Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo revealed on Wednesday a new set of recommendations for when she and county public health officials believe area schools could safely reopen for in-person instruction, based on multiple COVID-19 metrics. During an afternoon press conference held to announce these legally non-binding guidelines, Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah from Harris County Public Health said they agree that county schools shouldn’t ask students to come back to the classroom any time soon.
“The countdown to the first day of school in-person is like a ticking time bomb, unless we do this right,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve made clear that it’s currently not safe, and it won’t be safe any time in the near future to open schools for in-person instruction.”
“This is simply not the time for in-person activities in our schools,” Shah reiterated.
The county’s data-driven guidelines for safe school reopening aren’t enforceable thanks to guidance issued in late July by State Attorney General Ken Paxton — and backed up by Gov. Greg Abbott — that said local officials can’t order schools to shut down preemptively to stop the spread of COVID-19 without a specific documented outbreak within a campus. Abbott, Paxton and the Texas Education Agency have all said that only school districts can make decisions about whether their classes will be offered online or on campus.
The Houston Independent School District previously announced that all their classes will be online-only for the first six weeks of the school year, which has been delayed to start on September 8. However, other Harris County school districts are planning to invite students back to their classrooms much sooner. For example, Humble Independent School District, which is in northeast Harris County, is allowing some students to return for in-person learning starting on Monday.
The newly-issued “Roadmap to Reopen Schools” ties recommended levels for conducting in-person classes to the existing Harris County COVID-19 threat level scale unveiled by Hidalgo back in June. Harris County has been at threat level red since June 26, indicating the highest possible risk of the scale’s four levels based on the county’s current 14-day average of over 400 new COVID-19 cases per day and a countywide test positivity rate of over five percent. At the current threat level, the county recommends that no school districts hold classes on campus.
On Wednesday, the Harris County Public Health Department and the Houston Health Department announced a combined 989 new cases of COVID-19 and 26 new deaths from the coronavirus between Harris County and the City of Houston, resulting in a cumulative total of 87,505 cases and 925 deaths across the entire county.
Shah reported that the current COVID-19 test positivity rate in Harris County is currently between 14 and 15 percent, and the positivity rate within Houston is 14.3 percent as of Wednesday. According to the latest hospitalization data from the Southeast Regional Advisory Council, 13.5 percent of Harris County’s general hospital beds and 32.6 percent of the county’s intensive care unit beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.
If Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level fell down a notch to the orange rating, the reopening guidelines advise that schools limit physical instruction to either 25 percent of all students or 500 students, whichever number is lower. That threshold would only be met if the positivity rate in Harris County falls below 5 percent, if the 14-day average of new daily cases falls below 400, if the percentage of COVID-19 patients in both general and intensive care unit beds falls below 15 percent and if all hospitalizations see an average decrease over two weeks. An additional downgrade to threat level yellow based on even lower COVID-19 metrics would come with the recommendation of only opening schools to the lower of 50 percent capacity or 1,000 students.
To help support local students who lack the internet access and devices necessary to successfully take classes online, the Harris County Commissioner’s Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to set aside $32 million “to end the digital divide” by providing over 120,000 mobile internet hotspots with unlimited data plans and over 250,000 digital devices to students in need.
In a press conference held later on Wednesday afternoon, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he and the Houston Health Department agree that local school districts shouldn’t hold in-person classes until the local positivity rate falls substantially.
“Until the positivity rate is down to 5 percent or below, I just don’t think it would be advisable to have on-campus learning,” Turner said.
Turner also implored all Houstonians who haven’t gotten a COVID-19 test to do so, and asked that city residents who haven’t been tested in the past month go and get tested once again. “If you haven’t been tested, for example, in the last 30 days, then you need to go get tested. If you’ve never been tested, then you need to go and get tested,” Turner said.
This request echoes the concern previously expressed by Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department that the steep decline in COVID-19 tests taken by Houstonians over the past month is due to people overreacting to news about declining COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Persse said that Houstonians can now expect to get test results back much more quickly than was possible even at the beginning of July due to fewer people seeking out coronavirus tests and the addition of new Houston Health Department testing sites in the past two weeks at Minute Maid Park downtown, Kingwood Park Community Center at 4102 Rustic Woods Drive in Kingwood and at Darrell Tully Stadium at 1050 Dairy Ashford in Houston.
The new sites at Kingwood Park Community Center and Darrell Tully Stadium are two of four surge testing sites in Harris County supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in addition to the Ken Pridgeon Stadium and San Jacinto College Central Campus sites operated by Harris County. On Wednesday, Abbott announced that the federal government has agreed to extend their financial support for all four of these surge testing sites through August 29.