Education News

10 Local Superintendents Spar With Harris County Health Over Back-To-School Guidance

The back-and-forth marks the latest in the increasingly political debate over back-to-school plans, which has already drawn some legal action and a heavy weigh-in from Gov. Greg Abbott.

After Texas ordered schools to reopen their classrooms this fall, county and city public health officials began to push back.

Harris County Health authorities and 10 local superintendents traded letters this week arguing over when it’s safe to resume in-person learning.

The back-and-forth marks the latest in the increasingly political debate over back-t0-school plans, which has already drawn some legal action and a heavy weigh-in from Gov. Greg Abbott.

The latest spat began when 10 superintendents from many large districts in Greater Houston penned a two-page letter to Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, arguing that the county’s recent roadmap to reopen schools to in-person learning will mean a “continued indefinite closure” that will be “harmful to children.”

“As educational leaders providing for the well-being and educational needs of over a half million students, we cannot support your recommendation that would essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing,” the superintendents wrote.

They concluded they will review local, state and national guidance to make the best decisions for their independent school districts.

Together, the districts enroll more than 450,000 students, and include Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs.

In response, Dr. Shah and his colleague Dr. Elizabeth Perez wrote they don’t take their recommendations lightly, and reiterated that “current indicators are not safe to resume in-person school activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

“In-person activities for schools are indeed valuable for the social fabric of children and communities,” the doctors wrote. “Data and evidence remain the cornerstone of decision making.”

The county’s roadmap to reopening schools to face-to-face instruction sets out a series of indicators, such as the positivity rate for COVID-19 testing, the number of new daily cases over a 14-day span, and hospitalizations. Currently, Harris County is not close to reaching those metrics.

However, the guidelines are not binding, since Abbott has said local health authorities cannot close schools before an outbreak.

In fact, Shah and Perez with Harris County Public Health said in their letter that local school leaders are ultimately responsible for making decisions about in-person activities.

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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