EDITORIAL: Home rule: State should let local officials say when COVID-19 risk falls

Gov. Greg Abbott knows that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Rio Grande Valley harder than many other parts of Texas. We hope, therefore, that he and other state officials will respect local school districts when they say they might not be ready to transition fully to in-class learning.

At least one Valley district, the Brownsville Independent School District, recently sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency asking for permission to extend distance learning, citing continued risks of COVID-19 transmission.

State officials, following a request from the federal government that schools reopen, ordered public schools to begin offering classroom instruction under threat of lowing state funding. As has been the case in other parts of the country, as students return to schools increasing numbers of them have started to test positive for COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus that causes it. Some schools have been forced to close again due to those positive tests.

Gov. Abbott last month announced that retail stores, office building, restaurants and other businesses that had been operating at 50% of their buildings’ capacity could increase occupation limits to 75% of capacity. He cited falling numbers of infections across the state.

However, he notably excluded three areas — the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria — from the eased restrictions, noting that infection numbers in those areas remain high and a significant percentage of their hospital beds were still occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Obviously, those high numbers reflect family members, friends and neighbors of the schoolchildren in those areas. And as we have noted before, despite officials’ insistence that schools can open because most children appear to suffer milder symptoms than adults do, those children can still catch and carry the virus home and pass it on to their parents and other adults, who can suffer harsher symptoms — including death. The virus so far has infected more some 56,000 Valley residents and killed almost 3,000.

Valley educators and families have made it clear that they hope school instruction can return to normal as soon as possible; despite the laudable efforts of district information technology experts, teachers and other personnel, many students either haven’t been able to participate fully in remote learning efforts and some have found it difficult to absorb the material without the personal interaction they can have with their teachers on campus. However, many families as well as teachers and other school staff still fear returning to the classroom, given the high numbers of new cases and deaths that continue to appear in the Valley every day.

It wasn’t that long ago that Republican officials led the movement to promote site-based education; the noted, correctly, that each school district best knows the conditions that affect their overall goals, and they should have the freedom to use their knowledge and experience. The continued threat of COVID-19 infection in the Valley, which remains higher than other parts of the state, is one situation in which deference toward local leadership can actually save lives.

We hope local educators receive a swift, and positive, response from the state.