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North Texas Schools Caught In Tug-Of-War Between Local Health And State Officials

Fort Worth ISD employee Yolanda Cintron assists with a deep cleaning at the Leadership Academy at John T. White Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Lawrence Jenkins
The Dallas Morning News via Associated Press

Just as school districts across North Texas got a handle on scheduling the start of the school year, things changed. Again. 

Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a "legal guidance" letter on schools amid fierce debate among local governments, health officials, parents and teachers on when schools should open. His opinion is non-binding, but the Texas Education Agency has decided to follow. So funding for online-only education, after the opening four-week transition period, would disappear.

Education attorney Dennis Eichelbaum says that leaves superintendents and board members reeling.

"And so schools are being forced now to ignore what county health officials think are in the best interest of school districts, which is a rather scary thought,” Eichelbaum said.

Steven Poole, executive director of the United Educators Association, said he is scared for thousands of teachers he represents across dozens of North Texas school districts.

“So this has scrambled the playing field again for all districts and here we are just a couple of days from school opening," Poole said.

Last month, Poole said a third of his members were ready to go back to class. Now with more COVID-19 cases, it’s even fewer. He knows many parents are demanding the start of in-person school because it improves education. Many parents also work outside the home.

"This is a tough situation all around. I’m hopeful districts are going to still listen to health officials and make modifications to their calendars or still take the TEA’s guidance and go virtual the first 4 weeks and have a phase-in to in-person school," Poole said.

Poole is now seeing districts meet to vote on school schedules that were previously considered settled. Fort Worth’s school board for example, is meeting Thursday morning in an emergency session. Eichelbaum says it's confounding.

"The fact is children can be educated remotely. That’s not a legal issue. That’s an educational issue," Eichelbaum said.

As a result of the Attorney General's letter, some school districts have reversed their later starts. Others, like Mansfield, held a board meeting to confirm their online only start in August which will continue into September.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.