Earlier today, Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton issued a press release sharing a letter he penned to Stephenville Mayor Doug Svien about local authorities’ power (or lack thereof) to restrict schools from reopening for on-campus instruction. Though non-binding, Paxton’s letter cautions that local health authorities cannot issue closure orders or other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that would conflict with either state law or Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders already in effect. Paxton then argues that orders recently issued by some local health authorities conflict with both.
The AG’s letter notes that a handful of cities and counties — mostly located in urban areas more acutely affected by rising numbers of COVID-19 infections — have recently issued orders to restrict area schools from opening their doors prior to a particular date. Paxton counters with advice that such “blanket quarantine orders” issued as a prophylactic measure are prohibited. Only actual infection on the campus, according to the AG’s reasoning, would warrant the issuance of a local order to close the school to on-campus instruction. “To the extent a local health authority seeks to employ section 81.085 to order closure of a school, the authority would need to demonstrate reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease,” writes Paxton in the letter.
On the heels of the AG’s letter, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document that was issued July 17, 2020, with a newer version today, along with an “Attendance and Enrollment FAQ” document that is similarly revised.
In the latest guidance, TEA explains that because of the AG’s interpretation, “a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction.” This differs from prior TEA guidance which assured schools they would continue to receive funding if they were forced to close by a local order. Now those closure orders would have to meet the additional hurdles outlined by AG Paxton, including a vague requirement of being based on “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.” Notwithstanding the AG’s letter, TEA also clarifies in the newest documents out today that schools may still be funded while operating remotely if they are doing so under other permissible conditions, such as during the allowed four-week transition period that was announced in the earlier TEA guidance.
Many Texas public schools have already announced plans to operate virtually for the first few weeks of their school year while preparing for a return to on-campus instruction. School districts may also request a one-time extension of the state-sanctioned four-week transition period if voted upon by their board of trustees. It is believed that most of the existing local health orders restricting a return to campus would overlap with the four-to-eight-week transition period already authorized by TEA, making it unlikely that a school district would have to risk a loss of funding because of a delay in returning to campus at the beginning of the school year. Once the transition period expires, however, school districts may find themselves in a precarious position if their local health officials’ recommendations conflict with state orders in effect at the time. TEA also points out that school districts have their power to set their own calendars, which some may find a need to revise.
TEA’s new resources shared today also include a “Guidebook for Public Health Operations,” which includes protocols schools may use in responding to an lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 and recommendations for collaborating with local health officials to discuss and conduct planning exercises ahead of the new school year:
“School systems, local health departments and local health authorities should make contact prior to the start of school and conduct a tabletop exercise (detailed at the end of this document) to determine how they will work together. … As part of the exercise, these parties will determine how to best work together in the instance of a positive case.”
While ATPE is pleased to see the suggestions for collaborative planning to respond to the COVID-19 infections within a local school community that are likely to occur in the near future, it would have been more helpful for schools to have received this guidance from the state earlier in the summer rather than within days or weeks of starting the new school year. The new TEA guidebook also adds a somewhat perfunctory statement that local “planning efforts should also engage parents and teachers,” which ATPE has urged for months now in our recommendations to local and state officials.
We are aware that many school district leaders are grappling with a maze of differing and even contradictory orders and advice on how to begin the new school year. This is especially true for districts located within the boundaries of multiple city or county jurisdictions that may not agree on how to respond to the pandemic. As noted in a statement issued today, ATPE urges the state to provide clearer direction and leadership to help schools decipher these orders and guidelines.
“ATPE recognizes that COVID-19 has created fluid situations that demand frequent updates and revisions to plans. However, with multiple directives and guidance being issued by different branches and levels of government, it is no surprise that school leaders and educators are frustrated. The state should do everything in its power to protect the lives of Texans and support a safe and productive learning environment, not create needless confusion.”
As additional developments occur and guidance from government officials continues to change, ATPE encourages educators to visit our COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for answers to frequently asked questions, which we will continue to update.