HOUSTON — The decision to delay Houston-area schools from reopening in-person learning until at least Sept. 8 may not be legal, according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
He said Tuesday local authorities may not issue "sweeping orders closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections. Rather, their role is limited by statute to addressing specific, actual outbreaks of disease."
The order to stop in-person learning at Houston and Harris County schools came from top health authorities Friday and was signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
"Our actions to save lives from this crisis should be guided by public health, science, and compassion for the health and safety of our residents - not politics," Hidalgo said in a statement.
Several area school districts, including HISD, had already decided to offer online learning only until after Labor Day. Others were planning to begin in-person learning in August.
Paxton said the decision should be left up to the districts.
“While local health authorities may possess some authority to close schools in limited circumstances, they may not issue blanket orders closing all schools on a purely preventative basis," Paxton said in a letter. "That decision rightfully remains with school system leaders.”
The Texas State Teachers Association accused Paxton of putting politics above protecting the lives of students, teachers and their families.
"The Texas State Teachers Association has more confidence in the professionalism of local health officials and their determination to act in the best interests of all Texans, including our children," the TSTA said in a statement. "We have less confidence in Ken Paxton, whose primary goal as attorney general has been to advance an ideological agenda. Now, he is promoting President Trump’s election-year demands that school campuses reopen prematurely, regardless of the price that educators, students and their families may pay."
Trump softened his stance last week and agreed that some schools in COVID-19 hot spots may need to delay reopening.
It's not clear yet how Paxton's decision will affect the order for Houston and Harris County school districts.
Read Hidalgo's full statement:
“The County Attorney’s office is reviewing the letter from Attorney General Paxton and we will consider what - if any - impact this will have on local school reopening plans. What we know for sure is that our schools and community are no safer today than they were at the beginning of this pandemic. In fact, there are much higher levels of community spread and hospitalizations today than at the end of the last school year. Our actions to save lives from this crisis should be guided by public health, science, and compassion for the health and safety of our residents - not politics. That is why we’ve consulted with superintendents from across the region to put forth a health order that protects the health and safety of our community given the severity of this threat right now. Over the last few weeks we’ve heard from parents, teachers, and school staff desperate for action to protect their community and concerned about the impacts of opening too soon will have on their health and that of the community as a whole. We’ll continue working on their behalf and take action to do everything within our power to do what’s best for the people of Harris County.”
Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney for Harris County, told Commissioners Court his office is working with other major counties to figure out next steps.
“Our first response is not litigation,” Soard said. “It’s not the run to the courthouse. Our first response is to talk to people to see what’s being worked out, see if there is an agreement on just what the law is.”
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath issued this statement Tuesday evening.
“As a state agency, we will follow the Attorney General’s guidance. Consequently, a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction for an indefinite period of time. However, another valid funding exception may apply, such as a start-of-year transition period. For example, school systems may begin the year virtually under TEA funding waivers for up to four weeks, and subject to a vote of the local school board, can extend that for an additional four weeks. TEA will also continue to adjust its waivers as the situation warrants. Protecting the health of students, teachers, and staff remains our first priority.”
Check back for more on this developing story.