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Texas AG says schools trump health officials on class start

Texas

FILE – In this Wednesday, March 11, 2020, file photo, custodial staffer Hortensia Salinas uses an Electrostatic Clorox Sprayer to spray disinfectant in a classroom at Brownsville Early College High School in Brownsville, Texas. Closing schools to combat the spread of the coronavirus is having a sweeping impact on an annual rite of spring: the standardized tests that are dreaded by millions of students and teachers alike. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Local health officials in Texas do not have the authority to close schools solely to prevent a future spread of the coronavirus, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday, pushing that decision solely into the hands of school officials.

Paxton issued a “legal guidance” letter on schools amid fierce debate among local governments, health officials, parents and teaches as to when schools should open in a state that has become one of the nation’s hot spots in the pandemic.

Texas has seen new confirmed virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge over the month of July. On Monday, Texas reported more than 5,700 fatalities and nearly 10,000 COVID-19 patients in the hospital.

In response, dozens of cities, counties and school districts — including many in the state’s most populous areas — have already decided to delay school reopenings for the upcoming academic year.

In Dallas, health officials have prohibited in-person classes until at least Sept. 8 and similar orders are in place in Houston. Paxton’s letter sent them scrambling to check its impact on their decisions.

“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,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Paxton, a Republican, said local health officials’ authority is limited to addressing “specific, actual outbreaks of disease.” He previously said local health orders closing schools didn’t apply to private religious schools.

“While playing an important role in protecting the health of school children and employees, local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections,” Paxton said.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who toured South Texas areas hit by Hurricane Hanna, didn’t address Paxton’s guidance directly when speaking with reporters in Corpus Christi. But he said school opening decisions are best left to local education officials with input from health authorities.

“We have a duty to ensure we do not lose a generation of students because of this pandemic,” Abbott said. “We have an obligation to step up and make sure they are educated about reading, arithmetic, and things like that, but also they are educated in how to respond to challenges that make come their way in life. Pediatricians all recommend the best learning environment for a child is going to be in the classroom.”

The Texas State Teachers Association was sharply critical of Paxton’s opinion.

“We trust health experts, not the attorney general, when children’s lives are at stake,” the teachers group said in a statement.

Abbott also went to the Rio Grande Valley, which remains one of the nation’s worst hot spots for the virus and where the weekend storm made getting patients to treatment difficult.

Starr County had more than 1,800 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, with the most recent being as young as 5 years old. The county’s only hospital, which has fewer than 50 beds and no intensive care unit, has been at capacity for weeks. Hanna’s lashing winds and rain grounded medical transport helicopters for days, leaving doctors with no ability to airlift the most critical patients to treatment elsewhere.

“We’re in a dire situation,” Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal said. “If we continue on the same trajectory, countless more lives will be lost.”

Local officials have pleaded with Abbott for weeks to allow them to use tougher enforcement measures to force use of face masks and business closures. Abbott said local governments already have the authority of civil fines.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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