Happy Thanksgiving

From all of us in the ATPE Governmental Relations department, we are thankful for your interest in our blog and your support of public education, especially during this challenging year for our schools, educators, students, and their parents. The ATPE state office is closed November 25-27, but we’ll be back Monday, November 30, with more great content for you.

In the meantime, we wish you a safe and peaceful Thanksgiving holiday.

Share Button

What will a Biden presidency mean for education?

Embed from Getty Images
On November 7, the Associated Press and numerous other news outlets called the 2020 Presidential Election for former Vice President Joe Biden. Since then, much speculation has surfaced on what a Biden presidency will mean for education, especially in light of a Congress that will likely be divided. Let’s take a look at what a Biden presidency may mean for education.

Highlights:



Biden’s education platform: Early childhood, teachers, equity, and CTE

The cornerstone of President-Elect Biden’s education platform during the 2020 election was a promise to triple Title I funding and require the increase to first be used for pre-K, teacher pay, and ensuring a robust curriculum across campuses in a district. Related to funding, Biden’s policy advisor Stef Feldman told the Education Writers Association (EWA) in a recent interview that Biden would ban for-profit charter schools from receiving federal dollars. “No one should be getting rich by taking advantage of our kids,” Feldman stated during the campaign.

Biden ran on a platform that included providing teachers with competitive wages and benefits, investing in teacher mentoring, leadership, and continuing education, and helping educators pay off their student loans. Additionally, Biden proposed doubling the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in schools, which is aimed at addressing student mental health while freeing up teachers to focus their time on teaching.

President-Elect Biden’s focus on equity included supporting grow-your-own educator preparation programs and working with historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and minority-serving institutions to diversify the teacher pipeline. Biden also proposed supporting schools with wraparound services and efforts to desegregate and diversify schools. The president-elect promised to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) over the next 10 years, citing that current funding levels only cover 14% of the extra costs for providing special education services rather than the law’s original intent of subsidizing 40%.

The Biden education platform heavily emphasized the concept of “investing in all children from birth,” which included providing high-quality universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and placing early childhood development experts in community health centers. Biden also proposed expanding home visiting so families can receive coaching from specialists on preventative health and prenatal practices.

Biden’s plan also covered career and technical education, namely making sure middle and high school students have access to meaningful vocational training by investing in this area. For a detailed overview of the Biden plan, see a breakdown of Feldman’s interview with EWA.

In terms of higher education, the Biden plan touts relieving student debt, making college affordable, eliminating controversial Title IX policies, reversing course on the previous administration’s treatment of DREAMERs, and renewing regulations on for-profit colleges. Biden has proposed making community college free and providing additional funding and incentives to help vulnerable students graduate. Additionally, Biden wants to double funding for Pell Grants.

Most items on the president-elect’s wish list will require the approval of Congress. These proposals will face an uncertain partisan makeup in the U.S. Senate, where two seats in Georgia remain undecided pending a runoff election in January.



Addressing education during a pandemic and school reopening

Over the summer, Biden rolled out a plan to reopen schools that focuses on getting the virus under control and providing enough funding and resources for schools to reopen safely. Biden supported the HEROES Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, which the Senate has not acted upon; and he said he would work with Congress to provide funding for ventilation, custodial and health services, and reducing class sizes.

Biden’s plan tasks the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with developing metrics such as the level of community spread and risk to guide schools through reopening. His plan aims to work against politics-driven reopening plans that have been based on ultimatums, such as withholding funding until schools return to in-person instruction.

President-Elect Biden wants to ensure high-quality learning during the pandemic by initiating a U.S. Department of Education effort to share best practices. He plans to create a White House initiative to work towards combating equity gaps exacerbated by the pandemic and launch a grant program to help fund efforts in this area.

When asked whether Biden would waive federal testing requirements due to the pandemic, Feldman didn’t promise anything. She said the answer “depends on how much progress we can make in supporting our schools and getting them back up and running.”



An educator as U.S. Secretary of Education

This week we saw the first names released as Biden’s cabinet picks. An announcement could be made soon regarding the important post of U.S. Secretary of Education. In her EWA interview back during the campaign, Feldman confirmed that Biden would nominate a public school educator to be his Education Secretary, but she did not clarify whether this meant a K-12 educator or one from higher education. The U.S. Senate must confirm the president’s cabinet nominees, and with two Georgia Senate races not set to be decided until January, it is too soon to know the partisan makeup of the upper chamber and how that might have an impact. According to this Education Week article, some potential picks could include national labor union leaders (who would have a tough, if not unsuccessful confirmation process in a Republican-led Senate), high-profile school district leaders, state education chiefs, or even U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), who was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

Those in the higher education community argue that a community college-level expert would fit the bill and potentially alleviate problems with Senate confirmation. Dr. Jill Biden is a community college expert herself, having completed a dissertation in the subject and being a longtime community college professor. Other potential picks could be HBCU leaders, especially since Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is an HBCU graduate.

One thing we do know is that President-Elect Biden’s education transition team is being led by former public school teacher Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a legend in the education policy and research world and a leader for equity in education. She is a professor at Stanford University, president of the Learning Policy Institute, and president of the California State Board of Education. Darling-Hammond also led President Obama’s education transition team in 2008.



Dr. Jill Biden: A veteran educator

Dr. Jill Biden (credit)

In his acceptance speech November 8, President-Elect Biden said, “Jill’s a mom — a military mom — and an educator. She has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does — it’s who she is. For America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great First Lady.” Biden’s reverence for his wife may mean she will have a meaningful influence on education policy during his tenure.

Dr. Biden has been an educator for over three decades. While earning her two master’s degrees, she taught English to adolescents with emotional disabilities at a psychiatric hospital. She also taught at the high school and community college levels. Biden has a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware. Her dissertation focused on maximizing student retention in community colleges and her work as former Second Lady focused heavily on community colleges. This background may influence the president to pick a higher education educator for U.S. Secretary of Education.

