Fort Worth ISD

Fort Worth ISD Plans for Start of School Up in the Air After Texas AG Ruling

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance Tuesday saying local health authorities could not issue "sweeping orders closing schools" for the sole purpose of preventing COVID-19 infections

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New state guidance issued Tuesday could change Fort Worth ISD's plan to hold class online for the school year's first six weeks, the district's superintendent said during a virtual town hall meeting.

Fort Worth ISD, and all Tarrant County public schools, were set to set to go online through most of September, but new guidance issued Tuesday by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said local health authorities could not issue "sweeping orders closing schools" for the sole purpose of preventing COVID-19 infections.

Any changes to Fort Worth ISD's school calendar would have to be approved by the district's board of trustees. The board's president, Jacinto Ramos, said an emergency meeting will be held Thursday at 8 a.m. to discuss the options for reopening schools.

The board and district superintendent Kent Scribner had not a chance to discuss Paxton's guidance before Tuesday's call, one board member said.

"We're not trying to dance around answers. We're not trying to skate around the situation," Fort Worth ISD school board member Quinton Phillips said. "We just keep ketting new stuff all the time and as soon as we think we've got a handle, someone rips the handle out from us again."

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One week ago Tarrant County health officials ordered public schools to conduct class virtually until Sept. 28.

During the virtual town hall, Scribner said one of the top concerns was how working parents would monitor virtual learning. Parents will still have the option to have students begin the school year online.

"Those students who will be learning virtually, we believe in this 2.0 version, will receive much more robust, organized and consistent virtual instruction for those students," Scribner said.

Paxton issued his guidance early Tuesday.

"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," according to a news release from Attorney General Paxton’s office. "Rather, their role is limited by statute to addressing specific, actual outbreaks of disease. School officials, both public and private, are the appropriate ones to decide whether, when, and how to open school."

In a letter, Paxton noted several local health authorities have issued orders purporting to delay in-person instruction at public and private schools for the upcoming school year. Such orders have been issued in Dallas and Tarrant counties, for example.

The initial Tarrant County order was signed by county health authorities, the city of Arlington and the city of Burleson.

Vinny Taneja, director of Tarrant County Public Health, said Tuesday he was "disappointed" Paxton's guidance invalidated the joint order. During his briefing before county commissioners, Taneja noted the most recent data showed indicators used to track COVID-19 progress, such as hospitalizations, are declining.

The biggest factor in that decline is the heavier use of masks, Taneja said. However, he expressed concern in the ability to maintain social distancing in a school setting. Online learning is the safest option and presents the lowest risk right now, Taneja said.

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