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From The Texas Tribune: Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.

As students across Texas return to schools for in-person classes, there will be masks, distancing and lunches eaten at desks. Many students will remain at home, joining in on laptops and phones.

Students sit distanced from one another in the lunch room at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

“Things are ever changing. The one thing I’ve appreciated that stayed constant was the interest in students returning has been at 50%,” Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez said of his 7,200-student district east of San Antonio. “I believe that we can safely social distance at that number in our buildings.”

Parent interest in in-person instruction varies greatly across the state. In some hard-hit parts of the state, like Mercedes ISD in South Texas, the vast majority of parents are opting for virtual learning. In Texarkana’s Bowie County, where coronavirus cases have stayed relatively low, most Maud ISD parents have already sent their kids to school in person.

Local health authorities continue to clash with school districts over whether it’s safe to open, concerned that Labor Day festivities could lead to higher case numbers, as Memorial Day did this spring. Fort Bend County health officials sent Katy ISD a letter in late July urging it not to open classrooms or start extracurricular activities “before late September in the vast majority of cases,” until the “effect of the Labor Day holiday can be determined.”

Katy ISD, which has schools in Fort Bend, Harris and Waller counties, plans to reopen classrooms Tuesday.

When schools were forced by the pandemic to hurriedly switch to virtual learning in the spring, most Texas districts didn’t require teachers to conduct live virtual lessons, but more are attempting that type of instruction this year. That means many teachers will have to simultaneously instruct two groups of students: those in front of them, and those watching from their iPads and laptops.

In Seguin ISD, most of the lessons will also be recorded for students who couldn’t find time to log in and watch live, important in a district with 71% low-income students, Gutierrez said. “You have parents that have multiple jobs. They’re shift workers. To expect that our students are going to go through their entire day at home alongside the face-to-face learners is really unreasonable when they don’t have that support, that structure or that supervision at home. They would be missing out on instruction.”

He acknowledged that those students will be missing out on the benefits of live instruction: having a teacher correct their pronunciation of a challenging word or being able to ask questions about a complex math problem in real time.

Austin ISD starts virtually Tuesday and plans to open classrooms in early October. Eight-year-old Isla Arb will start third grade at Graham Elementary School online Tuesday and will continue virtually to avoid endangering her grandmother, who has cancer, said her mother, Katie Arb. Both Katie Arb and her husband work full time, so they hired another mother to watch Isla and her 4-year-old sibling on weekdays. They’re paying her about $15 per hour, as well as paid sick leave and vacation, replacing some of the pay she had received as a dental hygienist before the pandemic.

“The bulk of her responsibilities are going to be to keep the 4-year-old away from our 8-year-old,” Katie Arb said.

Isla is excited about getting to wear a unicorn onesie to virtual school every day at the messy desk in her bedroom. But she got quiet when she thought about her classmates and teachers returning to campus in October. “I don’t want them to get coronavirus,” she said sadly.

Even students who return to Austin ISD’s campuses will effectively be learning virtually. When she goes back to school in early October, Austin ISD high school theater teacher Rachel Seney will sit in a classroom, with a mask on, leading a virtual class through musical numbers or dramatic exercises. Students spread 6 feet apart will sit in front of her on their laptops, each one completing assignments or watching a different teacher deliver instruction.

Students will spend nearly the entire day, including lunch, in one classroom, a plan intended to reduce the public health risks during a pandemic. If one child or staff member gets infected, it will be easy to trace exactly who they were in contact with — meaning there’s no need to shut down entire campuses or districts.

Seney, who teaches at predominantly white and high-income Anderson High School, said she sees the model as more equitable since all students end up learning virtually in some way. “You’re not teaching equitably if you have some students in front of you and some students online. Now that some schools have started going back and are using that model, I’m already seeing it’s not happening,” she said. “It’s not really effective.”

Her sister Blair Seney will be doing just that at Cypress Falls High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, miles away in Harris County’s suburbs. A special education educator, she helps modify assignments or provide extra time on testing for students with disabilities alongside a primary classroom teacher.

