AUSTIN, Texas — Local health officials in Texas do not have the authority to close schools to prevent spread of the coronavirus, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday, pushing that decision solely into the hands of school officials.
Paxton issued a "legal guidance" letter on schools amid fierce debate among local governments, health officials, parents and teachers on when schools should open in a state that has become one of the nation's hot spots in the pandemic.
Texas has seen new confirmed virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge during July. On Tuesday, Texas reported 164 new deaths, bringing the state total to nearly 5,900, with nearly 10,000 COVID-19 patients in the hospital.
Dozens of cities, counties and school districts — including in the most populous areas — have already decided to delay school reopenings for the upcoming academic year.
In Dallas, health officials have prohibited in-person classes until at least Sept. 8 and similar orders are in place in Houston. Paxton's letter sent them scrambling to check its impact on their decisions and set up the potential for legal challenges.
"Our actions to save lives from this crisis should be guided by public health, science, and compassion for the health and safety of our residents — not politics," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Paxton, a Republican, said local health officials' authority is limited to addressing "specific, actual outbreaks of disease." He previously said local health orders closing schools didn't apply to private religious schools.
"While playing an important role in protecting the health of school children and employees, local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections," Paxton said.
The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public schools, meanwhile piled more pressure on, telling schools they risk losing state funding if they close campuses to comply with any order from local health authorities.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who toured parts of South Texas hit by Hurricane Hanna, didn't address Paxton's guidance directly when speaking with reporters in Corpus Christi. But he said school opening decisions are best left to local education officials with input from health authorities.
"We have a duty to ensure we do not lose a generation of students because of this pandemic," Abbott said. "We have an obligation to step up and make sure they are educated about reading, arithmetic, and things like that, but also they are educated in how to respond to challenges that may come their way in life. Pediatricians all recommend the best learning environment for a child is going to be in the classroom."
The Texas State Teachers Association sharply criticized Paxton.
"We trust health experts, not the attorney general, when children's lives are at stake," the group said in a statement.
Abbott also went to the Rio Grande Valley, which remains one of the nation's worst hot spots for the virus and where the weekend storm made getting patients to treatment difficult.
Abbott said the state is pushing hard to meet the medical needs of the region, and announced the McAllen Convention Center would be converted into a hospital for up to 250 patients this week. Other nearby communities will get temporary "step down" facilities for up to 40 patients who are recovering from COVID-19.
Starr County had more than 1,800 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, with the most recent being as young as 5 years old. The county's only hospital, which has fewer than 50 beds and no intensive care unit, has been at capacity for weeks. Hanna's lashing winds and rain grounded medical transport helicopters for days, leaving doctors with no ability to airlift the most critical patients.
"We're in a dire situation," Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal said. "If we continue on the same trajectory, countless more lives will be lost."
Local officials have pleaded with Abbott for weeks to allow them to use tougher enforcement measures to force the use of face masks and business closures. Abbott said local governments already have the authority of civil fines.
The governor has resisted calls to impose a new statewide lockdown and said Tuesday that there are signs his previous orders requiring masks and closing bars are working.
While deaths remain high, Texas has reported fewer than 10,000 new daily confirmed cases since July 18 and the rolling positivity rate has dropped under 13% for the first time since late June.
"We are seeing positive results from the executive orders that I put into place that did not force people into poverty, by forcing them to lose their job, losing their income and prevent them from putting food on the table," Abbott said.