Also of note, Dr. Biden has announced her intent to continue teaching while serving as First Lady. She reportedly will have the distinction of being the first woman to maintain outside employment while holding that role. Dr. Biden teaches courses at a community college in nearby Virginia.

Share Button

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 20, 2020

ATPE wishes every Teach the Vote reader a happy and safe Thanksgiving! Take a break from meal-planning to read this week’s education news highlights from ATPE Governmental Relations:


We reported last week that ATPE had again written to state officials urging a waiver of STAAR testing requirements this year. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke to Fox 7 Austin about the issue Monday. “We’ve already got a lot of trauma and pressure,” said Exter, referring to the difficulties the pandemic has caused this school year. This week, Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) organized a bipartisan group of Texas legislators in writing a similar letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to ask that STAAR be cancelled for 2020-21. Bernal noted STAAR tests, if administered, should be used for diagnostic purposes at most. Read more about the letter in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

Rep. Gina Hinojosa

ATPE and Rep. Bernal aren’t alone. Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin) also sent a letter with 791 signatures to Gov. Abbott, urging the state to request a federal testing waiver. The parent-led group Texans Advocating for Meaningful State Assessment (TAMSA) also sent a letter to Abbott this week, similarly asking the state to seek a federal waiver and requesting that the high stakes associated with the test be removed.

Not all members of the education community are on board with cancelling STAAR tests altogether, however. A group made up of 14 school superintendents, business leaders, and representatives from the groups Teach Plus and EducateTexas issued a letter to Commissioner Morath this week calling for this year’s STAAR tests to proceed. Citing learning losses caused by the pandemic, the group wrote, “We strongly believe that Texas as a state should keep the 2021 STAAR
administration assessment,” although the group believes “student, school and district accountability measures linked to testing should be suspended for this year.”


This week, ATPE released a report titled, “An Impossible Situation: Why Texas Educators Are Struggling to Serve Students During COVID-19—and Pathways State and District Leaders Can Follow to Correct the Course,” which analyzed three educator surveys conducted by ATPE over the course of the pandemic. The surveys show that educators are concerned with their health and safety, often feeling they are not a priority to state and district leaders. Educators are also experiencing mental health effects due to increased workloads and the stress of the pandemic. In its report, ATPE outlines actions the state could take the remediate the effects of the pandemic on educators and students, such as including educators in planning and providing resources to alleviate stresses associated with staffing and lack of cleaning supplies. Read more on the report in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and explore our interactive site with the survey data here.

Concerns expressed by educators in response to ATPE’s surveys are also reflected in a new article by The Texas Tribune‘s education reporter Aliyya Swaby, republished here on our blog today. The article shares parents’ frustrations as their children struggle in remote learning environments and highlights the difficulties exacerbated by state officials’ slow and often changing guidance to educators and school district leaders this year.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: In a press conference held Thursday afternoon in Lubbock, Gov. Greg Abbott said there would be no further shutdowns in Texas, adding that he believes closing businesses and restaurants is not an effective method for curbing the spread of COVID-19. Instead, Abbott suggested that personal responsibility and self-regulation were important factors in keeping infections down.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated several documents on its Coronavirus Support and Guidance page this week, most notably its Attendance and Enrollment FAQ. Based on the changes, schools can now access a 14-day period of remote-only or hybrid instruction if the school determines that staff absences due to COVID-19 would make in-person instruction impractical. The simple application for the remote-only period is said to be “approved upon receipt.” As has been the case in prior guidance, TEA says students who do not have access to internet or devices and whose parents want them on-campus must be allowed to attend school in person.

Perhaps due to Halloween parties or just an increase in students on campus, the Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard is showing a spike. For the week ending November 8, updates to the number of new weekly positive cases show a 48.0% increase among students and 38.7% increase among staff who participate in on-campus activities and instruction. Given that these values have gone up since last week’s incomplete data for the week ending in Nov. 8 was reported, the numbers for the week ending in Nov. 15 may be just as staggering after the dashboard’s next update post-Thanksgiving. (No new numbers will be reported next week on account of the holiday.)

Check out ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for answers to educators’ questions, and visit Advocacy Central (for ATPE members only) to share your pandemic-related input with legislators and other state and federal officials.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met for its last meeting of the year this week. On Wednesday, members heard from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, who showed no signs of cancelling this year’s STAAR test. Morath did say the agency was considering changes to how the test interacts with the state’s A-F accountability system. Read more about the commissioner’s conversation with SBOE members in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testifies before the SBOE Committee on School Initiatives, Nov. 19, 2020.

Also on Wednesday, the SBOE approved its legislative recommendations, including one to expand the board’s authority to approve or reject charter school expansion amendments. On Thursday, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testified in support of an ATPE-backed rule change that would eliminate the expiration of Legacy Master Teacher certificates. Read more about the SBOE’s Wednesday and Thursday meetings in this blog post by Wiggins.

The board on Friday gave its final approval for the Master Teacher fix, delivering a major win for Texas educators, and approved new curriculum standards for health, physical education, and science. The board also said goodbye to long-serving members Donna Bahorich, Barbara Cargill, Marty Rowley, and Ken Mercer. Read more about Friday’s meeting in this post by Wiggins.


On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Education Agency (TEA), and the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) announced that $420 million in federal CARES Act funds would be made available to school districts as a reimbursement for prior purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots and e-learning devices, such as laptops and tablets. Districts must apply for the funds by December 11 and will be reimbursed at a rate of 75%. ATPE issued a statement Wednesday calling the reimbursements a step in the right direction, but noting the need for additional relief. As districts only have three weeks to apply for the funds (one of which is a holiday week), ATPE also implored TEA to remove obstacles to completing the application.

