Texas attorney general says local officials lack authority to keep schools closed

Harris County judge says county attorney will review Paxton's guidance

HOUSTON – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that local officials lack the authority to keep schools closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Paxton said that state law limits the duties of local health authorities to addressing actual outbreaks of disease instead of issuing sweeping orders to prevent future infections.

“Education of our children is an essential Texas value and there is no current statewide order prohibiting any school from opening,” Paxton said in a written statement. “While local health authorities may possess some authority to close schools in limited circumstances, they may not issue blanket orders closing all schools on a purely preventative basis. That decision rightfully remains with school system leaders.”

Paxton said he was issuing his opinion in response to a request from the mayor of Stephenville in north-central Texas and that the letter is not legally binding.

A copy of Paxton’s letter can be found here.

Hidalgo’s response

Paxton’s statement comes days after the health authorities at both Harris County Public Health and the Houston Health Department signed a joint order to keep schools closed to in-person instruction until Sept. 8. The order did not prevent schools from holding virtual classes.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county attorney is reviewing Paxton’s guidance and will determine if it has any impacts on plans to reopen schools.

“What we know for sure is that our schools and community are no safer today than they were at the beginning of this pandemic,” Hidalgo said in a written statement. “In fact, there are much higher levels of community spread and hospitalizations today than at the end of the last school year. Our actions to save lives from this crisis should be guided by public health, science, and compassion for the health and safety of our residents - not politics."

Hidalgo said her team has consulted with superintendents across the region before announcing her plan to keep schools closed until at least September.

“Over the last few weeks we’ve heard from parents, teachers, and school staff desperate for action to protect their community and concerned about the impacts of opening too soon will have on their health and that of the community as a whole,” Hidalgo said in the statement. “We’ll continue working on their behalf and take action to do everything within our power to do what’s best for the people of Harris County.”

So far there have been no lawsuits over the Harris County school order, but State Senator Paul Bettancourt expects that won’t be the case for long.

“If the county wants to make the mistake of trying to fight the Attorney General, and the school boards on it. I’ll predict they’ll lose because I’m very sure, after reading this opinion today. they’re going to lose at the Texas Supreme Court, Bettancourt said.

Harris County Attorney Robert Soard told commissioners Tuesday he was in talks with other counties for a coordinated response to Paxton.

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