Conflicting Guidance On School Openings Worries Teachers, Prompts Possible Lawsuits

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s new guidance to city and county officials says local health authorities cannot “issue blanket orders” to close schools to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

By Jill AmentJuly 30, 2020 12:49 pm, , ,

In a letter earlier this week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote that local health authorities do not have the legal authority to “issue blanket  orders” to close schools to protect students and staff from the coronavirus.

Paxton’s letter, addressed to the mayor of Stephenville, Texas, was an answer to the mayor’s question about who has the ultimate authority to close schools. Paxton’s guidance soon led the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, to change its own guidelines. Now, schools must reopen for in-person instruction by eight weeks after the start of the school year or they risk losing state funding.

Melissa Taboada, an education reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, told Texas Standard’s Joy Díaz that the decision is “a reversal” from what the TEA had announced just weeks ago.

“They had been defaulting to local health authorities that issued orders to keep school doors closed, and said school districts could continue to get full funding by the state by offering remote instruction,” Taboada said.

She said the new guidance means that some districts will likely start in-person instruction soon. Others like Austin Independent School District will start the fall semester on Aug. 18, but will have three weeks of remote instruction first.

Paxton’s guidance does not resolve the matter of school closures during the pandemic, however. Some districts are threatening to sue the state, and some teachers’ associations say Paxton’s decision was a political one. Taboada said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s action following Paxton’s decision is evidence of that. In a statement, Patrick said the attorney general’s decision was a remedy against Democratic county judges who had “overstepped their authority” on school closures during the pandemic.

Teachers “feel caught between state and local officials,” Taboada said.

Paxton’s guidance is not legally binding, though it “carries weight,” she said. Gov. Greg Abbott could step in and overrule local health authorities’ decisions to close schools, which would further Paxton’s case. But Taboada said there are still “legal questions that need to be addressed.”

Web story by Caroline Covington.

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