The reimbursement program is one of the ways Texas officials have opted to spend the federal CARES Act money this year. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


A newly filed bill to reform the state’s healthcare program for educators is raising eyebrows. Rep. Ken King (R-Hempill) pre-filed House Bill (HB) 430, which would shut down both the active and retiree healthcare plans that currently exist through TRS. In a letter to educators, King said he intends to file additional legislation to complement HB 430 in his efforts to improve educators’ retirement prospects in Texas. Read more about the proposal in this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.

Share Button

SBOE wraps up November meeting with goodbyes

The State Board of Education (SBOE) met Friday, November 20, to conclude its week-long meeting with a final vote on revisions to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for health, physical education, and science.

Former SBOE chairs Donna Bahorich (left) and Barbara Cargill (right)

Before discussing the TEKS, the board said goodbye to former chairs Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) and Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands), as well as Members Marty Rowley (R-Amarillo) and Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio). All four members announced their intent to retire at the end of the current term and will be succeeded in January by winners of the November 2020 general election. ATPE thanks these outgoing members for their years of service.

On Wednesday, the board approved a list of its recommendations for legislation in the upcoming session of the 87th Texas Legislature. SBOE members also voted Friday to add a recommendation that their board be empowered to impose administrative penalties on publishers who fail to follow the instructional materials process.

Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence), who chairs the Committee on School Finance/Permanent School Fund (PSF) noted that Wednesday’s board vote to set the distribution rate for the next biennium to 4.18% marked a total two-year distribution of $3.34 billion, “the largest in the history of the fund.”

The SBOE also gave the final green light to a new administrative rule that will allow Legacy Master Teachers, including Legacy Master Reading Teachers, to retain their certificates without expiration. After receiving feedback from master reading teachers whose certificates were scheduled to expire as a result of last session’s House Bill 3, ATPE brought the issue to the attention of Texas Education Agency staff and state officials. This solution will ensure those certificates do not expire and Legacy Master Teachers will remain eligible to retain their current teaching assignments.

Share Button

From The Texas Tribune: Texas families say remote learning isn’t working and they want it fixed

A summer of delay and inconsistency from state political and education leaders left Texas schools little time to prepare for an academic year with millions of students learning from home. Now many of those kids are failing through no fault of their own.

 

Hezekiah Hunter has been learning from home due to the pandemic and has struggled to manage the onslaught of assignments that come with remote learning. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune


Almost midway through the school year, it has become increasingly clear that virtual learning is failing a sizable number of Texas public school students whose parents decided to keep them home as COVID-19 grips the state.

The disturbing number of students posting failing grades while trying to learn in front of computer screens has also brought into sharper focus the failure of state education and political leaders to prepare for an academic year they knew would be like no other.

Over the last month, The Texas Tribune has interviewed more than 30 educators, students, parents and experts across the state about their experiences with remote learning. Parents and students describe a system in which kids are failing, not necessarily because they don’t understand the material, but because the process of teaching them is so broken that it’s difficult to succeed.

Teachers say they are scrambling to retool education, creating new videos and online lessons from scratch and struggling with new demands and limited time. They blame state leaders for squandering valuable months over the summer by delaying key decisions, frequently reversing course and sending conflicting messages to educators on the ground.

Instead of immediately giving local school officials the guidelines and tools needed to prepare, state leaders waffled on policies that school communities needed to make their decisions. They challenged local health officials over who had the authority to keep classrooms closed in areas with high coronavirus infection rates, feeding uncertainty about when and where students would return to classrooms.

By the time the fog cleared, school officials had mere weeks to roll out plans for the fall semester, including training teachers, students and parents on new technology; designing ways to keep track of students falling through the cracks; and upholding some semblance of academic rigor.

The Texas Education Agency indicated it has done the best it could in limited time, working throughout the pandemic to continue providing resources for districts thinking about remote, hybrid and in-person instruction.

Students are now paying the price, and the highest is being exacted from students Texas already struggled to educate. According to a Texas Tribune analysis, school districts with mostly Black, Hispanic and low-income students have higher shares of students learning from home. And state data showed those students were less likely to be engaged in online learning in the spring, when all schools were online.

“There’s just a level of fatigue with this that, given the way that the distance curriculum is being structured, is just wearing on kids and families in a way that’s really untenable, especially in those communities that were already disadvantaged before this,” said Benjamin Cottingham, who has studied the quality of remote learning in California and put out recommendations on how districts can improve.

A squandered summer

Confusion and uncertainty have marked Texas’ response to the pandemic across all fronts.

Constantly changing, confusing top-down guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott this spring eventually led to surges in the number of Texans hospitalized and dead from COVID-19. As the Trump administration aggressively pushed schools to reopen their doors — seeing it as the key to invigorate a slumping economy — Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath decided all Texas schools would be required to open their doors to all students who wanted to return in person, but must also be prepared to teach remotely those who did not want to return.

But the guidelines on how to do both those jobs effectively and safely were delayed for weeks this summer as Abbott reconsidered his hands-off approach to the pandemic. By late June, the TEA had promised it would keep state funds flowing to districts for the students who attended remotely, and it began offering districts a little more flexibility as it became clear the pandemic was getting worse. In July and August, state leaders publicly bickered with local health authorities who wanted to keep classrooms closed during COVID-19 spikes, eventually taking away some of their authority to make those decisions.

As state leaders put out conflicting mandates, school superintendents attempted to prepare for the fall ahead. They repeatedly surveyed families, trying to figure out how to cater to two groups of students, some coming to school in person and others staying home.

Some districts considered having two corps of teachers — one for students in classrooms, the other for virtual learners — thinking the bifurcated approach might improve education for all the kids. But there was no money to essentially double the staffs of each school, and there weren’t enough classrooms to socially distance all those teachers.

