For weeks, state leaders’ statements about when to reopen schools and who has the authority to make that decision have been confusing to say the least. 

Instead of providing clarity, state leaders have created confusion and tension between TEA, school districts, local leaders, and public health officials. 

It’s also caused fear. Parents, students, and educators are worried about their safety. School officials are also worried that if they decide to keep schools closed for in-person instruction beyond the initial eight weeks out of concern for safety, then the state will use the “stick” to deny them much-needed funding. 

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of political pressure on schools to reopen. Given what we’ve seen after schools reopening in other states including crowded hallways and a lack of masks, it’s clear that the longer these decisions are based on politics versus public health, the less safe it will be for our students, families, and communities.

The state must provide schools with the necessary tools and flexibility to do what works best for local communities. This includes funding districts that decide local health conditions require distance learning or other transitional programs until it is safe to reopen schools, regardless of how long that takes. 

Recently, we have seen both a sharp decline in the number of COVID-19 tests being administered and a striking increase in the overall positivity rate to 20%, the highest to date. But we must remember that we’re still in the “first wave” of COVID-19, with a second wave expected in the fall with the flu season. It’s likely there will be new surges of COVID-19, necessitating school building closures. It’s critical that we be prepared with options to keep learning going for all, especially for students already dealing with digital and learning gaps. 

State leaders must also consider the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on minority communities. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children are almost five times as likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than White children, while Hispanic children are as much as eight times as likely to be hospitalized compared to Whites. This is the inevitable outcome of a health care system that doesn’t work for so many people, especially for minority communities. 

Looking forward, the solutions we formulate must take into account both the short- and long-term. All levels of government are dealing with budget deficits due to the direct and indirect consequences of a global pandemic. However, we must prioritize funding for public education. Our schools will be a critical component in the recovery of our state over the next several years and beyond. 

It hasn’t been easy to navigate the waters of a COVID-19 society, especially as we deal with the ramifications of opening up the state too early. Without a doubt, schools reopening for in-person instruction will result in an increase of the general movement of people within our communities. Some communities may be able to handle this increase through mitigation efforts on the ground, but this is not an instance where we should issue a blanket policy with no room for deviation based on local circumstances.

As the school year begins in earnest for everyone, the state must allow school districts and public health authorities to make the decisions that are best for their respective communities without fear of losing state support.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by state Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso. Rodriguez was born in Alice, Texas, and raised in Alamo, Texas. The author has given permission for the column to be reprinted in The Rio Grande Guardian. Sen. Rodriguez can be reached via: [email protected]

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