Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
As Williamson County approaches its third week in the yellow phase of moderate community spread of COVID-19, I wanted to look back at what our office has done during the lockdown and beyond.
We started, as everyone else, by closing the office and sending our employees to work from home. Even though the office was closed, we continued the work of the court. Cases were filed, fines were paid, and questions were answered. We were always reachable by phone and email. We began virtual court proceedings as soon as possible, beginning with evictions. We created a staffing schedule that allowed a few persons to be in the courthouse to handle mail, deposits, and hard-copy case filings every day while limiting our staff’s exposure to the virus.
With pandemic-related changes made to eviction proceedings by the CARES Act and the CDC mortarium, we saw a distinct reduction in cases but continued to hold hearings for evictions due to lease violations and counseled landlords and tenants on their rights and procedures during the moratorium.
Next, we heard debt claims cases virtually to clear out our backlog of pre-2020 cases. After that, small claim cases were heard under a similar guidance, and we expect to clear that backlog in its entirety by the end of the year. We even held truancy cases virtually towards the end of the school year, and we heard all administrative cases online.
In short, the work of the court never faltered. Cases had their day in court as time and technology provided.
Since the pandemic shut down the court to in-person hearings and sent our staff to work from home, we’ve always looked toward how we would reopen to the public and our staff. Some of our difficulties in reopening are based on the physical nature of our courthouse. We want to continue to encourage social distancing and will require the use of a face mask once we do reopen. This presents us with one large and unavoidable difficulty: our waiting room is very small and can accommodate only two to three people while maintaining social distancing.
Here’s why that is a problem: During the eviction and truancy dockets, we routinely assign a large number of cases to a single or closely scheduled time frame. This means we can see more than 20 people in our waiting room at the same time. For evictions, we could open the courtroom up to those waiting and have them seat in a socially distant manner in the gallery, but truancy proceedings are confidential and would require a different kind of accommodation. It is also not unusual for parents to bring younger siblings with them to these proceedings. We are unwilling to risk the health of these youth—all of whom under the age of 12 cannot yet be vaccinated—and their families by confining them to our small courtroom.
Despite these difficulties, we expect to see our staff return to the office full time in July. If the county infection rates continue to decline, and we reach green phase, which indicates minimal community spread, we will immediately reopen the court to staff and the public. Until then, we will look at ways to adjust our scheduling, when possible, to allow in-person hearings and maintain virtual hearings as needed. We are hoping to reopen to the public for filings, fine payments, and other quick business no later than August 2nd. It is our hope that by the time truancy cases pick up again in the fall, we will be in the green phase and have no issues.
If we have seemed over cautious in our handling of the pandemic, we hope you understand that our intent was to keep both our staff and constituents as safe as possible. We’ve had no cases of COVID-19 transmission between our staff members. A few have gotten sick with the virus, but quarantine protocols kept them from spreading the disease to other staff. We’ve worked within the Office of Court Administration guidelines and rulings throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so until such time as all restrictions are lifted.
It’s been a challenging year for us all, but the end is in sight as long as we maintain our vigilance and get vaccinated as soon as possible. Stay safe. Wear your mask as needed. Get yourself and your family vaccinated.