After holding listening sessions with superintendents, the TEA offered districts free access to a virtual learning system, which 400 school districts educating millions of students have adopted. The agency also contributed hundreds of millions in federal stimulus money to subsidize bulk orders of computers, Wi-Fi hotspots and iPads. But in some cases, supply chain issues delayed shipping for months. Texas has also provided online course materials schools can use for free — but some courses are still being rolled out midway through the year.

“The better time to have rolled all this out would have been last June, last May,” Morath acknowledged this week at a State Board of Education briefing. “But we are moving as fast as we can, all things considered.”

Delayed starts to the school year allowed districts to spend more time planning, but some struggled to use that time wisely. “We could have used another month or two of planning and training and figuring things out,” said Mark Henry, superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District outside of Houston. “But parents had the opportunity to declare whether they were going to be face-to-face or remote until two weeks before school started. We didn’t know what our numbers were going to be until 10 days before school would start.”

Returning from a chaotic summer, teachers had to create new classes for virtual learning with almost no time to plan, while instructing kids in person and online at the same time. Texas funds districts for remote students if they can show those students engaged with their lessons that day. A simple task like taking attendance now lasts more than twice the usual time, as teachers hunt for evidence that a student reached out or completed an assignment.

Most districts have required teachers to come to the classroom daily, even denying many stay-at-home requests from those with medical conditions. “If we’re fearful of COVID and stressed out by these mandates and inflexibility, our effectiveness is going to be diminished as well,” said Lori Wheeler, who retired from Austin ISD in early November, worried about the health risks of working in person. “We had three weeks to learn a completely different job.”

Thoroughly preparing for an academic year such as this one would have taken at least a year in the best of circumstances, educators and experts said. But the delays at the state level left teachers with mere weeks to plan for the fall. “I think teachers were kind of flying blind in the sense that they were kind of making it up as they went, trying to do their best in terms of how much planning time the teacher has and how effectively they thought they could conduct lessons,” said Christopher Williams, a teacher in Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district and one of the last to bring students back in person. “These online platforms are new to us.”

Frustration hits home

The stress and lack of preparation teachers experience trickles down to students and parents. Parents and guardians told the Tribune that teachers have often not made clear to them which class assignments are required and which are just suggestions. Sometimes parents tell their children not to bother completing assigned work at all, worried the stress will overwhelm them and have long-term effects.

Candace Hunter’s daughter Hezekiah, who is 11, used to love school as a straight-A student. Now, she is inundated with mundane assignments from multiple classes, leaving her despondently working into the evening to clear the backlogs. The sixth grader at Austin ISD’s Lamar Fine Arts Academy asks her mom if she can stay out of school.

Hunter, a veteran teacher who now privately trains teachers, said the school has not adjusted its teaching policies to be more flexible. In a normal year, teachers ask students questions throughout a lesson and give them homework to get proof they understand each skill or lesson. Replicating that method on a virtual platform has been disastrous, resulting in dozens of emails and messages that students and parents must sort through each day, she said.

Candace Hunter’s children are home-schooled due to the pandemic and have been struggling to manage the onslaught of assignments that come with remote learning. Hunter and her children are photographed here in Austin on Nov. 17, 2020.

From left: Candace Hunter’s children Hezekiah and John-Mark are home-schooled due to the pandemic and have struggled with remote learning. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

“Why not create a system that will draw people back to you? Like, ‘We thought about who needs this program the most … and each campus has created a program especially for their population that is going to be engaging and robust.’ That’s not happening,” Hunter said.

Eventually, she told her daughter’s teachers, “If this continues, we’re going to start cherry-picking our assignments.”

With more low-income students and students of color learning remotely, existing disparities in education are exacerbated. A Tribune analysis showed that in majority low-income districts, an average of 64% of students are learning from home. That rate climbs to 77% in majority Hispanic school districts and 81% in majority Black districts, according to the data collected in late September by the TEA and Department of State Health Services. By contrast, in majority white school districts, 25% of students are learning from home.

Remote learning is working for some students, but often requires an immense amount of time from guardians and parents. Natasha Beck-King, a history graduate student with coursework of her own, transferred her son to a San Antonio ISD school from a local charter school when it was clear the charter did not have a long-term plan for remote learning.

Beck-King stays up late with her children to verify they have completed their work and feels like parents should spend more time doing the same. “If your kid is failing and they’re not in tutoring, and you’ve communicated with the teacher and the teacher is communicating back with you … that is not on the school,” she said.

Some schools had the resources to prepare earlier. Marysa Enis, a former school psychologist at Austin ISD, said remote learning is going well at her son’s school, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, which used its own money to pay teachers to plan over the summer.

But some families lack the resources for online learning to ever be successful this year, through no fault of their schools. Georgina Pérez, a Democratic member of the Texas State Board of Education, lives in the southeast corner of El Paso County, a border region where broadband access is limited. Her youngest children, fifth grade students at San Elizario ISD, received computers and hotspots from the district, but couldn’t get a signal and eventually gave them back. Now, Pérez drives to the school every Tuesday to pick up paper packets, assignments on material the children learned more than a year ago.

Pérez knows her children may need to repeat the fifth grade next year and believes they will eventually catch up, but she worries about the students in families without as many resources. She blames the situation on state delays, not just to get control of the pandemic, but also to get its most vulnerable communities connected to the internet. “How many years have we studied the needs for broadband infrastructure in Texas?” she said. “Twenty years ago, we already knew what we needed, but we just didn’t do it.”

Carrots and sticks

The TEA has used both carrots and sticks to encourage school districts to follow certain guidance.

Despite significant outcry, Texas plans to administer STAAR standardized tests to students this spring and use those scores to rate schools and districts, which could lead to sanctions for some. Looming accountability ratings have spurred administrators to increase the difficulty of courses and push teachers and students to get back to normal in a year that is anything but.

