UPDATE October 16, 4:07 PM: Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes gave Texas Scorecard the following reply: “I don’t believe the Commissioners Court has the authority according to Attorney General Paxton to shut down the schools, and I would not vote for them shutting down if we did.”

As more Texas schools are reopening, Tarrant County commissioners could be preparing to shut down schools again, despite several doctors saying lockdowns are not effective. One of the commissioners alleged the county’s prior ban was more about money than keeping students safe, while an academic study found science has had very little to do with school reopening policies nationwide.

While more schools across Texas are ending virtual learning, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, Public Health Director Dr. Vinny Taneja told commissioners that schools should prepare to ban in-person classes again and offer only virtual learning.

If done, this would be the second time in-person classes were banned this fall. On July 21, Tarrant County’s Public Health Department issued a ban on in-person classes for most schools in the county until September 28, outraging parents.

“All we’re asking is that they are very, very prepared—that this is a possibility because our data in our community is showing things are not conducive for in-person learning,” Taneja told commissioners Tuesday, using the rising number of coronavirus cases as justification.

Dr. Simone Gold of America’s Frontline Doctors and Dr. Richard Bartlett of West Texas agree that lockdowns are not the solution.

“The failed strategy of Communist China of shutting businesses and closing schools is a failed strategy,” Bartlett said, pointing out how it led to 30,000 deaths in Italy, France, and Spain.

“[T]his is not the public health threat that governors that are locking down states believe it to be,” Gold said.

Parents protested the prior ban, but County Judge Glen Whitley—spokesman for the Tarrant commissioners—claimed commissioners couldn’t override the health department’s decision. However, days later they did just that.

Republican Tarrant Commissioner Gary Fickes explained what triggered that ban.

“The [Texas Education Association] started this by telling the [school districts] that to get funding, they could ask their local health authority to rule that it [posed] a danger to the public if students attended class,” Fickes told Texas Scorecard in July. “Bingo! ISDs are happy because they now have a pathway to get funded. Teachers are happy because they get an extra month off! [Who’s] not happy? Mom, Dad, and our students!”

A paper from the Annenburg Institute at Brown University also found science wasn’t the driving factor in deciding school reopening policies nationwide, showing public school districts with substantial unions were less likely to reopen.

Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making.

Taneja’s statement on Tuesday could be an indicator of a soon-to-come decision from the commissioners court, as he is known to follow the direction he anticipates they will take.

On Tuesday, Whitley said, “I’m going to try and stay in my lane and let [the school boards] make the decisions.”

However, that’s no guarantee, given Whitley’s history of going against his word.

In June, Whitley said he wouldn’t issue a countywide mask mandate, but he went ahead and did so anyway. Tarrant commissioners supported him, voting to continue the mandate until the end of November.

Regarding schools, will the commissioners decide to interfere with parents and students again?

Commissioners Brooks and Fickes face re-election this year. If re-elected, will they start serving citizens, or will they keep letting Whitley be their spokesman?

Brooks is being challenged by Republican nominee Roy Lozano. Early voting is currently underway and continues until October 30. Election Day is November 3.

Concerned citizens can contact their commissioners.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Roy Brooks: 817-370-4500rcbrooks@tarrantcounty.com
Precinct 2 Commissioner Devan Allen: 817-248-6099DJAllen2@tarrantcounty.comcommissionerprecinct2@tarrantcounty.com
Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes: 817-248-6295gfickes@tarrantcounty.com
Precinct 4 Commissioner JD Johnson: 817-238-4400commissionerpct4admin@tarrantcounty.com

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.