School Administrators Want Flexibility When It Comes To School Reopening

They say Texas’ attorney general “muddied the waters,” telling them not to follow local health authority orders to close.

By Rhonda Fanning & Jill AmentJuly 31, 2020 11:11 am, , ,

Members of the Texas Association of School Administrators are worried that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent opinion about school reopenings amid the pandemic created more confusion than clarity. In a statement the association released Thursday, the group said Paxton “muddied the waters” when he said that local health authorities don’t have the right to shut down schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools had been following guidance from local health officials, many of whom have asked schools to delay in-person instruction because of the pandemic. But Paxton’s guidance has led to the possibility that schools will lose out on state funding if they don’t fully reopen.

Kevin Brown, executive director for the association, told Texas Standard’s Joy Díaz on Friday that Paxton’s guidance, which came in the form of a letter to the mayor of Stephenville, Texas, wasn’t an official opinion or a binding letter. But the letter did have consequences. The Texas Education Agency, or TEA, updated its guidelines for school reopenings shortly after the letter was released. Now, the agency could withhold funding from schools that are considering staying closed because of orders from local health officials.

“The attorney general’s letter really put into question who is able to close a school,” Brown said.

He said it’s an example of the ongoing tension between state and local authorities during the pandemic.

Without a guarantee of funding, Brown said teachers’ jobs are at risk, which could have an effect on students whose education has been turned upside down because of COVID-19.

“We have contracts with all our employees but we don’t have the guarantee to fund those employees,” Brown said. “That’s a very big cliff that we’re staring at.”

Brown said his association wants to get kids back into the classroom as soon as it’s safe to do so. But it also wants to prioritize teachers’ health and safety. He said Paxton’s opinion and the current TEA guidelines don’t give schools the flexibility to make decisions based on local circumstances.

“We feel like local schools and their boards need to be able to make decisions based on the environment and the conditions in that community,” Brown said. “We have to have some flexibility.”

He said that could look like splitting up schedules so not all students are on campus at the same time. Current rules require a school to be fully open for in-person instruction if a parent desires that for their child.

“[The state] has threatened to cut off funding to schools if they don’t allow any child that wants to be in school at any time to be there,” he said.

Web story by Caroline Covington.

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