“If we don’t push our kids, if we water down the curriculum and make it easier, I guess, then they won’t be where they need to be when it comes to accountability testing in the spring,” said Linda Parker, assistant superintendent at Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD in North Texas. “We’re trying to operate in a world that is so different than what we’ve had before.”

And the threat of lost state funding due to drops in enrollment has been a specter for superintendents already spending up to millions to COVID-proof their buildings.

In late July, as state leaders battled local health officials over who was in charge of school reopenings, Texas said it would provide funding for schools that kept their classrooms closed only if they did so for state-approved reasons. Districts took that as a threat that their funding would be yanked if they listened to local health officials who said in-person school wasn’t safe.

Recently, Texas announced it would fund school districts for declining enrollment through the first semester, instead of just the first 12 weeks. The announcement was met with tempered relief from superintendents who are waiting to hear if they will receive that financial reprieve for the entire year. The suspense has left teachers and staff wondering if they will still have their jobs months from now, adding yet another layer of tension.

In response to complaints from parents and educators, the TEA and superintendents tinkered with their requirements for schools. In October, the TEA said schools were required to have qualified staff instructing or supporting students face-to-face in classrooms if they wanted to get funding, which it said clarified existing guidance.

That clarification ruled out a system Austin ISD and others had been using, in which students remained in the same classroom and learned virtually while supervised by a teacher. Austin ISD had to start from scratch and announced that its middle and high schoolers would physically transition between classes and receive face-to-face instruction starting Nov. 2.

Many educators used the well-worn idiom “building the plane as you fly it” to describe the summer and fall. Parker took the saying a step further in describing how schools are responding to shifting state guidance. “It’s actually like, ‘Guess what, pilot? Here’s your plane, but we’re going to change the motor. Now we’re going to change the structure. … Then, as the year starts, we’re going to change your plane. We know you don’t know that much about it, but you’ll be fine.’”

“Throw ’em an anvil”

At times, the response to the pandemic has been like a massive game of telephone, with the TEA giving guidance to school superintendents that scrambles by the time it reaches teachers and parents.

This summer, the TEA explained to districts the online programs available to help them manage classroom tasks and monitor student progress. Lily Laux, a deputy commissioner at the TEA, told the Tribune she wanted districts to understand that remote learning would be easier with the higher-end programs, since teachers would be able to easily track whether students were engaging with the lessons. But she said she was not mandating a change.

In an email to staff at the end of June, obtained by the Tribune, Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Doug Killian announced that the district would be pivoting to Canvas, a program used frequently in higher education that teachers describe as challenging to learn. He explained that “guidance from TEA requires a more robust system for instruction, more in-depth online instruction, and necessary tracking of students online for attendance and funding purposes.”

The district did not launch training for the program until Sept. 4, with the goal of phasing it in for students and parents from mid-October to January. District leaders plan to extend that time for teachers who need it, said spokesperson Tamra Spence.

“That’s like throwing someone in the deep end of the pool, and when they don’t drown, throwing ’em an anvil,” said Don Fisher, a former Texas A&M-Kingsville lecturer on student media, who has taught and designed online classes for more than a decade.

Confused and frustrated by the late rollout of the new program, some teachers said it was the result of top-down decision-making that lacked foresight and left them out of the process. “There was no organized, centralized, deliberative initiative from school districts to professionally develop their teachers and increase their proficiency on these … platforms,” said Cuitlahuac Guerra-Mojarro, who teaches engineering in the district. “Had there been foresight and leadership and understanding about what the future is, we would have been more prepared.”

And ultimately students pay the price. Alexis Phan, a sophomore at Pflugerville High School, stares at a screen for at least eight hours a day and feels like her teachers are moving at too fast a pace. Some of her classmates have lost friends to suicide or shootings and are struggling to focus. One week in October, Phan had six tests in electives and core subjects. She is passing all her classes, but her grades are lower than they used to be, and she spent weeks staying up until 1 a.m. doing homework.

Sophomore Alexis Phan does her Algebra 2 homework remotely, from her home in Pflugerville.

Sophomore Alexis Phan does her algebra homework remotely from her home in Pflugerville. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Phan spends most days at home alone, with her father at work every other week and her sister and mother at work. She feels sad and lonely often, “just doing work alone with so much work just piling up constantly.” But she visits her grandparents regularly and worries going back to school in person could bring the virus back to them.

“Honestly, I wish that some teachers could be a bit more understanding with us. They should be a little more understanding that just because we’re in a pandemic or have a three-day weekend that they shouldn’t give us more work than what they would normally do,” she said. “It’s just harder to learn online.”

Awaiting a fix

Medical and education experts say remote learning should continue to be an option for families that don’t feel safe sending students to classrooms.

But instead of trying to improve virtual learning, dozens of districts are already bringing all students back in person. Texas recently changed its guidance and allowed districts to require failing students to return in person or find another district. But with COVID-19 cases rising in many regions, some administrators are being forced to temporarily shut down schools for weeks at a time and rely on their remote-learning programs to keep students up to speed.

From mid-September into October, Gunter ISD, in rural North Texas, had to quarantine 190 students after they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive, according to Superintendent Jill Siler. About 91% of the district’s students are learning in person, and the other 9% use online programs that Gunter ISD purchased, with classroom teachers providing support for younger students.

For now, Gunter ISD will keep remote learning since some students are successful and because an increase in COVID-19 cases would require the district to educate kids remotely. “If we’re still in December and in as much struggle as we are now, that decision [to cut remote learning] in December may look different,” Siler said.

Siler and other school administrators are working to learn from mistakes and improve their virtual learning programs. Hays CISD administrators gave teachers more time to plan lessons and created a help desk for parents or teachers, said Superintendent Eric Wright. They have also considered reducing the number of required assignments after getting feedback that it was “overwhelming.”

