Chaos for public schools

We all want schools to be open as soon as possible, but it has to be safe for students, as well as the faculty and staff.

Less than two weeks ago, Tarrant County public health officials ordered school buildings closed until late September, to hopefully allow for our dangerously high COVID-19 case counts to decline substantially. Our local schools were prepared to conduct all-virtual instruction for students in the meantime, with on-campus instruction for special needs students.

All of these plans were in accordance with the official guidance provided by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) less than two weeks ago — if local public health officials declared it was unsafe for schools to be open, as long as districts were providing virtual instruction, the state would continue to provide funding.

Last week, Attorney General Ken Paxton blew up the plans of school districts in Tarrant County and across the state when he issued a letter declaring public health authorities had no ability to close schools, unless there is already an infectious disease outbreak underway in those schools.

Even though Paxton’s letter is non-binding (it’s just his opinion and does not have the force of law), the TEA reversed course; no longer will schools be funded if closed because of a local health authority order.

Needless to say, this is a huge problem.

It won’t matter if a community is hitting record-breaking COVID-19 case numbers or hospitals are at capacity, schools will have to open their doors, or lose the funding they’re entitled to under state law and the Texas Constitution.

If we have learned anything during the COVID-19 pandemic, hopefully it is that we need to listen to scientists and doctors. The virus won’t magically “go away” just because we are tired of dealing with it. Believing myths like “kids can’t catch COVID” — they most definitely can and do — won’t make us safer. Denial and avoidance do not constitute a strategy for success. We need to rely on data and science and make decisions accordingly.

Speaking of people who have been slow to embrace science these past several tragic months, Governor Greg Abbott has been completely silent on Paxton’s letter and the TEA’s subsequent flip-flop this week. Of course, the TEA would not have made that decision without Abbott’s OK. If only he would own the decision, speak directly to Texans about it and provide some clarity! But instead, he is silent.

The result of this flawed decision-making is more confusion and chaos for parents, students, teachers and school administrators. It’s not fair and it’s a reflection of really poor leadership.

I know our schools will do the best they can in these really difficult circumstances. But Paxton and Abbott have made a challenging situation even more difficult. It didn’t have to be this way.