Texas governor overrides local health officials to reopen schools

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Several other top Republicans joined Gov. Greg Abbott in declaring that only local school boards, not health professionals, can decide if schools should close during the pandemic.

Top Republican officials in Texas issued a joint statement on Friday sidelining health experts when it comes to decisions about reopening schools next month.

"The authority to decide when the school year will begin lies with local school boards," not health officials, read a statement from Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Senate Education Chair Larry Taylor, and House Education Chair Dan Huberty.

Health authorities can provide advice and issue recommendations, but school boards "are not bound by those recommendations," the officials wrote.

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While the statement praised the contributions of local health officials, it also made clear that they "do not have the power to issue preemptive, blanket closures of schools weeks or months in advance of when a school may open its doors to students."

Health officials are empowered to close individual school buildings in the case of contamination or localized outbreak, they said.

The statement was a response to health officials in at least 16 localities who issued school closing mandates because of the coronavirus, according to the Texas Tribune, who said they had the authority to do so under state laws dealing with controlling communicable diseases.

But on Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, also a Republican, issued nonbinding guidance stating the health officials had no such authority over schools. Following Paxton's announcement, the Texas Education Agency revised its guidance, warning that schools could lose funding if they did not have approval from the agency to stay closed to in-person instruction.

The agency's guidance stated that schools may opt to remain closed for the first four weeks of instruction, and can extend that closure for another four weeks with a vote from the school board and a waiver from the agency. After eight weeks, school boards would need permission from the agency to remain closed to in-person instruction.

Texas, the nation's second-most populous state, has been a coronavirus hotspot for much of the summer.

On July 7, the state saw more than 10,000 cases in a single day, setting a new record. On Wednesday, the state recorded 313 deaths from coronavirus, also a new high.

"You're having [a] record-breaking number of people testing positive, record-breaking number of people hospitalized including in the intensive care units as well as, unfortunately, far too many deaths," Abbott told KRGV, a local ABC affiliate, on Tuesday about how the pandemic was impacting parts of Texas along the Rio Grande.

Teachers across the nation are worried about returning to the classroom in the middle of a pandemic.

The American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 1.7 million school employees, announced support for any local chapters that decide to strike over unsafe working conditions caused by the pandemic.

"We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators," Randi Weingarten, the union's president, said Tuesday at the group's annual convention. "But if authorities don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table."

Parents share similar concerns about safety.

A national poll released July 27 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 60% of parents said it would be better to open schools later to lessen the risk of coronavirus. A poll by the advocacy group ParentsTogether found similar results, with 59% of parents saying schools should remain closed until there is no health risk.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.