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Citing Texas AG, school districts sidestep local health directive on reopening

On July 17, Bexar County issued a health directive preventing schools from opening before Labor Day.

SAN ANTONIO — Two school districts are moving forward with in-person instructions following guidance from the state's attorney general.

Comal Independent School District superintendent Andrew Kim said five district schools within Bexar County will proceed to offer on-campus instruction on August 25, despite a directive from the county preventing in-person learning before Labor Day.

Meanwhile, Boerne ISD's Director of Communications, Bryan Benway announced that two district schools in Bexar County would offer in-person classes starting August 12.

Bexar County health officials issued their directive on July 17, preventing in-person lessons until after Labor Day. Students in any grade from pre-K to grade 12 are included in the order. The directive also suspends all school-sponsored events and activities, including athletic competitions and extracurricular activities.

Five Comal ISD schools were affected by the order: Indian Springs, Kinder Ranch, Specht, and Timberwood Park Elementary schools as well as Pieper Ranch Middle School. Fair Oaks Ranch and Van Raub Elementary Schools are the Boerne ISD schools affected by the directive.

Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion letter Tuesday that said local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders to close schools for the purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections.

“Their role is limited by statute to addressing specific, actual outbreaks of disease,” Paxton said in the letter, in part. "School officials, both public and private, are the appropriate ones to decide whether, when, and how to open school.”

Both districts cited Paxton's guidance in his letter to Comal ISD parents announcing on-campus instruction would begin earlier than Bexar County allows.

'Today, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued legal guidance on school openings affirming that the decision on when and how to open school is one that is made by local school officials, not the local health authorities," Kim said.

"As we proceed with our opening on Aug. 25, we will continue to work with our local health directors to identify any local spread of the virus, including improved contact tracking by the county, and craft metrics that are related to the safe opening and closing of individual campuses when necessary."

Benway wrote, "Thank you to Attorney General Ken Paxton for having confidence in BISD and school districts across Texas to execute our Back to School plans. Thank you, as well, to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, along with our State and Local Elected Officials for offering guidance during this process."

Both districts will continue to offer remote learning in addition to on-campus classes.

RELATED: Local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders to close schools, Texas attorney general says

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San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia responded to the Attorney General's opinion, saying the goal of the county's health directive "is to minimize the risk of exposing children, parents and school staff to COVID-19."

"San Antonio continues to report hundreds of new cases of COVID-19 per day, the positivity rate remains high, the hospital system is under severe stress and pediatric cases continue to rise week over week," Segovia said. "The health directive is consistent with Governor Abbott’s March order that mandated virtual learning while the virus was just beginning to spread in Texas. All schools complied with the Governor’s March order without raising any Constitutional concerns. We will seek a speedy resolution of this matter."

Spokespersons for North East and Northside ISD said Paxton's opinion did not alter their plans to remain virtual-only to start the school year this fall.

It's not the first time the attorney general has issued guidance against local health directives. On July 17, Paxton wrote a letter to private educators, saying local public health orders stopping re-openings don't apply to them. Paxton said such orders violate the U.S. and state constitutions and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg responded  to Paxton's July 17 guidance, saying that "if our interest is in saving lives, we should do our best to ignore our Attorney General, in general."

LIVE: Bexar County coronavirus update - July 27

WATCH LIVE: Mayor Nirenberg and Judge Wolff give today's update on the city and county's coronavirus response.

Posted by KENS 5 & Kens5.com on Monday, July 27, 2020

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