Schools in Tarrant County and the cities of Arlington and Burleson will be required to hold online-only classes until Sept. 28, Tarrant County's local health authorities announced Tuesday during a commissioners court meeting.
Public and non-religious private schools will be required to keep their doors shut to students.
Private religious schools are strongly urged to follow the order as well, though they can not be compelled by local officials to do so.
"We are terribly afraid... we might jeopardize our capacity to care for people" if in-person instruction is not delayed, said Dr. Catherine A. Colquitt, the local health authority and medical director of Tarrant County.
On Tuesday, there were 663 new COVID-19 cases reported in the county. There are 683 people who are hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the county's health dashboard.
“These decisions are based on what local data is showing us in Tarrant County,” said the county’s public health director Vinny Taneja, citing a "significant surge" here. “With that backdrop, it’s kind of hard for us as public health departments and local health authorities to say, ‘Oh yeah, go ahead and open schools’—because we’re just asking for trouble at that point.”
Health officials said they had been working with school district superintendents across the county over the past week or so.
“Everyone wants students back in school, but we want to do it in a safe way,” said Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner.
Scribner said the exceptions mentioned in the order will allow them to bring special education students back into the classroom during this time. He also said the order won’t change the new protocols the district announced Monday, for when kids do return to class.
“Things like requiring students and teachers to wear masks, shields, plexiglass, fogging machines, additional cleaning,” he said.
Colquitt also mentioned another exception in the order.
“We realize there are students that don’t have internet connectivity,” she said. “Those students can continue to be taught face-to-face in schools.”
Scribner said the FWISD school board would vote Tuesday night on $2.4 million worth of additional internet hot spots.
The Arlington, Burleson and Tarrant County local health authorities issued the order preventing in-person classes.
The county's move comes after Dallas County issued as similar order this month.
Officials said the timing of the return date would "give time for the incubation period after Labor Day" to see how case numbers looked before returning to in-person instruction.
All school-sponsored events and activities can only take place in-person if they are held outdoors, with social distancing of 6 feet strictly enforced, the order states. Face coverings will also be required.
Students whose individual education plans do not allow for remote learning or who don't have household internet access can continue to have in-person instruction, though face coverings and social distancing should be in place, the order said.
Curbside meal programs at school campuses can continue while the order is in effect.
School personnel will be allowed to return to campuses for instruction, food distribution and other services while following health guidelines.
School systems will also be required to submit a plan to their local health authority at least two weeks before re-opening for any on-campus activities or instruction, per the order.
Colquitt acknowledged that "this is a plan that absolutely pleases no one," but said health leaders felt it was a "reasonable accommodation" based on the increasing case numbers and level of hospitalizations they were seeing.
Fort Worth ISD news conference:
Taneja said that although it took the county 109 days to reach its first 10,000 cases, it reached its next 10,000 cases in just 21 days.
The county has recorded 22,665 cases since tracking began in March, with 304 deaths and 10,894 recoveries.
Health officials said they are particularly concerned about the toll this rise in cases is taking on local medical and hospital staff, especially as they prepare to enter flu season with COVID-19.
"Our hospital staffs are getting very tired and fatigued," a Burleson official said.
Hospitals in Tarrant County have had between 650 to 700 patients hospitalized in recent days, county data shows.
WFAA first learned of the school order through an email sent to Fort Worth ISD employees Tuesday morning.
Fort Worth ISD just released its plan for the return to school buildings on Monday. The plan had asked parents to decide by Aug. 3 if they would send their children to school in-person or keep classes online for an Aug. 17 start date.
That deadline now appears to be null and void.
In the email sent to Fort Worth ISD employees, Superintendent Kent Scribner said he had been "in regular communication with Tarrant County Public Health Department leadership over the past week."
Tarrant County's order follows a similar order from Dallas County that will require schools to be online-only through Labor Day.