“We’re expected to teach at the same time the kids that are in the classroom who don’t have access to technology and the students at home who are on the computer,” Blair Seney said. She has been a constant agitator for more safety requirements in schools and more flexibility for teachers terrified to return in person. In August, she stood in the back of a school board meeting with a sign that said, “Your attendance is required at my funeral,” while her mother, also a teacher at the school, spoke at the public hearing. That month, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD teachers unsuccessfully sued the district, asking not to be required to report to their campuses for training.

About 42% of students have decided to attend school in person, according to a district survey. Often, Blair Seney pulls students into her office, a tiny storage closet with no ventilation, for one-on-one assistance. “I’m not sure how that’s going to work,” she said. “It is definitely a thought that’s keeping me up at night, trying to figure out how we’re going to make all this work.”

Health precautions vary among districts and schools. Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, everyone over the age of 10 must wear a mask. But guidance from the Texas Education Agency leaves districts largely on their own to design protections against a virus that spreads undetected in as many as 40% of those who have it. In many districts, maintaining 6 feet of distance among students will simply not be possible.

“It’s very scattershot,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “There’s a huge variation in the policies that are being put in place within districts to protect the health and safety of educators, from physical structures to logistics to access to [personal protective equipment]. Absolutely there have been districts that say, ‘Here’s your two gloves and your mask, that’s all you’re getting.’”

In Houston-area Humble ISD, where kids have been back in classrooms since late August, “it has been surprisingly normal,” said Timbers Elementary School fifth grade teacher Stacey Ward. “Question mark?”

The 10- and 11-year-olds who tramp in for Ward’s science and social studies classes have been surprisingly compliant about wearing their masks, though she sometimes has to remind them, with a single word — “mask!” or “nose” — to ensure the fabric covers their noses, too. Every other student sits behind a plexiglass barrier, spaced out as far apart as possible, but with 18 to 20 students per class, it has not been possible to keep 6 feet among them.

Instruction stops five minutes early so kids can wipe down their desks. Ward collects their books at the end of the day. There is no sharing of supplies.

And Ward has made one more adjustment. Typically, when students enter or exit her classroom, they get three options: high-five, hug or handshake.

This year, she’s pivoted: “Now, it’s an elbow, a knee or a foot,” she said in a phone interview after her fourth day of in-person school. Elbow bumps are the runaway favorite.

Afterward, the students know to take a squirt of hand sanitizer. “It’s normal to them now,” she said.

ProPublica’s Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Professional Educators has been a financial supporter 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, “Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Guest post: Schools need reliable and consistent funding

Laura Yeager

COVID-19 has wrought unprecedented challenges on American society including on our public education system. Not least among those challenges is funding. In the following guest post, public education advocate and parent Laura Yeager shares her opinion on why the state needs to do a better job of ensuring that Texas public schools have reliable and consistent funding.

Schools need reliable and consistent funding

By Laura Yeager on behalf of Just Fund It TX

Communities, families, and teachers throughout Texas are having the same conversation: What does back to school look like this year, and how do we balance students’ learning and parents’ need for childcare with health and safety? We know that there are no easy answers. But we do know that every solution, in every part of our state, will require steady and reliable school funding.  We also know that current Texas Education Agency (TEA) policies put that funding at risk. As we talk about the start of the school year, we also need to talk about how the TEA plans to allocate money for our schools. Their current plans threaten that funding. We need to act now to ensure that every Texas school has the money it needs.

In the weeks ahead, 5.4 million Texas students are expected to start the new school year in some form or fashion. Navigating this moment will require flexibility and ingenuity, based on good public health data, thoughtful discussion about what’s best for students and teachers, and enough local control to factor in different rates of disease in different Texas communities. Thoughtful plans are not possible without knowing how much funding is available.

