Texas Attorney General Says Local Health Authorities Can't Close Schools

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legally nonbinding letter on Tuesday arguing that local health authorities can't close schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legally nonbinding letter on Tuesday arguing that local health authorities can't close schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Dobrislava, Wikimedia Commons

A new missive from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has muddied the waters on who has the authority to shut down state classrooms to in-person instruction due to COVID-19.

In a legally nonbinding guidance letter published Tuesday, Paxton argued that Texas state law and Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide reopening orders don’t allow local health authorities to order the closure of schools in their jurisdictions. Paxton’s interpretation runs contrary to previous statements from the Texas Education Agency that said local health authorities had the power to close Texas schools due to public health concerns.

Paxton’s new guidance laid out his view that only school officials have the right to order schools to shut their doors. He argued that while health authorities have the power to issue rules around specific documented outbreaks within a given school, he doesn’t believe they have the right to “indiscriminately” close schools to prevent such an outbreak from happening in the first place.

“Education of our children is an essential Texas value and there is no current statewide order prohibiting any school from opening. 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,” Paxton wrote. “That decision rightfully remains with school system leaders.”

On Friday, local health authorities Dr. Umair Shah of Harris County Public Health and Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department issued an order that required all non-religious schools in Harris County to delay in-person instruction though at least September 7 based on their concern that classrooms could become vectors for spreading COVID-19 as the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly through the greater Houston area.

Private religious schools were left out of the Harris County order due to a previously issued guidance letter from Paxton that said any government effort to interfere with their reopening plans would violate their legally protected religious freedoms.

Local health authorities from the counties surrounding Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio have also recently issued similar orders requiring area schools to keep their classrooms closed and conduct all classes virtually through Labor Day.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that county officials are in the process of figuring out what Paxton’s new guidance could mean for Harris County schools. “The County Attorney’s office is reviewing the letter from Attorney General Paxton and we will consider what - if any - impact this will have on local school reopening plans,” Hidalgo said in a prepared statement.

During Tuesday’s Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said that his office is “working with some other major counties as we speak, trying to figure out what the proper steps are going forward.”
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards