also requested that the county work with local school districts, who were already creating safe reopen plans, to come up with workable modifications over the weekend, but he was told, “no.”
He noted that he would be looking at possible legal remedies.
Last week the Center for Disease Control issued a guidance document emphasizing the importance of reopening schools and offering protocols for safe openings. The CDC noted that fewer than 0.1 percent of COVID-19-related deaths were among minors.
During the presser, Dr. Shah asserted that children do contract, become ill, and spread COVID-19. His comments contrasted with CDC guidance and some of the implications from early studies of European school reopening.
Shah also cautioned against looking at data and procedures from other regions, but that Harris County should be focused on “our community” and “making sure our community is safe, healthy, and ultimately protected.”
Local health authorities have also ordered school closures in other parts of the state, including El Paso, Laredo, and Dallas.
In accordance with a ruling from Attorney General Ken Paxton, authorities may not impose restrictions on religious private schools.
Bettencourt told The Texan he would be requesting further clarification of local health office authority over schools from the attorney general this week.
Hidalgo was joined at Friday’s press conference by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County “COVID Recovery Czar” Rep. Armando Walle, and doctors Shah and Persse.
While acknowledging that there had been slight declines in the hospitalizations for coronavirus, Hidalgo emphasized that the region had now reported more than 60,000 cases, which she called a “grim milestone.”
Turner also noted there had been a “modest, minor decrease” in hospitalizations and ICU usage, but said the focus would remain on reducing COVID positivity rates to 5 percent before any reopening.
Both Hidalgo and Turner indicated the in-person instruction prohibitions could be extended beyond September 8.
According to the latest DSHS figures, statewide positivity rates are declining while positivity rates for antibody tests have increased.
Elected officials have continued to spar over the need for new shut down measures in Harris County.
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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.