Texas Schools Must Reopen 8 Weeks Into Academic Year If They Want Funding
Guidance from Attorney General Ken Paxton also says public school officials should decide if, when and how to open school — not public health officials.
Under new guidance released Tuesday by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, local health officials should not have the authority to close schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and schools will lose state funding if they choose to do so.
While Paxton said local health authorities have played a vital role in protecting student and employee health, his new nonbinding legal guidance says they cannot issue sweeping orders on closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections, reports KVUE. Instead, their role is limited by statute to address specific and actual outbreaks.
According to Paxton’s guidance, only public school officials can decide whether, when and how to open school but must follow guidelines from the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Parents and teachers have voiced frustration with the new guidance as it conflicts with what local health authorities and the TEA previously indicated. On July 15, a TEA spokesperson told KVUE that local public health officials would be able to keep schools closed for in-person instruction without risking state funding, as long as they offer online learning. On July 16, Governor Gregg Abbott said it was up to local authorities to close schools during the pandemic, according to The Valley Morning Star.
However, Paxton’s new guidelines say otherwise and the TEA has updated its guidelines to reflect the changes. According to the TEA, schools that choose online-only because local health officials tell them to will not receive funding from the state. There are a few exceptions, including if a start-of-year transition period is in place, such as the 8-week transition period the TEA is giving school districts.
Earlier this month, TEA said school districts can temporarily limit access to on-campus learning for the first four weeks of school. They can also continue to limit access for an additional four weeks, if needed, with a board-approved waiver request to the TEA. After the 8-week transition period, the TEA will not provide funding.
Northside Independent School District, the largest district in the San Antonio area, held a board meeting Tuesday night. Superintendent Brian Woods said he and other superintendents would consider filing a lawsuit seeking to keep their classrooms closed longer if necessary, according to The Texas Tribune.
“Starting in the ninth week of our respective school years, regardless of the status of the virus in our communities, as the guidance is written today, we would be faced with two options,” he said in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News editorial board Wednesday. “One would be to ignore a local health order, and in doing so likely put our students and staff and families at risk, or lose funding, which is essential to teaching and serving our families.”
In a press conference Tuesday, San Antonio officials expressed confusion over why Paxton chose to issue guidance now.
“Every time, it seems, that our attorney general appears on the scene during this pandemic, it creates confusion and chaos and it leaves a wake. And that confusion and chaos could cost lives this fall,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Some local health officials have said they don’t view Paxton’s guidance as a mandate overruling theirs and will keep their original plan in place. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, whose county has mandated that schools close through Sept. 7, said local officials will make decisions with student safety as the top priority “regardless of what opinion General Paxton comes up with.”
Texas has seen new confirmed coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge during the month of July. On Tuesday, the state reported 164 new deaths, bringing the state death toll to approximately 5,900 with 10,000 current hospitalizations.