The health authorities for the City of Houston and Harris County signed a joint public health order last week that restricts most schools in the region from holding in-person classes until at least Sept. 8, city and county officials announced July 24.
According to a letter to educators shared on Twitter by Harris County Public Health, the order applies to all public schools and non-religious private schools in the city and county. They will not be allowed to hold school-sponsored events and activities, including athletic competitions and other extracurricular activities, until in-person classes resume.
The order does not affect the plan previously outlined by Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas that includes several schools in the area. HISD plans to start school Sept. 8 and utilize online-only instruction for the first six weeks.
The Houston-area health order, and similar school-related orders throughout the state, were challenged Tuesday by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. He issued nonbinding legal guidance related to the authority of local health officials.
“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 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.”
The Texas Education Agency reportedly issued a statement later Tuesday saying public school districts could risk losing state funding if they keep campuses closed based solely on local health orders. The TEA previously said public schools could hold online-only instruction for up to eight weeks after the start of the 2020-21 academic year.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo responded by writing on Twitter that the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Houston region are at all-time highs and that hospitals “are teetering at capacity.”
Per a statewide order, all schools in Texas completed the 2019-20 academic year with remote, online-only learning.
“We’re in an immensely worse position than we were when things opened too early, leading to where we are now,” Hidalgo wrote. “We stand behind our decision to close schools.”