U.S. Secretary of Education defines local education agencies' rights regarding masks, contact tracing

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Posted at 10:04 PM, Aug 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-16 15:18:20-04

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona issued a letter on Friday to Gov. Greg Abbott and Commissioner of Education Mike Morath on the recent actions that prevent Texas school districts from implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The letter also addressed the Texas Education Agency's guidance from Thursday, Aug. 5, which stated schools do not have to conduct contact tracing.

According to the letter, The U.S. Department of Education is concerned that Gov. Greg Abbott's order and TEA guidance will limit the ability of local educational agencies (LEA) under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) to adopt a safe return to school.

"These state-level actions against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appear to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and are at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department’s) interim final requirements," said Cardona in the letter.

The letter goes on to state that the ARP requires that local educational agencies receive Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to adopt a plan for in-person instruction.

According to Cardona, the Department’s interim final requirements clarify that these plans 'must describe…how [the LEA] will maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff and the extent to which it has adopted policies, and a description of any such policies, on each of the following safety recommendations established by the CDC'.

"The safety recommendations include 'universal and correct wearing of masks' and 'contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the [appropriate] health departments," said Cardona.

Cardona also said that the department supports local school districts that have adopted policies that align with CDC guidance, despite the state ban.

"The Department recognizes that several LEAs in your State have already moved to adopt such policies in line with guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities despite the State-level prohibitions," said the letter. "The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction."

LEAs have the freedom -- or 'discretion' as stated in the letter -- to use ARP ESSER funds for any policies aligned with CDC guidance, according to Cardona.

"In addition, the Department will continue to closely review and monitor whether Texas is meeting all of its Federal fiscal requirements," said Cardona. "It’s critical that we do everything in our power to provide a safe environment for our students and staff to thrive."