The TEA continues to provide updated guidance and offer training for the free virtual learning systems and technology tools. At a legislative hearing last week, Morath told lawmakers that Texas needed to “reengineer the school experience so students reach high academic outcomes” in 2021, including changing how instruction works, addressing disparities among students and investing in teachers.

Cynthia Ruiz, who quit her job as an attendance specialist in Austin ISD in October, said schools should change their expectations of what instruction looks like during a pandemic. They could shorten the school day or school year, free up time for teachers to connect with their students and build in more time for mental health check-ins.

“To try and mimic the school day in the way we’ve always done it was their first mistake,” she said. “One reason why we have low grades is because we’re saying everything is important, and when you’re saying everything is important, nothing is important.”

Mandi Cai and Chris Essig contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Google have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/20/texas-schools-remote-learning/.

Share Button

Texas schools may access federal funds to reimburse remote learning costs

Earlier this year Congress passed the CARES Act to provide pandemic relief funds to individuals, as well as K-12 schools. Texas has received more than $1.5 billion of the federal allocation targeting education. There have been attempts this year by some policymakers to divert the federal funds earmarked for public schools to private individuals or entities, but ATPE has consistently maintained that these funds should flow directly to the public schools that need them to address the challenges of COVID-19. This week state officials shared more information about how they are spending the federal dollars.

Texas received $29.2 million through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and $1.28 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, both funded by the CARES Act. In June, Texas notified the federal government that it intended to use its GEER funds to support remote learning through Operation Connectivity, provide virtual interventions for students with dyslexia, and create online instructional materials. Similarly, the state indicated that it would spend its ESSER funds on a summer bridge program to help graduating seniors, mental and behavioral health supports, remote instructional platforms and materials, and assistance for school districts adapting to remote learning environments.

On Wednesday, November 18, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that $420 million of the CARES Act funds sent to Texas will be made available to school districts for reimbursement of COVID-19 expenses. Specifically, schools may request the funding to offset prior purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots and other technology devices.

The Dallas Morning News reported on the development last night, sharing ATPE’s comment that the announcement is a significant step in the right direction but only the beginning, as districts’ funding needs related to COVID-19 will persist. ATPE has also urged the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to make it easier for schools to access the funds. School leaders have reported many bureaucratic hurdles involved in the process of applying for the reimbursements. Similarly, in response to ATPE’s surveys, educators have expressed frustration over burdensome paperwork and reporting requirements imposed by the state since the pandemic began disrupting the school environment.

The state has already used a smaller portion of CARES Act funds to reimburse some of the expenses incurred by schools during the latter part of the 2019-20 school year, to fund “hold harmless” agreements to prevent schools from losing funding due to enrollment drops, to subsidize broadband access through Operation Connectivity, and to create instructional materials for its TexasHomeLearning.com online platform launched earlier this year. More controversially, Gov. Abbott has allocated approximately $30 million of the CARES Act funding he oversees to a new voucher program for students with disabilities, a move ATPE and other organizations have opposed.

TEA announced Thursday, November 19, that the agency is adding new instructional materials to the latest iteration of Texas Home Learning (THL 3.0) geared toward Pre-Kindergarten students. The THL initiative began as an effort to give families direct access to instructional materials, including summer reading assistance, but has since grown to include the provision of an optional Learning Management System (LMS) for school districts through the acquisition of a statewide license with the education vendor Schoology. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told members of the State Board of Education this week that $64 million of the CARES Act funds have been spent on THL.

It appears that only about one-quarter of the state’s school districts have opted to use the new LMS, and ATPE members’ reviews of the Schoology platform and THL instructional materials have been mixed, at best. Although the allocation of CARES Act funding for THL has been relative small, educators tell us that they would rather see those pandemic relief funds sent directly to school districts to help them hire additional staff and give teachers more time for planning and develop their own innovative curriculum that meets the needs of their students.

Share Button

SBOE Update: Board seeks more authority over charter expansion, ATPE advances Master Teacher rule fix

The State Board of Education (SBOE) is meeting this week for the last time this calendar year. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has been attending the virtual meetings and reporting on them here on our ATPE advocacy blog. Here are the latest developments:

Wednesday highlights:

On Wednesday, November 18, the board began its day with a presentation by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. Read more about the discussion between the board members and commissioner in this blog post from yesterday. Also on Wednesday, the board debated its legislative recommendations for 2021, and set the Permanent School Fund (PSF) distribution rate for the next two-year state budget.

The board held a preliminary vote to set a distribution rate of 4.18% from the PSF for the 2022-23 budget biennium, directing $1.17 billion per fiscal year and $3.34 billion for the biennium to fund public schools. Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence), who chairs the board’s Committee on School Finance/PSF, noted that the Legislature will ask the board to contribute as much as possible due to the financial strain on the state caused by the recession. In response to questions about why the board can’t contribute more than it does, Maynard explained that the nature of endowments is that they are limited in how much they can distribute while protecting the corpus and maintaining growth of the fund.

TEA staff updated the board on the results of the SBOE’s legislative recommendations for the previous session in 2019. Among the items included in the board’s recommendations last session were changes to PSF governance to address conflicts between the SBOE and the School Land Board (SLB), which manages the fund’s real estate assets and is housed within the General Land Office (GLO). The 86th Texas Legislature passed legislation in 2019 designed to mitigate those conflicts and requiring the two boards to meet together at least once a year.

SBOE Chair Keven Ellis presides over the November meeting.

The board then considered its legislative recommendations for the upcoming 2021 legislative session, beginning with readopting recommendations that had not been addressed in 2019. The recommendations comprise legislation the board would like to support.

