IDEA Ingram Hills first grade teacher Jasmine DeSha teaches her students about Ruby Bridges during Black History Month.
IDEA first grade teacher Jasmine DeSha instructs her students at the Ingram Hills campus. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The next challenge for local elected officials, public health workers, and educators will come with the confusing tangle of Texas school openings in the coming weeks and how best to keep campus life safe for returning students, educators, and support staff.

It’s a responsibility made more difficult by the continuing lack of leadership among state elected and appointed officials, and their failure to develop a common-sense, coordinated response with local elected leaders, and then communicating a clear plan to reassure families and educators.

Parents, educators, and local officials can’t make good decisions if, at every turn, they are thwarted by state leaders who seldom speak in one voice and too often allow partisan political views to infect public health decisions.

Read one informed parent’s concerns published on our site last week. She is right to be concerned: Once again this past week the state’s top elected officials have undermined local authority and, by doing so, put more people at risk.

Handled poorly and in a patchwork manner, campus openings could very well lead to the next coronavirus spike, spreading first in the classroom and then in ever-widening circles from there. Everyone wants students learning again, but teachers can’t do their best work and students will not learn much if both are subjected to another spike and individual campuses have to close again.

We have been living with the COVID-19 pandemic since March, but July was the worst, here and nationwide, accounting locally for 70 percent of all cases to date.

If you find it difficult to follow the contradictory pronouncements about school openings coming from the state capital, you are not alone. Last week Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff found it necessary to send a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking him to clarify lines of authority in deciding when campuses can safely reopen.

That request came one day after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued confusing, nonbinding guidance stating that local health authorities have the power to issue orders that control communicable diseases but lack the authority to “indiscriminately close schools – public or private.”

There is nothing “indiscriminate” about the thoughtful work local elected leaders and public health officials have done in concert with school superintendents. Politics have played no part in their collective, science-based deliberations.

Paxton’s guidance challenged orders issued in various Texas cities, including one by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District that prohibited any in-person class from taking place until after Labor Day. Because of Metro Health’s order, most of San Antonio’s private and public school systems had informed families that students would not return to campus until after Sept. 7.

Now that schools can open this month, the local order is undermined, and once again, San Antonio risks an accelerating outbreak.

Paxton’s guidance contradicted earlier statements issued by the Texas Education Agency, further confusing and frustrating school superintendents. Brian Woods, the superintendent of Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest public school district, threatened state officials with a lawsuit in an effort to impose some order to the process.

Woods also is president of the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), yet he is rarely consulted by state elected officials on such education policy decisions. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath holds weekly Zoom meetings with superintendents, but questions must be submitted in writing. Morath otherwise has been conspicuously absent these past five months as the face of public education in the state.

Morath’s name did not appear on Abbott’s statement issued Friday supporting Paxton’s guidance that limits the authority of local officials to close schools. They can do so only if there’s evidence of an outbreak after students have already returned to campus. Prevention is no longer within their authority. The statement was co-signed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick; House Speaker Dennis Bonnen; State Rep. Dan Huberty, who chairs the House education committee; and State Sen. Larry Taylor, who chairs the Senate education committee.

In Texas, politicians, not professionals, are in charge of the pandemic.

The group approach to Abbott’s release is a new approach. The governor stumbled repeatedly in his unilateral and contradictory pronouncements regarding facial mask use. Now he has company. The governor, as noted in this Texas Monthly article, remains a public figure who opts for political accommodation over tough decision-making.

Abbott’s statement supporting Paxton’s guidance came after Pastors John and Matthew Hagee, archconservatives who do not hesitate to bring politics to the pulpit, filed a lawsuit on behalf of their Cornerstone Christian Schools, challenging the City and County health directive on school openings.

The very fact that Paxton has standing in this or any other matter strains credulity. July marks the fifth anniversary of his indictment on criminal charges of fraud relating to his legal work and lobbying before his election to the AG’s office. Since then the case has been subjected to years of delays and appeals that have kept Paxton in office and free from trial on the charges. If you are unable to think of anyone else winning a five-year reprieve from such criminal charges, you would be right.

The Rivard Report’s education reporter, Emily Donaldson, called the TEA after Paxton’s guidance and Abbott’s statement to seek clarification on how the agency will treat districts that resist opening campuses if the outbreak remains alarming. Will districts be penalized with reduced funding?

TEA officials did not respond, but a spokesman provided this written statement: “The Texas Education Agency is committed to providing necessary flexibility for school districts to ensure schools are able to educate students while maintaining the health and safety of all students, teachers, staff, and families.”

Parents and educators: Does that clear things up for you?

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.