Texas AG: Local Health Authorities Cannot “Indiscriminately” Shut Down Schools

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released non-binding guidance today saying local health officials do not have the authority to shut down all schools in their vicinity while COVID-19 cases rise. The guidance contradicts what the Texas Education Agency has told school officials, and shortly after Paxton’s announcement, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidance to say it will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed because of a local health mandate, citing the AG’s letter. Districts can receive state funding if they obtain TEA’s permission to stay closed, which is allowed for up to eight weeks with some restrictions.

The change represents a turn-around for TEA, which previously said it would fund districts that remained closed under a mandate. It will impact schools in at least 16 local authorities, many in the most populous counties, that have issued school closure mandates in the past month.

While the guidance is non-binding, local health authorities could face lawsuits especially now that AG Paxton has weighed in. Paxton’s office declined to comment on whether it would sue local health officials that don’t retract mandates, saying it could not comment on hypothetical or potential litigation.

After Texas ordered schools to reopen their classrooms this fall, county and city public health officials began to push back, ordering all public and private schools in their areas to stay closed through August and in some cases September. The officials cited a state law giving health officials authority to control communicable diseases. But Paxton said in the letter that “nothing in the law gives health authorities the power to indiscriminately close schools — public or private — as these local orders claim to do. … It does not allow health authorities to issue blanket quarantine orders that are inconsistent with the law.”

The governor’s executive order allowing all school districts to operate overrules local mandates to close, Paxton said. Local health officials have some authority to order schools closed if people in it are infected by COVID-19, but not as a preventive measure.

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