The board approved a legislative recommendation introduced by Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) to expand the SBOE’s authority to approve or reject charter school expansion amendments. The board currently has veto authority over the approval of new charter chains, but no authority over the expansion to additional campuses once a charter chain is approved. The commissioner is the sole authority who decides whether charter chains can open additional campuses; the current commissioner has allowed charter chains, including those with failing accountability ratings, to expand exponentially. The SBOE did not approve a recommendation, however, calling for a moratorium on new charter chains.

Perez also proposed a recommendation on reducing the number of high-stakes tests to only those that are required under federal law, as well as removing A-F grades used in the state’s accountability system for schools. ATPE has advocated for removing harmful labels from the accountability system that oversimplify educational factors and only serve to stigmatize schools and communities. Unfortunately, the SBOE did not adopt this recommendation today.

The board also did not approve a number of recommendations Perez proposed that explicitly expressed support for protecting the health and safety of educators and students by granting local districts the flexibility to make determinations about educational delivery, as well as requiring that local educators and parents have meaningful input into reopening decisions.

Members then resumed discussion on curriculum standards (TEKS) up for final adoption at this month’s meeting. The board will vote on the revised TEKS for health, physical education, and science during their Friday meeting.

Thursday highlights:

The board divided into its three standing committees Thursday morning, with the School Initiatives, Instruction, and School Finance/PSF Committees holding separate hearings.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testifies before the SBOE Committee on School Initiatives.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testified before the Committee on School Initiatives Thursday morning in support of a new administrative rule that will allow Legacy Master Teachers to retain their certificates without expiration. ATPE’s Governmental Relations team approached Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff in the summer of 2019 with concerns raised by Legacy Master Teachers whose certificates were scheduled to expire as a result of language in House Bill (HB) 3. ATPE worked with agency staff and other stakeholders to develop a solution that would allow Legacy Master Teachers, including Legacy Master Reading Teachers, to continue teaching in their current positions. The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) approved the final rule in October of 2020.

By law, all rules passed by SBEC must be reviewed by SBOE, which holds veto authority that is rarely executed. Wiggins thanked TEA staff, SBEC members, and House Public Education Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) for their work to ensure that the expertise of Legacy Master Teachers remains in the classroom. After Wiggins’s testimony, the committee advanced the rule to the full board with a favorable recommendation. The rule will go into effect pending a favorable review by the full SBOE on Friday.

Share Button

ATPE commends legislators for joining the push for STAAR waivers

Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), joined by 67 of his Texas House colleagues, sent a letter to the Texas commissioner of education today calling for the cancellation of this school year’s STAAR tests.

Today’s letter from the bipartisan group of state representatives echoes a similar letter ATPE sent to Gov. Greg Abbott last week and shared with legislative leaders and the commissioner in recent days. Both letters reference the “COVID slide” and the need for educators and policymakers to focus their efforts this year on remediation of students, along with prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff.

“At most, any administration of the STAAR exam during the 2020-2021 school year should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions under the current A-F accountability system,” wrote Rep. Bernal in the November 18 correspondence to Commissioner Mike Morath.

Texas laws and regulations link numerous high-stakes decisions to data derived from STAAR testing, including school accountability ratings, student promotion, and the evaluations and compensation of educators. Lawmakers who signed the letter to Morath expressed appreciation for the state’s decision to waive STAAR-related requirements for the Student Success Initiative this year, which ATPE also noted in our letter as a positive step. However, data from STAAR tests administered this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be unreliable and unfair measures to apply to a host of other decisions, as ATPE has repeatedly warned state officials.

The commissioner and governor have not yet signaled any intent to waive the testing requirements this year as they did in the spring. Morath previously has been quoted as saying, “Teaching without some form of testing is just talking.” As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on our blog, multiple members of the State Board of Education questioned Morath about STAAR testing during a meeting this morning. “Why do we even need the STAAR test this year?!” tweeted member Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) during the SBOE meeting.

ATPE is hopeful that the growing pressure to waive STAAR testing requirements this year, including pleas from elected officials on both sides of the political aisle, will persuade Governor Abbott and Commissioner Morath to provide the needed relief and do their part to request federal waivers of the testing and accountability mandates, as well. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for any new developments.

Share Button

SBOE presses commissioner over STAAR

Commissioner Mike Morath testifies before the November 18, 2020 meeting of the SBOE.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath addressed the State Board of Education (SBOE) Wednesday morning at the board’s November meeting. The commissioner updates the board at each meeting on various Texas Education Agency (TEA) initiatives. Many SBOE members at Wednesday’s meeting voiced consternation over the planned administration of the STAAR this school year, as well as other concerns that echo what ATPE has been asking of Morath and other state officials.

Morath began his presentation this morning with a brief overview of the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR), which is a formal document each agency submits to the incoming legislature outlining its recommendations for the next two-year budget. The agency’s LAR includes $26.2 billion for the Foundation School Program (FSP), which directly funds public schools, as well as $164.6 million for the agency’s administration. Spending on Titles I-VI totals $2.2 billion, along with $2.5 billion for nutrition and $1.1 billion for special education.

According to Morath, the agency has already executed a request from state leaders for all agencies to cut their spending by 5% in response to the economic recession. This cut is already included in the agency’s LAR. The commissioner said the LAR includes one “exceptional item” requesting $10 million to attract and train effective and diverse educators and $10 million for targeted interventions and campus supports. Separate from state funding, Morath said the state had received roughly $2 billion in CARES Act funding, including $908 million in net new funding.

The commissioner also touted Schoology, which is learning management software (LMS) the state has purchased and made available to approximately 400 local education agencies (LEAs). The state has spent $64 million on Texas Home Learning, which is a virtual learning platform. Morath said 256 LEAs have registered to engage with THL content since June. Board Member Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-San Antonio) noted this is an engagement rate of only 24% of LEAs and suggested that CARES Act funding would be better utilized for more equitable, sustainable, and long-term supports that benefit all schools.

