As with so much else that has transpired in America in recent years, historians chronicling the ongoing pandemic will devote much space to how mixed messaging from local, state and federal leadership complicated commerce, education and public health at the worst possible time, to the point that saving lives and discouraging viral spread got lost in the chaos. One theme on which historians will surely gnaw: how political grandstanding, conspiracy theories, ignorance and societal lack of discipline made an awful situation even worse.
Exhibit A: Turmoil experienced by Texas public schools trying to reopen safely in a highly charged political environment. What we’ve seen in recent days constitutes bad form across the board: small schools in Texas rallying to practice football but not to hold classes; failure by the governor and attorney general to communicate before the latter’s convoluted, out-of-the-blue Tuesday letter undermining local health districts delaying the start of on-site classroom instruction; and, at least locally, the city-county health district consequently folding like a cheap suit.
The ricocheting guidelines, edicts and mandates abound and confound: The Texas Education Agency said it would fund school districts that remain closed under a health district mandate; some health districts (including ours) issued said mandates delaying in-person instruction; Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that, no, health districts have no legal power to close schools, at least before evidence of a communicable disease is found in a campus setting, that the matter is the province of school boards; then the TEA reversed its own stance on funding long-term remote instruction. And it gets worse once you stray into the weeds.
No wonder Waco Independent School District Superintendent Susan Kincannon was frustrated Tuesday while trying to sort out conflicting directives, guidance and orders: “I have come to dread the new information that’s coming out daily because it does feel like we’re getting yanked around a bit, and it feels like it’s a political game and not focused on what’s best for the students or on safety and health guidelines. We’re taking it a day at a time and working through it, but just when you think you have a plan, you get some new information.”
We hear you. General Paxton’s supposed guidance is especially tortuous. One wonders if students’ wellbeing is even at its heart. For instance, Paxton insists a local health authority may quarantine property only if there is (quoting Texas Health & Safety Code Chapter 81.084) “a reasonable cause to believe that property ... is or may be infected or contaminated with a communicable disease.” One might reasonably interpret this as meaning that, even if a county is a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention-certified “hotspot” (and McLennan County unfortunately qualifies), delaying school reopenings to reduce viral spread in the community is nonetheless legally premature, however prudent. Think on that a moment.
Last Sunday we stressed that school districts get only one chance to get school reopenings right. And Johnny-come-lately guidance and last-minute edicts sure aren’t making the job any easier.
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