Education News

Houston, Harris County Order Most Schools To Delay In-Person Instruction

The Texas Education Agency last week said school districts could delay opening and keep their state funding, if local health officials ordered their closure.

Florian Martin / Houston Public Media
HISD’s Hattie Mae White Administration Building.

Updated 1:21 p.m. CT

Houston and Harris County on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay in-person instruction through Sept. 7.

The joint health order from the city and county also cancels all in-person school activities including clubs, sports, and other extra-curricular activities, on or off campus, health officials said at a Friday press conference.

“This is not the time that we take the 900,000-plus students in Harris County and say, ‘go back to school in person because it’s safe,'” Executive Director of Harris County Public Health Dr. Umair Shah said Friday. “Because it’s not safe.”

Dr. David Persse, Houston’s health authority, said the delayed start would not stop COVID-19 in its tracks, but was instead a strategy to help suppress the spread of the virus, which he compared to an out-of-control school bus.

“This school bus is going 100 miles an hour, and there’s a curve ahead,” Persse said. “As a community we’ve got to slow this down and we’ve got to slow it down a lot.”

School districts will be required to submit a written plan for returning to in-person instruction to local health authorities by Aug. 21.

The county, meanwhile, would work with schools and food banks to make sure all students would recieve meals, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. She added that the county would work to provide students with digital access, but called on the state to invest more into local school districts to help address the digital divide.

The city is holding a back-to-school drive at NRG Park Aug. 7-8, where families can pick up food, masks, backpacks and other supplies.

Even further delays beyond Sept. 7 could be announced in the future, as authorities continue to assess the spread of the coronavirus in the area, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Friday. But, she said, it’s more than likely that the city and county’s mandate would extend beyond Sept. 7.

“I owe everything I have to public schools,” Hidalgo said. “The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream. But right now we're guided by human life, which has been our ‘North Star,’ and we have to make tough decisions.”

The Texas Education Agency last week said school districts could delay opening and keep their state funding, if local health officials ordered their closure. El Paso and Laredo were among the first to issue those mandates, and Travis County soon followed suit, according to KUT. Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties have also put such orders in place.

The Houston Independent School District announced it would delay the start of its school year until after Labor Day and begin classes virtually until at least October, and other local school districts have set up similar plans.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said the city would extend outreach to homeless children, through Houston’s Health Equity Response Task Force.

"It's not just about schools,” Turner said. “These children come from families who are struggling."

Turner added that the closures come at a critical time in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"We must keep (children) safe, our teachers safe, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and many many others," Turner said. "In order of us to have some degree of confidence…that positivity rate must be driven down."

Additional reporting by Paul DeBenedetto

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