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Reopening Texas Schools

Harris County officials recommend, not mandate, that school districts stay closed to in-person instruction until October

On Tuesday, Tarrant County joined the list of other officials, including those in Dallas, who are mandating delayed school reopening.

Jessica Lemmer went over a fraction problem with her third grade math class Jan. 14, 2018 at Edward Titche Elementary Scho...

Harris County officials on Monday recommended that school districts across the Houston-area refrain from bringing students back for in-person instruction until at least October.

The message from county Judge Lina Hidalgo and Harris County Public Health Dr. Umair Shah did not issue a mandate, unlike what other county health officials have done, and instead "strongly urged schools to follow new Texas Education Agency provisions allowing an 8-week online instruction waiver."

“We continue to urge all in our community to stay home except for essential activities. The faster we bring the virus under control and bring the 'curve down,' the sooner schools will be able to reopen safely and stay open," Hidalgo wrote in a letter to school superintendents, that also acknowledged that schools provide many social services such as "much needed food assistance to many low-income families."

Tarrant County and the cities of Arlington and Burleson mandated Tuesday that public and non-religious private schools cannot reopen for in-person learning until Sept. 28, according to a joint order by local health officials. Officials recommended that private religious schools follow the step, though they aren't affected by the order.

Just last week Dallas County health officials announced Thursday that all public and private schools in the county must keep their classrooms closed through Sept. 7, according to a press release from Dallas County Health and Human Services.

The Dallas County mandate, which prohibits schools from reopening for “on-campus, face-to-face instruction” through Labor Day, was among a series of orders from local health officials since Texas announced schools had to reopen classrooms last week. Public health experts say opening school buildings in areas where the coronavirus is spreading quickly will exacerbate the virus’ impact.

Some of the largest urban and suburban school districts in the state, including thee 155,000-student Dallas Independent School District, will be required to keep their classrooms closed as a result of this order. Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told local reporters earlier this week that he was considering alternatives, including pushing the start date later than Aug. 17, to prepare for fall during the virus’ surge.

After the Texas Education Agency said last week it is requiring public schools to offer in-person instruction five days per week to all students who want it, El Paso and Laredo health officials were among the first to issue mandates keeping local schools entirely virtual through August.

At the time, it was unclear whether state officials would override them. But the TEA confirmed to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that it would continue to fund schools that kept their buildings closed due to a local health mandate as long as they offered remote instruction to all students.

Last week’s statewide guidance also said school districts had just three weeks at the beginning of the year to stay entirely virtual and get their safety plans ready before bringing more students on campus.

But after educators loudly criticized the guidance, state officials said they would allow more flexibility for school districts that want to stay entirely virtual for longer. The revised guidance is expected to be released Friday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a phone call with superintendents Thursday afternoon.

While statewide orders are in flux, local health and education officials are crafting their own measures in response to high COVID-19 rates, hospitalizations and deaths in their regions. Travis County barred in-person classes in public and private schools through Labor Day. Hidalgo County health officials said Tuesday that local schools must keep their classrooms closed through Sept. 27.

Other school districts have decided to keep their classrooms closed even without local health mandates. Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it would start the year with six weeks of virtual classes right after Labor Day, subject to change if state or local officials issue other guidance.

Stacy Fernández and Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Dallas County health officials announced required classroom closures. It was Thursday.

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