By Brad Brooks and Makini Brice
LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday sought to reassure parents he is doing all he can to keep students safe as most schools in the state prepare to reopen next week.
But a top adviser to Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden's campaign in Texas blasted Abbott, a Republican, for what he called a lack of planning and funding for safely reopening schools, with the statewide coronavirus positivity rate hitting a record 24.5% this week.
"What we learned from the reopening of the Texas economy is that if you don't do it right, people are going to die," said Mike Collier, senior adviser to the Biden campaign in Texas. "Parents and teachers are being forced to make life and death decisions."
Polls show Biden in a dead heat with President Donald Trump in Texas, long a Republican stronghold but where the Democratic Party made significant gains in the 2018 midterm election. How Abbott handles the pandemic and the reopening of schools could have a big impact on how voters cast ballots in November.
Abbott defended his mandate giving local school boards the right to determine if and when schools reopen, curbing the power of local health officials to intervene and order schools closed if COVID-19 outbreaks occur.
The Texas governor said schools are ready and argued that in-person classes would not be a significant spreader of the virus if schools follow basic safety precautions.
"The ways that COVID-19 will most likely spread in the school setting is in gatherings after school is over," Abbott told a press conference in Lubbock.
Abbott said people are spreading the virus in smaller, informal gatherings with friends and family. He encouraged parents and teachers to curtail gatherings of students.
He urged all Texans to remain vigilant on safety precautions as Labor Day weekend approaches. "It's important people don't let their guard down like they did during Memorial Day weekend," which he said was a "big spreading" event in the state.
LEAVE IT TO LOCALS
While Texas moves ahead with in-person classes, a group of parents and Republicans in California have gone to court seeking a reversal of Governor Gavin Newsom's order that schools in counties on the coronavirus "watch list" - which encompasses 90% of the state's population - stay shuttered this fall.
"What we're seeking in the lawsuit is that the governor get out of the way and let local parents, local school boards and small schools make these decisions themselves," Harmeet Dhillon, Republican National Committee member from California and lawyer who brought the lawsuit, told a virtual press conference on Thursday.
Marianne Bema, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who lives in Los Angeles with her three school-aged sons, said online learning in spring was disastrous for her children, and she does not make enough money to afford daycare if her children are not in school.
Another plaintiff, Christine Ruiz of Santa Clarita, who also has three school-aged kids, said she was pleased with a hybrid model mixing in-person and online instruction their school originally had planned to roll out.
"Now that choice has been taken away from us," Ruiz said.
APPS, BATTLE ON MASKS
North Dakota, Wyoming and Alabama are the latest U.S. states launching apps to warn users about potential exposure to the novel coronavirus by tracking their encounters, representatives for the states told Reuters on Thursday.
Virginia last week became the first U.S. state to urge residents to download such an app using technology developed by smartphone software giants Apple Inc <AAPL.O> and Alphabet Inc's <GOOGL.O> Google.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp said on Thursday he plans to drop a lawsuit against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city, possibly ending a months-long feud over an order for people to wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Kemp had sued Bottoms and the city of Atlanta to stop enforcement of a local mask mandate arguing the city lacks the authority to override his order encouraging but not requiring face coverings.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Makini Brice in Washington, D.C., Rich McKay in Atlanta and Paresh Dave in Oakland; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Daniel Wallis)