While some might assume that costs will drop if some students will be learning from home, or if kids are in the classroom only part of the year, the opposite is true. A study from the Association of School Business Officials estimates that on average, it will cost districts an additional $485 per student to provide PPE, increase cleaning, transport students safely, and staff new health monitoring systems. This estimate does not include other essentials, like training teachers for effective virtual learning or ensuring that students have the tech needed to connect those virtual classrooms. Everything about education in the age of COVID costs more, not less.

For months, district leaders, teachers, and parents have been following the latest guidance from the Texas Education Agency. Now, with back to school days away, confusion has turned to alarm. Many TEA announcements about how schools will open and how the state will fund districts have been confusing or contradictory. More than once, a key statement made one day is reversed soon after. Most recently, TEA has issued rules that force districts to choose between plans that ensure funding, and plans that ensure the best balance of education for students and safety for students and staff. Districts know that this year, and every year, funding depends on following TEA’s rules. But that’s impossible when some of those rules are contradictory, unclear, and change from day to day. We are asking Governor Greg Abbott to cut through the noise and commit to funding Texas schools at a hold-harmless level based on last year’s pre-COVID attendance levels for the entire school year.

Last spring, TEA recognized that reliable attendance figures would be hard to capture in the midst of a pandemic, and chose a system that would ensure reliable and steady funding for every Texas district – a “hold harmless” plan that guaranteed not to cut funding below the last available attendance numbers. Right now, TEA has committed to holding districts harmless for the first 12 weeks of school – with the caveat that if districts choose to go fully remote for longer than 8 weeks and don’t receive TEA approval for doing so, they would  lose funding. Our schools and communities need to know funding will hold steady all year long.

We urge Governor Abbot to direct his Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath, to commit to funding Texas public schools for the entire 2020-2021 school year at a hold-harmless level, based on last year’s attendance levels. Cutting funding partway through the year based on attendance or task completion risks our students’ health, our teachers’ jobs, and our communities’ safety. More than 5.4 million children are counting on Texas to provide the public education they are promised under the Texas Constitution.

This article is signed by the following Just Fund It TX parent and community leaders:
Laura Yeager, Austin ISD
Alison Alter, Austin ISD
Lynn Boswell, Austin ISD
Anette Carlisle, Amarillo
Jennifer Collins, Denton ISD
Jill Dutton, Van ISD
Jennifer Moren Cross, Frisco ISD
Sharon Dworaczyk, Katy ISD
Heather Eichling, San Antonio ISD
Kim Farbisz, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD
Heather Golden, Houston ISD
Kristi Hassett, Lewisville ISD
Brooke Meabon, Alamo Heights ISD
Cherie Moeller, Keller ISD
Heather Sheffield, Eanes ISD
Anne Smith, Lovejoy ISD
Cameron Vickrey, North East ISD
Lauren White, Lake Travis ISD

Just Fund It TX is a group of parents, students, and citizens from around the state concerned about adequate funding for Texas public schools. A condensed version of this op-ed was previously published Aug. 20, 2020, by the San Antonio Express-News.

ATPE meets virtually with Texas Congressional delegation

Submitted by ATPE Contract Lobbyist David Pore of Hance Scarborough, LLP

Tonja Gray

Jimmy Lee

Newly inaugurated ATPE State President Jimmy Lee and immediate Past President Tonja Gray spent time in July joining me and the ATPE Governmental Relations team for a series of online roundtable policy discussions with key members of the Texas Congressional Delegation and their staffs.  Although perhaps not as effective (nor as much fun) as the annual state officer trip to Washington, DC, we made progress in our federal advocacy efforts and built on existing relationships with the delegation. Our goal was to provide input to the members who sit on the key committees of jurisdiction on the policy issues important to Texas educators, parents, and students. We focused our discussions on safely returning to school, federal COVID-19 relief funding for education, and the GPO/WEP Social Security offsets that continue to reduce the benefits of retired educators and other public servants.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX 20) sits on the House Education and Labor Committee that has oversight over the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and how they spend the money appropriated for K-12 and higher education by the Congress. The congressman and his Education Legislative Assistant Kaitlyn Montan joined us for a great discussion of the challenges facing Texas educators, administrators, parents, and students as we work to return to the classroom safely. ATPE leaders stressed the importance of local, district-level decision making and the need for flexibility for school districts to be able to return virtually, in-person, or with a hybrid model where appropriate. The congressman agreed that federal money should not be used to incentivize one return model over another and that ED should not divert limited federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for public schools to private schools or for the virtual voucher pet projects of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Rep. Castro committed to using his role on the committee to conduct robust oversight and make sure the department follows the law as Congress intended.

Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX 3) also sits on the House Education and Labor Committee and represents a North Texas district with over 4,000 ATPE members. The congressman’s Legislative Director Jett Thompson met with us, and while less enthusiastic about the need for strong oversight of ED, he did agree that Secretary DeVos should stick to congressional intent when implementing the COVID-19 relief bills, including in how taxpayer money is distributed to private schools.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX 35) sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has been a long time cosponsor and champion for legislation completely repealing the WEP and the GPO. The repeal bills have never made it out of committee due to their enormous costs to the Social Security trust fund and the inequities that would be created for private sector beneficiaries. Rep. Doggett’s Legislative Assistant Sarah Jones met with us and informed us that the congressman does not support the more limited bill repealing the WEP that has been authored by Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX) or the version introduced by committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA). Surprisingly, Jones stated that Rep. Doggett did not support the Neal bill because it “is not paid for,” despite his long-time support for the full repeal bill that costs the Social Security trust fund much more than either the Brady or Neal WEP repeal bills. Although she did express support from the congressman on our position regarding how ED is spending COVID-19 relief funds, we let Jones know that Congressman Doggett’s opposition to the WEP repeal bills was inconsistent with his previous positions on the issue and extremely disappointing to Texas public educators, both active and retired.

ATPE state officers and lobbyists met with Rep. Jodey Arrington via Zoom, July 28, 2020, to discuss COVID-19 considerations and Social Security reform.

Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX 19) also sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and has emerged as a champion for legislation to repeal the WEP and replace it with a proportional formula. We discussed with him the partisan breakdown of previously bipartisan legislation authored by committee Chairman Neal and Ranking Member Brady that has now devolved into two separate bills bogged down and unlikely to move before the election in November. Tonja Gray relayed on-the-ground concerns about the return to school from Abilene ISD, which lies in Arrington’s congressional district, while Jimmy Lee spoke from his unique perspective as a retired career educator, statewide leader, and the husband of a superintendent. While we agreed to disagree with the congressman on his position that it is appropriate to use federal relief money to incentivize in-person teaching this fall, regardless of the health and safety concerns of the district, we expressed our sincere appreciation for his open line of communication with ATPE and his strong support in the Ways and Means Committee for addressing the WEP. Arrington also praised ATPE for its professional approach to working with officeholders, expressing his belief that the national union groups “are not winning anyone over” in Washington.

Unfortunately, our senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) was unavailable to meet with ATPE’s statewide leadership and the governmental relations team. Although his Legislative Assistant Clair Sanderson met with us, she was unable to commit the senator to a position on how ED is implementing the CARES Act and spending federal taxpayer money appropriated for COVID-19 relief for education. We also discussed the Senate companion to the Brady WEP bill that Senator Ted Cruz has introduced, which to date, Senator Cornyn has not cosponsored.

It is important for our elected officials at every level to hear directly from professional educators about the issues you face, such as returning to school safely, how our tax dollars are spent on education, and how federal Social Security laws affect your retirement. I am grateful to Tonja and Jimmy for taking the time to participate in these roundtable discussions. They both are outstanding ambassadors for ATPE and for public education as a whole. Thank you, Tonja and Jimmy!

From The Texas Tribune: Gov. Greg Abbott stresses local school officials “know best” whether schools should reopen

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
Aug. 4, 2020

Abbott said the state will provide schools with personal protective equipment to prepare for the new school year.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a strike force in charge of laying steps to re-open the Texas economy at a press conference in the capitol on April 17, 2020. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./POOL via The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott stressed Tuesday that only local school boards, not local governments, have the power to decide how to open schools this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The bottom line is the people who know best … about that are the local school officials,” Abbott said during a news conference in San Antonio, echoing a message he’s now been relaying amid questions about the process.

