Denton County public health clarifies its authority in schools

Director of Public Health Matt Richardson clarified what authority local health departments have during the July 14 Denton County Commissioners Court meeting. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Director of Public Health Matt Richardson clarified what authority local health departments have during the July 14 Denton County Commissioners Court meeting. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Director of Public Health Matt Richardson clarified what authority local health departments have during the July 14 Denton County Commissioners Court meeting. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

The Texas Education Agency lists local health authorities alongside the governor and the state health department as those who have the power to close schools on its COVID-19 support and guidance webpage.

Director of Public Health Matt Richardson clarified what this authority means at the local level during the July 14 Denton County Commissioners Court meeting, where more than one of the public commentators urged the public health department to recommend keeping schools closed in the fall.

"The health and safety code is pretty specific on the types of powers that local public health has," Richardson said. "It really revolves around communicable disease control in quarantine and isolation."

The local health authority in Denton County is Medical Director Marty Buchanan, while Richardson is a local health officer. Both have the ability to quarantine or isolate individuals, properties, specific buildings or groups of people, particularly when there is a threat of transmission of a communicable or infectious disease, Richardson said.

"There is some difference of legal opinion whether local health officers could ... close a school," Richardson said. "That is going to rely on the local school board and the superintendent that is under the Texas Administrative Code and the governing statutes around education."


The health department has previously brought classroom closure recommendations to school boards and superintendents in cases of measles or meningitis outbreaks. This is the same action the department would likely take with an outbreak of coronavirus in a school or district.

"That is our legal responsibility," Richardson said.

Schools can then act on that recommendation and choose to close more classrooms or even a campus, he said.

Denton County public health staff has been in constant communication with Lewisville ISD and other local districts about reopening this fall and will continue to do so, Richardson said.

"That's been an ongoing conversation," Richardson said. "Even as of prior to this meeting we [have] had these conversations ... about our best recommendations based on science."
By Liesbeth Powers
Liesbeth graduated from Baylor University with a degree in new media journalism in December 2018. She gained her newspaper experience as a staff writer and multimedia editor at her campus paper, The Baylor Lariat. Liesbeth joined the Community Impact team in August 2019, where she reports on all things Plano and Richardson, including Plano City Council and Dallas Area Rapid Transit.


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