SBOE Member Barbara Cargill

Outgoing Member Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) pointed out that many teachers are thinking about leaving the profession because of the overwhelming increase in workload resulting from the combination of virtual and in-person classroom responsibilities. “What encouragement can we give them?” asked Cargill. Morath responded that what teachers need most is time. The commissioner stated the vast majority of schools are using a concurrent model, which makes teachers conduct both virtual and in-person instruction and requires twice the prep work. The commissioner noted that the agency has shared alternative staffing models with districts that could reduce the workload demands on individual teachers. Increased workload demands have been cited frequently by educators, including in a new comprehensive ATPE survey report released today.

Several members asked the commissioner about waivers or adjustments to STAAR administration for the 2020-21 school year. Member Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) directly asked the commissioner to scrap this year’s STAAR test. Morath indicated that the agency’s plan is to apply for waivers for certain participation requirements in spring and that TEA is considering adjustments to the A-F accountability system. Yet Morath seemed to imply that there are no plans to cancel the test, despite the growing backlash against the high-stakes test.

Member Perez-Diaz pointed out that there is no reliable data this year with which to evaluate student progress. Member Pam Little (R-Fairview) asked whether schools could be allowed to use the measure of academic progress (MAP) instead of STAAR for accountability purposes. The commissioner suggested that approach is complicated by lack of consistent protocols or benchmarks, but that it was under consideration.

Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) asked whether TEA was considering easing up on teacher evaluation requirements, pointing out the difficulty of evaluating remote learning under the current system. Echoing a response to ATPE when our association similarly asked for a moratorium on appraisal requirements, Morath told Perez today schools already have flexibility on evaluations, but he said the agency will explore whether additional flexibility is needed.

Members also pressed the commissioner over his claim that schools are “remarkably safe environments” with regard to COVID-19. Perez-Diaz asked whether contact tracing was being conducted on campuses that could back up the claims that there isn’t much spread in schools. The commissioner said the agency hasn’t found evidence of underreporting by districts, despite many reports to the contrary. The commissioner conceded that identifying the source of transmission has proven to be difficult due to the level of community spread, but he pointed to data about the spread of COVID-19 in schools in other countries to justify his claim.

Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) pointed out that the Rio Grande Valley is home to 4.7% of the state’s population, yet has experienced 18% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. Cortez shared reports that some 200 employees have tested positive for the virus in Hidalgo County schools and emphasized the importance of giving schools the flexibility to continue remote-only instruction while infections are spiking. Morath responded by suggesting that schools have existing flexibility.

Share Button

ATPE releases report on educator experiences during COVID-19

Texas Educators Find Themselves in an “Impossible Situation,” Worried about Health and Increasing Workloads—and Lacking Trust in State Officials’ Response

Educators find themselves in an “impossible situation” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the state of Texas and are increasingly dissatisfied with state and district leadership’s handling of the crisis.

On November 18, ATPE released a 14-page analysis of three educator-focused surveys designed to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Texas public education. The report, titled “An Impossible Situation: Why Texas Educators Are Struggling to Serve Students During COVID-19—and Pathways State and District Leaders Can Follow to Correct the Course,” breaks down the results of three surveys we conducted between May-October 2020.

View the ATPE survey data and analysis here.

Most respondents expressed that the health and safety needs of students, faculty, and staff are a top concern. The amount of mental stress and anxiety educators are experiencing in the return to school is at an all-time high. Respondents expressed a feeling that teachers “were an afterthought” in COVID-19 back-to-school planning at the state and district levels, and they said the implementation of safety protocols by their districts were, in their words, “inconsistent.” In addition, the responses showed that between May and October, educators began experiencing concerns about increasing workloads reflected in longer work hours and the need for extra planning time.

More than 75% of respondents were “unsatisfied” or “very unsatisfied” (41%) with state leadership’s handling of the crisis, with many criticizing the state’s insistence on tying in-person learning to school funding.

“Many respondents felt district and state-level COVID-19 policies weren’t designed with educators in mind,” said Andrea Chevalier, ATPE lobbyist and author of the report. “This leads to impractical and unreasonable job expectations and extreme stress. Educators are concerned with students’ overall well-being and success, of course, but they believe that in-person instruction must be safe, well-resourced, and effective.”

As the name of the report implies, however, the surveys also offer indications of pathways state and district leaders can take to increase the number of educators who feel safe on campus and ensure a more effective teaching and learning environment. Some positive responses to the surveys indicate that certain districts are, in fact, navigating the pandemic successfully largely due to clear, transparent communication that involves educators in the process.

Based on the results and analysis of the surveys, ATPE shares the following recommendations:

  1. Educators should be included in school districts’ COVID-19 planning.
  2. Districts should be transparent and consistent about COVID-19 policies and their enforcement across all school programs, including maintaining a confidential, trustworthy line of communication between employees and district leaders.
  3. Class sizes should be limited to enhance the effectiveness of physical distancing in mitigating the spread of the virus.
  4. The state should ensure districts have adequate cleaning supplies and PPE.
  5. The state should provide resources, such as funding for substitute teachers, custodial staff, and additional teachers, to ensure districts can accommodate increased staffing needs to relieve educators from extra duties, both during the pandemic and after when students have increased learning needs.
  6. Districts should ensure educators who need medical accommodations are being appropriately served under applicable federal law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  7. The state should not tie district funding to a requirement for in-person instruction and should instead allow districts to make the best decisions for their communities.
  8. Educators’ mental health must be prioritized through all policy decisions, including providing funding that affects staffing levels and the ability of districts to allow educators to focus on a reasonable workload.
  9. To reduce the risk of viral spread and alleviate fears of exposure, the state should reconsider current standardized testing requirements that will increase the number of students required to be on campus for testing days.

Find additional information and resources on ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page at www.atpe.org/coronavirus.

Share Button