Texas educators and parents have been confused about who has the power to keep school buildings closed. They have also been frustrated by conflicting messages from state and local leaders.

Abbott also said in preparation for the new school year, the state has already distributed to schools more than 59 million masks, more than 24,000 thermometers, more than 565,00 gallons of hand sanitizer and more than 500,000 face shields. He described the state’s personal protective equipment levels as bountiful even as the state faces an “an even greater strain” on the supply due to the coming school reopenings and flu season.

Abbott and other state leaders have backed a legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton that prohibits local health authorities from issuing blanket school closures for all schools in their jurisdiction before the academic year begins. Local school boards can currently decide to keep schools closed to in-person learning for up to eight weeks, with the possibility to apply for waivers to remain shuttered beyond that timeframe.

Under the state’s guidance, local health officials can only intervene if there is an outbreak once students return to campus, at which point they can temporarily shut down a school.

Abbott stressed Tuesday that the policy does not mean that local health authorities are cut out of the reopening process, saying local school boards are free to consult with the health experts.

“Nothing is stopping them from doing that, and they can fully adopt whatever strategy the local public health authority says,” Abbott said.

“Extremely important: Local school officials have access to information provided to them by local public health authorities, and local school districts can base their decisions about when and how to open their schools on the advice of those local public health authorities.”

The state’s guidance has overruled orders from local health authorities to keep schools closed to in-person learning for certain periods. For example, Metro Health in Bexar County had ordered schools to remain virtual until Sept. 7.

Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/04/texas-greg-abbott-coronavirus-press-conference/.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas schools can stay closed if local health officials order it

Texas classrooms can stay closed this fall without losing state funding if local health officials order it

Students outside North Forest High School in Houston. Photo credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Local public health officials will be able to keep Texas schools closed for in-person instruction this fall without risking state education funding, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson confirmed to The Texas Tribune Wednesday.

Last week, the state’s education agency released an order requiring schools to open their buildings to in-person instruction five days a week for all students who want it. The order gives districts a transition period of just three weeks at the start of the year to hold classes virtually and get their safety plans in place before allowing students back on campuses. After the three-week transition, districts that stay entirely virtual would risk losing funding.

But TEA officials confirmed Wednesday they would continue to fund school districts if local health officials order them to stay closed, as long as they offer remote instruction for all students.

Gov. Greg Abbott told a Houston television station this week that the state would ease up on stringent reopening requirements, as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket across Texas, and would give school districts more flexibility to stay virtual for longer than three weeks. Public health officials warn that reopening school buildings in areas with a lot of community spread will exacerbate the virus’ impact on those communities.

Even before Abbott’s statement, some local public health officials had moved to mandate that schools remain closed at least through Labor Day, saying it would be unsafe to reopen school buildings while the pandemic was raging. El Paso and Laredo health officials were among the first to issue those mandates last week. And Tuesday, Travis County health officials ordered all public and private schools to delay on-campus instruction at least until Sept. 7.

It was unclear last week whether Abbott or the TEA would let those orders stand.

The wavering guidance has confused and frustrated teachers and parents wanting to know what the upcoming fall will mean for themselves and their families. A University of Texas and Texas Politics Project poll showed recently that 65% of Texans said it was unsafe for children to go back to school. And teachers unions are encouraging their members to look for legal avenues to stay home, including resigning or retiring early, instead of being forced back into classrooms while cases are rising.

A TEA spokesperson told the Tribune that school superintendents and school boards cannot make the decision to stay entirely virtual for longer than three weeks without a mandate from public health officials.

Some school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are moving their start dates to later in August and then starting their school years entirely virtually for three weeks.

The TEA is expected to roll out revised guidance on reopening schools in the upcoming days.


