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Texas Democrats, Joe Biden campaign call on Texas to slow efforts to open schools amid coronavirus pandemic

Gov. Greg Abbott has been adamant that schools offer in-person learning for students, arguing that following Texas' guidelines will allow for a safe return.

Updated Aug. 14 at 8:34 a.m. to include a statement from Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West.

WASHINGTON — Texas Democrats and the Joe Biden campaign called on the state of Texas Thursday to slow efforts to reopen schools amid declining testing and a high number of cases of COVID-19 in the state.

Members of Biden’s campaign and State House Candidate Celina Montoya joined educators on the call to push former Vice President Biden’s plan for opening schools while railing against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s and President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we’ve learned from the reopening of the Texas economy ... is that people could die, and in this case, students could die,” said Mike Collier, Biden for President Texas senior advisor and the 2018 Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

The event comes as Texas public schools start to open, mostly without in-person instruction, and as Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, weighs whether to devote the resources needed to try and nab Texas’ 38 electoral votes.

The state has been in the grip of Republicans for decades but has been trending toward Democrats. Recent polls show a tossup between Trump and Biden in Texas.

Texas public schools have 5.5 million students and more than 350,000 teachers. Teachers and their unions have voiced frustration over the state’s reopening plans for schools, and those votes could be critical on Election Day.

Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath have been adamant that schools offer the option of in-person learning, despite the state’s climbing positivity rate and over 500,000 positive COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

Last month, in a nod to concerns about safety, Morath and the Texas Education Agency granted the option for schools to start in a virtual-only environment for four weeks, with an additional four-weeks if approved by the local school board and state.

“We are on the precipice of schools opening up, whether they be public schools or higher education,” Abbott said in a Thursday news conference in Lubbock. “We all know what’s going to happen. There’s going to be thousands of students gathering together in these school settings with teachers, with parents, etcetera. And it is especially important at a time when schools are reopening that everyone in the entire school setting is extra vigilant, making sure they do maintain the safe practices so they can reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Teachers organizations and several superintendents from areas hard hit by the virus have railed at the plan, calling the delay insufficient. Those groups argue that Texas has taken away much-needed flexibility, restricting the ability of local health authorities to close schools as needed to prevent outbreaks.

During Thursday’s event, the Democrats pointed to Biden’s plan to reopen schools and railed against Trump and Abbott’s approach.

Biden’s plan, released in July, calls for federal guidelines for when schools should open and additional funding to support remote learning efforts and to provide personal protective equipment to schools before they begin in-person learning. The plan also proposes a White House task force focused on supporting students’ mental health and social-emotional well-being, as well as addressing “systemic racial and socioeconomic disparities” widened by the pandemic.

“If you compare and contrast the two presidential candidates, Vice President Biden has a plan,” Collier said. “His opponent, our incumbent president, has none of the above, nor has he from the beginning, which is why we’re going to cross 200,000 dead. It did not have to be this way. The contrast could not be more stark.”

Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West urged a local approach to the opening of schools.

“In Texas, our local independent school districts can solve the issue of our children going back to school,” he said in a statement. “The last thing Texas requires is having top down government mass solutions that usurp our independent school districts. The federal government does not have an enumerated power in the Constitution to deal with matters of education. Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education out of pressure from teachers unions, another entity that should not be deciding the educational future of our children and grandchildren.”

Remote learning launched in Garland on Monday and in Plano, Mansfield and Allen on Wednesday. Frisco and McKinney were set to start Thursday.

Over the coming weeks, most districts around North Texas will open virtually. The area’s two largest districts, Dallas and Fort Worth, have pushed their start dates until after Labor Day.

Testing across the state has plummeted in recent weeks, a trend that worries public health experts as schools begin to reopen.

From March through the end of July, Dallas County recorded 4,577 children under 18 who tested positive, which accounts for roughly 10% of all cases in the county..

Two children in Dallas County have died from COVID-19: a 5-year-old boy and a 17-year-old Lancaster High School girl with no underlying health conditions.

In Canton, Ga., photos of crowded school hallways went viral on social media in early August. Nearly 1,200 students and staff were asked to self-quarantine due to an outbreak of COVID-19 shortly thereafter.

Despite the concerns, Abbott continued to push to reopen Texas schools, while urging districts to follow state guidelines that he says will keep teachers and students safe.

“The ways in which COVID-19 would be the most likely to spread when schools open is actually in gatherings that will take place after the school day is over,” he said Thursday. “People need to understand that until we have better medications that can treat COVID-19. Until we have the vaccines that will end COVID-19, people must maintain vigilance, even when just gathering with family members.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics also advised in July that areas considering opening their schools to “start with a goal of having students physically present in school” because of the valuable academic, social and emotional development that schools offer children.

The Trump administration touted this announcement when pushing for school openings, but the group released a follow-up statement later that month -- joining with the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country; the National Education Association, the largest union in the country; and AASA, the School Superintendents Association -- that tempered the AAP’s earlier statement.

“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff,” the groups wrote. “Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics.”

Bridgette Mathis, a teacher at Fort Worth O.D. Wyatt High School who was on the Biden campaign call, voiced frustration over the state’s planning for school openings.

“We should have been preparing in March when we first got out of school when we knew this was happening,” she said. “The lack of preparation … to me, there’s just no excuse. We should have had a plan A, B, C for anything that was going to come about.”

Paul Cobler, Politics Reporting Fellow. Paul Cobler covers politics for The Dallas Morning News in Washington, DC. Paul is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked at the school's student newspaper, The Daily Texan, and interned for newspapers across the state.

paul.cobler@dallasnews.com @PaulCobler
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