With fuzzy guidance from the state, school districts grapple with remote learning and timelines for resuming in-person instruction

Plans for resuming in-person instruction remain in flux across the state as many districts near the end of their allowed four-week transition period to move from virtual to in-person learning.

The latest Texas Education Agency (TEA) update to its statewide “Attendance and Enrollment” guidance reflects that some school districts may feel a need to request more than eight weeks of flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. “Any additional transition window will require board approval after preliminary TEA plan feedback has been received,” notes the TEA document released September 24, adding the agency will expect any district seeking additional transition time to be steadily increasing the number of students on campus during that period. But, despite assurances that the agency will take health-related metrics such as hospitalization data into consideration when reviewing such requests, the state’s decision-making remains discretionary and impossible to predict—leaving school districts grappling with how to proceed. ATPE believes this isn’t fair to administrators, teachers, parents, and certainly not students.

Since early summer, ATPE has urged the governor, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, and other state officials to use objective, health-related data as the basis for school reopening decisions that are made at the local level. While we are glad to see the state’s recognition of some data on COVID-19 infections as a valuable consideration, ATPE believes it is unfair to leave school districts guessing as to whether the state ultimately will grant them additional flexibility if they believe it is unsafe for students to return to campus.

As we have reported, Gov. Abbott announced last week an easing of restrictions on restaurants and certain other businesses, but the changes were not applicable to three areas of the state that remain “danger zones”: Victoria, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley. Gov. Abbott said further reopening decisions would be based upon COVID-19 hospitalization data in the area, noting that the hospitalization numbers remained too high in those three areas, which include 13 Texas counties.

Rio Grande Valley school district leaders have been pleading with the commissioner and elected officials for additional flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. Today’s updated guidance notes that when reviewing district requests for extension of the transition period, TEA will consider “whether school systems are located in whole or in part in areas” identified as hot spots under the criteria referenced by the governor.

ATPE issued a press statement today in response to the new information from TEA. ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell stated in the release, “ATPE is pleased that state officials are finally listening to our recommendations on the importance of basing reopening decisions on objective, health-related data. However, TEA’s promise merely to ‘take into consideration’ such data offers little comfort for schools being pressured to reopen their facilities before it may be safe to do so under local health recommendations.”

School district approaches to reopening vary widely. COVID-19 has not affected every community to the same degree, and differing political views about the pandemic have put pressure on school boards. Not surprisingly, many districts have revised their initial plans and may still be considering further changes. Several districts are announcing plans to terminate virtual instruction, while others are looking for ways to extend it. The shifting landscape and fluctuating directives from school district leaders have been frustrating for educators and parents alike, resulting in emotional debates on social media and in school board meetings. Also frustrating is the red tape surrounding the decision-making process: Districts seeking to stretch out their return timeline must first secure initial board approval, then submit a request to TEA for “preliminary feedback,” and then ask for another board vote.

A few examples from across the state:

  • Fort Worth ISD began its school year with four weeks of remote instruction set to expire October 5. Last week, the FWISD board voted 5-4 against a motion that would have extended the district’s remote learning plan an additional four weeks. But this week, the board held another meeting and voted 5-4 in favor of adding two more weeks to the transition period. The change came after educators and parents testified at the 10-hour meeting, with some circulating petitions and organizing rallies on both sides of the issue. ATPE submitted testimony urging FWISD to base its decision on local public health data, paying close attention to the recommendations of Tarrant County Public Health.
  • Hardin ISD posted a notice on its website this week stating, “Due to less than acceptable virtual participation and student results, please be advised that Hardin ISD will cease virtual learning on Friday, October 2, 2020.”
  • Louise ISD sent a letter to parents September 22 stating, “The effort required of our teachers and administrators will no longer be divided by the requirements of offering remote learning beginning Tuesday, September 29, 2020 … I am not mandating that your family chooses to return to school. Yet, I am suggesting that you make a decision that continues to provide the appropriate needs of your children.” Superintendent Garth Oliver lists “suitable” options for parents to consider: returning to school in-person, transferring to a district that offers remote learning, or withdrawing from the public school system to either home-school or enroll in private school.
  • Brownsville ISD’s superintendent has urged stakeholders to lobby TEA for more flexibility. The Brownsville Herald reported September 19 that Superintendent Rene Gutierrez asked the state to allow BISD “to continue at 100% distance learning so that we can ensure everyone’s safety,” but the district plans to begin hosting students on campus September 28 because of state limitations on the timeline for operating remotely.

Commissioner Morath clarified on a call with superintendents today that no school district is required to offer remote instruction, but any parent who wants their child to continue attending school virtually must be allowed to transfer to a school district that offers it.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among on-campus students and staff is being reported by each school district and shared via an online dashboard. There is a lag in the reporting time, however, and the numbers reflect only test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among individuals who have been on the campus. TEA posted this updated FAQ document about the COVID-19 data reporting today.

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