School boards in San Antonio will have the power to choose when to start on-campus instruction this fall, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Friday night. In mid-July, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District issued an order barring in-person class from taking place until after Labor Day.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance stating local health authorities don’t have the power to issue preventative school closures and on Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott agreed.

Metro Health plans to issue an amended health order next week that will include recommendations meant to guide school districts on when and how to restart class on campuses. Most of San Antonio’s school districts already announced they plan to begin class remotely once the fall semester resumes.

Metro Health’s recommendations will draw on health indicators that will be helpful in determining when in-person capacity can expand, Nirenberg said. But even without the order restricting in-person class, San Antonio officials cautioned against an immediate campus opening.

“It’s not a good idea right now, where we are in Bexar County’s numbers, to reopen schools,” said Dr. Junda Woo, Metro Health’s medical director. “That’s going to change, I hope, as everybody keeps doing what they need to do week by week.”

Nirenberg and City Attorney Andy Segovia both said they disagreed with Abbott and Paxton’s interpretation of State law but would not challenge it.

“Under the law, we could take this to the mat, but we’re not,” Segovia said. “We’re going to clear the air and make sure that educators, parents, and students know what they need to do if they’re looking forward in terms of who is going to make decisions.”

On Friday, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, and House Education Chairman Dan Huberty wrote that local health authorities can order schools closed “in response to an outbreak.”

“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,” they wrote.

In an interview with KENS Friday afternoon, Abbott elaborated.

“If once schools open up, a local health authority says, ‘Listen there are concerns about health in a particular school,’ the local health authority still has that authority to shut down the school while the school does provide that remote-learning opportunity,” he said.

Abbott and his co-authors noted in their statement that districts have some flexibility in the first eight weeks of the school year – districts can restrict on-campus activities for that period of time. The leaders said TEA will also review individual requests for an extension of this flexibility because of COVID-19 related issues.

However, a TEA spokesman on Friday had no details about what this extended flexibility would look like or how districts could apply for it.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.