Dallas Morning News. January 14, 2021.

Editorial: Texas made it harder to get a COVID vaccine through poor planning and execution

Local health authorities and other providers could learn from one another with better state coordination

Rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine is neither for the faint of heart nor the poorly organized. Local public health authorities, hospitals and other providers have had to figure out where to store the vaccine, how to sign up people, how to alert them about their place in line, how to set up vaccination sites that prevent contagion and how to manage long outdoor lines dotted with seniors and disabled residents.

The great hurdle is the fact that there is not enough vaccine to go around at this moment — not even for vulnerable populations eligible to receive it now, let alone the public at large.

Civic leaders carrying out the daunting task of immunizing the masses against an airborne pathogen are inevitably going to stumble, but the lack of robust state guidance and the poor messaging at all levels are making this operation more challenging than it should be.

Texas state officials complicated matters in late December when, worried that there was excess vaccine inventory, they abruptly announced that people older than 65 and Texans with certain medical conditions could receive the vaccine. Providers still working on vaccinating frontline health care workers had to pivot fast.

This brought logistical nightmares. For instance, a Tarrant County site set up to vaccinate health care workers was suddenly inundated with people without appointments as word spread about the location.

Adding to the confusion is the patchwork vaccine distribution system. Local health authorities have their own registration portals and protocols, as do hospitals and others providing the vaccine. All of these entities are also making choices about whom to prioritize within the state-mandated priority groups. This is turning vaccine registration into a guessing game for Texans.

Public messaging often focuses on online registration. Dallas County does not currently have a hotline for people to register, though Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said one is in the works. In the meantime, he urges residents without internet service to solicit help from a loved one or to visit a public library to access a computer.

Still, people calling provider hotlines may find them clogged for hours. And seniors and families without a computer or internet access cannot just Google a phone number.

That said, some providers are finding ingenious solutions to problems. Houston’s Memorial Hermann Health System sent a vaccine registration link to qualified patients who then shared it with relatives and social media followers, prompting ineligible people to claim appointments. A hospital official told the Texas Tribune that it stopped that by issuing a link that couldn’t be forwarded. That fix may have helped Dallas County this week, when a similar snafu caused its Fair Park megacenter to become overbooked.

State officials are wise to prioritize megacenters that can streamline immunization. But they must take a more aggressive approach in assessing best practices and sharing those with providers across the state. We look to Gov. Greg Abbott to push federal officials for more resources as necessary.

We also urge local officials to think outside their websites to reach underserved Texans. The ease with which you get a vaccine shouldn’t hinge on your tech or your address.

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San Antonio Express-News. Jan. 14, 2021.

Editorial: Hey Ken Paxton, how much did your lawsuit cost Texans?

The attempts of indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton to keep secret the cost of bringing a frivolous lawsuit in a disastrous attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election is yet another public disservice.

All we know at this point is state taxpayers are footing a $12,000 bill for printing charges. Paxton has refused to reveal much else about the litigation’s expenses, asserting the information is exempt from disclosure. In other words, this public official doesn’t think the public gets to know how much his office spent trying to overturn the presidential election.

Why aren’t taxpayers allowed to know how Paxton has squandered their money to erode democracy?

We can’t believe we have to even ask such a question, but we can’t believe in 2018 voters chose Paxton over the supremely qualified Justin Nelson, valedictorian of Columbia Law School and legal ninja. But we digress.

Paxton’s lawsuit was summarily denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found Texas lacked legal standing.

The lawsuit, which 17 state Republican attorneys general had joined and 126 Republican members of Congress supported, had sought to throw out election results in four battleground states that had gone for President-elect Joe Biden.

Paxton’s lawsuit argued emergency pandemic-related election rule changes that were adopted by governors or other officials without the approval of state legislatures were unconstitutional. He also made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

Besides the printing charges, it is unclear what other costs might be associated with the case. The state was represented pro bono by special counsels Lawrence Joseph and Kurt Olsen, Hearst Newspapers reports. Even so, taxpayers need to know the price tag on that donated legal work.

Is Paxton reporting it as a political contribution? Texas taxpayers have the right to know. It is all about maintaining an open government and accountability.

Hearst Newspapers requested information on the litigation in early December, as did state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and a member of the public. The requests also asked for communications between the office and the Trump administration, the Trump legal team and any other affiliates.

