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Jul 29

July 29, 2020 TML Coronavirus Update #94

Posted on July 29, 2020 at 3:27 PM by TML Staff

Urgent Updates


What’s the latest on school reopening this fall?


We thought figuring out what to do about golf courses and masks was a tough question. Those are simple puzzles compared to the saga of public school re-opening procedures. The plan for public school re-openings has changed at least four times this month. The governor’s first few disaster orders closed down public schools indefinitely, but that changed with his more recent one. The following guidance outlines the plans and how they’ve changed:


1. On July 7, the Texas Education Agency released health guidelines for the 2020-2021 school year. (The link to those original guidelines is now deleted.) Among other things, the guidance required school districts to offer daily on-campus instruction, but also allowed parents to opt-in to virtual instruction from a school district that offered it.


2. On July 14, local health authorities – in conjunction with school districts – began to take local action related to the fall school start date. The authority for the City of Austin and Travis County issued an order that school districts should not reopen schools for face-to-face instruction until after Sept. 7. Several local health authorities around the state issued similar orders. After initial resistance, the TEA at that time confirmed that local public health officials could close schools for in-person instruction this fall without losing state education funding, so long as they offered online learning for all students. 


3. On July 17, the TEA issued additional reopening guidance that gave tacit approval to what the LHAs mentioned above had been doing. (The link to those additional guidelines is now deleted.) School systems would have been able to temporarily limit access to on-campus instruction for the first four weeks of school. After the first four weeks, a school system could have continued to limit access to on-campus instruction for an additional four weeks, if needed, with a board-approved waiver request to TEA. 


4. On July 28, the attorney general stepped into the fray by issuing “legal guidance” on school reopening. The guidance letter concluded that “local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections.” As a legal matter, the “informal” letter should have been irrelevant. “Should” being the operative word. Shortly after the letter was released, the TEA once against revised its guidance to fall in line with the letter. The guidance was updated in several places, but this is probably the most relevant FAQ:


“My Local Education Agency (LEA) was subject to a blanket closure order issued by my local health authority. Will solely remote instruction be funded for the time period of the order?


No. The Texas Attorney General issued a guidance letter on July 28, 2020, that stated that “… local health authorities may not issue blanket orders closing all schools in their jurisdiction on a purely prophylactic basis.” The guidance letter further provides that health authority orders may not conflict with executive orders of the governor and must apply control measures required by statute. Consequently, a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction as described in this document. However, another valid funding exception may apply, such as a start-of-year transition period as described further below, that would be available to the LEA if it did not offer on-campus instruction.”


Some local health authorities, in conjunction with their districts, may ignore the letter and TEA guidance and do what they believe will protect teachers, students, and others. Because school opening is largely governed by the local health authority, the state, and each individual district, the League won’t report on it in great detail going forward. As always, city (and county, health authority, and school for that matter) officials should rely on the advice of their attorney, who has a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to them. 


Further Updates


What happened yesterday (July 28) with regard to the U.S. Senate’s proposal for the next stimulus bill?


As we reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R – KY) released the proposal yesterday afternoon (July 27). The bill is called the HEALS (Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools) Act.


Anyone who’s interested in the political aspects of the debate can glean them from their preferred news outlet. But the key takeaway for cities is that the bill doesn’t include additional aid to states and local governments. However, it would expand the ways in which a city can use CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) funds. 


The liability protection section of the bill (on page 14) appears to include cities in the afforded protections. Of course, a final bill is still a long way off.


Where can I find archived issues of the TML Coronavirus Updates?


TML Coronavirus Updates are archived by date here and by subject here.