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Newswest 9 | Midland, Texas | newswest9.com

Judge Hidalgo says Gov. Abbott is 'just wrong' about reopening schools during pandemic

“I’m just so deeply afraid that this is a step back,” Harris County Judge Lena Hidalgo said. “It’s not responsible, it’s not right and it’s not safe.”

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Governor Greg Abbott is siding with Attorney General Ken Paxton on the issue of Texas schools reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They say local governments don’t have the power to force schools to delay in-person classes.

Houston health authorities issued an order last week to stop in-person learning, saying school districts must wait until at least Sept. 8 to bring students and staff back to campuses. The order was signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lena Hidalgo.

On Friday, Hidalgo accused the governor of playing politics with the health of teachers and students, "two community treasures."

“I’m just so deeply afraid that this is a step back,” Harris County Judge Lena Hidalgo said. “It’s not responsible, it’s not right and it’s not safe.”

But Abbott said that’s against long-standing Texas laws that leave the decision up to local school boards and Texas Education Agency guidance.

RELATED: Local governments don't have legal right to stop schools from reopening, Texas AG Ken Paxton says

The TEA previously announced that school boards can delay in-person learning for up to four weeks.

"The authority to decide how schools will safely open this year, again, lies with local school boards. It can be with students in schools, it can be through remote learning, or a combination of the two,” Abbott said in a statement. “In making that decision, school boards have the ability to base their decisions on advice and recommendations by local public health authorities but are not bound by those recommendations.”

Local authorities do have the right to close a school if there’s an outbreak on campus.

“But local health authorities 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,” according to Abbott.

RELATED: Teacher group responds to AG Paxton's statements about local orders that delay school reopenings

He said, “the top priority is protecting the health of students, teachers, staff and families.”

But many teachers are angry and scared to come back as the coronavirus continues to spread through many cities -- including Houston. They are worried about jeopardizing their own health, as well as their families’.  

The TSTA released a statement Friday calling for the state to mandate all schools open no earlier than September 8. 

“With a pandemic still raging across Texas, the Texas State Teachers Association demands that the state prohibit any school district from beginning classes, in-person or remotely, before Sept. 8," they said.

Several area school districts, including HISD, had already decided to offer online learning only until after Labor Day. Others are planning to begin in-person learning in August.

RELATED: Texas State Teachers Association wants in-person school delayed until September 8

RELATED: Houston-area school districts reveal reopening plans amid COVID-19 pandemic

    

Read Abbott's full statement:

Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, and House Education Chairman Dan Huberty released the following statement on school re-openings this fall:

"The Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) guidance for opening public schools in Texas for the 2020-21 school year remains the same as announced two weeks ago. This guidance followed a letter issued jointly by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker, and Chairs of the Senate and House Education Committees.

"The top priority is protecting the safety and health of students, teachers, staff, and families. To achieve that goal, the TEA provided local school boards the flexibility they need to open schools in ways that ensure public safety while also providing the best education options for students during this challenging school year.

"The TEA guidance applies long-standing state law and Executive Orders to conclude that the authority to make decisions about when and how schools safely open rests with the constitutionally and statutorily established local school boards.

"The authority to decide when the school year will begin lies with local school boards. They can choose dates in August, September, or even later. But, whenever the local school board chooses to open, the board must comply with the requirement to provide the necessary number of days and hours of instruction for students.

"The authority to decide how schools will safely open this year, again, lies with local school boards. It can be with students in schools, it can be through remote learning, or a combination of the two. In making that decision, school boards have the ability to base their decisions on advice and recommendations by local public health authorities but are not bound by those recommendations.

"As the TEA previously announced, school boards have up to a 4-week back to school transition period during which they can offer a solely remote instructional setting if that is deemed needed for the health and safety of students, teachers, staff and parents. After 4 weeks, the school district can extend the transition period up to another 4 weeks with a vote of the school board and receiving a waiver. If any school district believes they need an extension beyond 8 weeks due to COVID-19 related issues, the TEA will review that request on a case-by-case basis.

"If at any time during the school year a COVID-19 case is confirmed on a school campus, the school board has the ability to close the campus for up to 5 days to sanitize the campus. Schools that close under this scenario will continue to be funded for providing remote-only instruction.

"Additionally, during the course of the school year, a local public health authority may determine that a school building must be closed in response to an outbreak. If that occurs, that school will continue to receive funding for providing remote-only instruction during the period of that closure.

"Local school boards also have the flexibility to achieve health and safety goals by offering alternating on-campus/remote instruction for high school students in order to reduce the number of students in campus buildings at one time.

"The TEA and the Attorney General correctly note that local health authorities play an important role in school closure determinations during the course of a school year if it is determined that a contamination has occurred necessitating closure, but local health authorities 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. Pre-existing Executive Orders have repeatedly made clear that local government operations, such as public schools, are permitted to be open.

"School boards established by the Texas legislature play a unique and pivotal role in school decisions that must not be superseded by other local authorities unless expressly allowed. It is clear that school boards can and should work collaboratively with, but not be subject to the advance directives of, local public health authorities, to ensure a safe and effective learning environment for Texas students."