Texas Attorney General: Local Health Authorities Cannot Delay School Openings
In a letter to Stephenville mayor Doug Svien, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote that local health officials do not have the authority to order schools in their area closed as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Paxton's letter was written in response to Svien reaching out to the AG's office for clarification about such orders, which many local health authorities passed while citing Chapter 81 of the Health and Safety Code. Chapter 81 outlines steps authorities may take to prevent and control communicable diseases.
"Although the plain language of the law provides some authority to local health authorities to quarantine property in certain instances, that authority is limited," Paxton wrote. "It does not allow health authorities to issue blanket quarantine orders that are inconsistent with the law."
Paxton stated that Chapter 81 gives local health authorities the power to quarantine properties, including schools, only if there is reasonable cause to believe that the property is or may become contaminated with a communicable disease. He further stated that such quarantines are restricted to a duration necessary for analysis of the property, and must be removed "if technically feasible control measures to disinfect or decontaminate property are effective."
Paxton's letter also addressed other sections of the Health and Safety Code cited as reasons for local health authorities to close schools, stating that because a health authority's power to quarantine any property is limited under Chapter 81, it is therefore limited under other sections.
You can read Paxton's full letter here.
What does this mean for local school districts that wish to delay opening for the fall semester?
Well, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidelines in response to AG Paxton's letter, and now say that districts that choose to close under local health mandates will not receive state funding. Instead, they must obtain the express permission of the TEA, and will be limited to a closure period of no longer than eight weeks.
In response to Paxton's letter, Dr. Janice Smith with the Bell County Public Health District wrote, "We are currently reviewing Attorney General Paxton’s letter. We are also continuing discussions with the area Superintendents. I believe we are all seeking the best cooperative and collaborative approach in our collective efforts to best plan for, and provide for, the health of our children, families and communities."
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