Turner has blasted Paxton for using public funds in an attempt to “overturn a free and fair election.”

“Through an incomplete response to my public information request, we have so far learned that the taxpayers of Texas are on the hook for about $12,000 in printing costs for a bogus lawsuit that was dismissed out of hand by the U.S. Supreme Court. In reality though, the price paid by Texas and America is far greater. Ken Paxton’s lawsuit was an assault on our democracy, plain and simple,” Turner said.

We find it deeply troubling that the denial of the request for the lawsuit cost information is being handled by Paxton’s own employees.

The attorney general’s office is seeking a ruling from Paxton’s open government division on whether some of the records are required to be disclosed under the Texas Public Information Act. Where are the checks and balances on this?

What this all means is there will likely be further litigation to keep the information secret, meaning the tab to taxpayers will only continue to increase.

This isn’t exactly surprising, unfortunately. Paxton spoke at the “Save America” rally before the insurrection and hasn’t joined letters from other attorneys general condemning the insurrection. As the president might say, it is what it is.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. January 15, 2021.

Editorial: Texas children falling behind in school due to COVID-19. How the Legislature can help

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar delivered good budget news Monday as lawmakers began their session: The expected budget shortfall isn’t quite as big as feared.

There will still be belt-tightening, though, so forgive school superintendents who’ve seen their state funding yo-yo over the years if they appear jittery until the final gavel bangs in May.

The challenge is that in 2019, when the coffers were packed after years of a strong economy, the state assumed a greater share of overall education funding in hopes of curtailing growth of local property taxes. Lawmakers simply can’t lurch in the other direction. Districts will need steady budgets, at a minimum, to overcome the lingering challenge of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on learning across two different academic years.

The state’s last massive budget shortfall, in 2011, brought the first education funding cuts in modern memory. The impact was felt for years. It can’t happen again.

LOST LEARNING

Funding remains the top issue, but it’s far from the only education matter lawmakers must tackle. In this session, lawmakers must assess how bad the isolation of the pandemic has been for students, especially those most at risk of lost learning, and support solutions to fix it.

It’s not a question of whether students have fallen behind in the era of distance learning; it’s how much. And there are ample signs it’s bad.

In Fort Worth, the number of students failing at least one class this school year has skyrocketed, Star-Telegram reporter Silas Allen found. In Dallas, half of students have slipped in math, and a third in reading.

Distance learning was necessary as the pandemic erupted, but the tradeoff has been costly. Lawmakers must help districts make up the gaps. They should take a reparative approach, not a punitive one.

First, we need to know exactly how bad the problem is. That means testing. Texas has had a sea change over student testing in recent years, after decades of ever-increasing stakes for test results. Parents and teachers revolted against “teaching to the test,” for good reasons.

But you can’t fix a problem you can’t measure. So now is not the time to further scale back testing. Schools need tools to find out exactly where individual students are. At the same time, they shouldn’t have to fear negative consequences from the state based on these important test results. The Texas Education Agency’s steps on this have been good so far, as letter grades for schools are suspended. Lawmakers shouldn’t change direction.

The best way to assess students — and of course make up for learning gaps — is to get children back into schools. The Legislature should support every reasonable idea that will make that happen.

The spread of the virus in schools among children isn’t the problem. It’s the risk posed to teachers and other workers, and staff stretched thin as those potentially exposed to the virus must quarantine. We’ve said that when it comes to the vaccine, it’s a mistake to put healthy teachers ahead of vulnerable Texans. But as the supply increases, the state could get creative in working with districts to get employees inoculated.

HELP FOR SCHOOLS

The state must also help schools adapt to the pandemic more quickly. A capital program that would fund improvements in ventilation would help lessen the risk in crowded buildings. And schools may need help enticing retirees to come back to work once the pandemic wanes.

It’s time to get creative, too, on making up for lost time. Teachers have reported that some students have disappeared entirely since campuses shut down or are rarely seen. Enhanced truancy enforcement may be in order. And to catch up on lessons, schools might need extended calendars, perhaps even a period of year-round learning.

And as bad as online learning has been in many places, some distance education will continue to make sense. The state should investigate what’s worked best and help districts implement it. In some cases, the biggest concern is reliable broadband access, something state policy can help address.

Districts need steady funding from the state. But they also require flexibility and accountability to close the gaps for a generation of students, especially the needy. Lawmakers need to list and then act boldly on behalf of all Texas students.

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