Texas classrooms can stay closed this fall without losing state funding if local health officials order it” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/15/texas-schools-closed-public-health/.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mandates face masks in most counties

Abbott previously resisted calls for such an order and at one point banned local governments from requiring masks. First-time violators will be issued a warning, though repeat offenders could be fined up to $250.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest order requires Texans living in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. Photo credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/Pool/American-Statesman

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties more than 20 coronavirus cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including for children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking, and people who are exercising outdoors.

The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday. It immediately applies to all Texas counties, but counties with 20 or fewer active cases can be exempted — if they opt out. County judges must submit an application to be exempted to the Texas Division of Emergency Management. TDEM will list the counties that have opted out on its website.

Later Thursday, in an interview with Univision in Dallas, Abbott also signaled he might be rethinking plans to open the state’s public schools for in-person classes this fall, after state officials said last month that it would be safe.

“If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program, something like the use of Zoom or FaceTime or other strategies where a teacher in real time will have the means to speak with a student, a student will be able to speak with other students, and it will replicate the class setting as much as possible,” he said.

State officials have delayed the release of public health guidelines for in-person instruction as cases have continued to rise. But a draft version last month showed they were planning to leave safety regulations up to individual school districts instead of issuing mandates.

The mask order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted a statewide requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple of weeks in Texas. When he began allowing Texas businesses to reopen this spring, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear masks. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate that customers wear masks.

In recent days, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.

Along with the mask order, Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

Abbott’s latest moves come ahead of Fourth of July weekend, which has raised concerns about larger-than-usual crowds gathering while the state grapples with the virus spike.

Abbott also released a video message Thursday, saying the latest coronavirus numbers in the state “reveal a very stark reality.”

“COVID-19 is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it’s getting worse. Now, more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for COVID-19.”

In the video, Abbott reiterated his resistance to returning the state to the roughly monthlong stay-at-home order he issued in April. He said Texans “must do more to slow the spread without locking Texas back down.” He also said his latest announcement is “not a stay-at-home order” but “just recognizes reality: If you don’t go out, you are less likely to encounter someone who has COVID-19.”

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record set the previous day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, setting a new record for the third straight day. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or oral warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is also punishable by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.

After listing several exceptions to the mask requirement, Abbott’s order specifies that at least one group of people is not exempted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance. Like other states, Texas has seen massive protests since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

Democrats and local officials had been demanding that Abbott institute such a requirement, and the state party said his new order was “far too little, far too late.”

“This is unacceptable,” party spokesman Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Governor Abbott continues to lead from behind rather than implementing preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

When asked at a Thursday afternoon press conference about Abbott’s new order, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg simply said, “It’s about time.”

“We will count this one as a good step that the governor is taking,” Nirenberg added.

Nirenberg was speaking alongside Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and the leaders of the region’s main hospitals when news of the order broke. Wolff was the first local official to order businesses to require their customers to wear masks.

“Now with the order by the governor, that’s going to help take a lot of pressure off the businesses,” he said.

But Abbott’s mask requirement is likely to further anger a small but vocal group of fellow Republicans in the Texas Legislature who have grown increasingly frustrated with his executive actions. Health experts say masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but some conservatives have railed against mask mandates, saying they impose on people’s freedoms.

One intraparty Abbott antagonist, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, vented after Abbott’s announcement Thursday that the governor “FAILED TO MENTION” the mask mandate during a conference call with legislators.

“What a piece of crap!” Stickland tweeted. “The man thinks he is KING!”

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tweeted that lawmakers “need a special session now so legislators can pass laws, not Abbott.”

This is Abbott’s latest set of moves aimed at trying to get the virus surge under control in Texas. Six days ago, he ordered bars closed and reduced the permitted restaurant occupancy to 50%, among other things.

Juan Pablo Garnham and Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/02/texas-mask-order-greg-abbott-coronavirus/.

From The Texas Tribune: Draft documents show Texas planning few mandatory safety measures when public schools reopen in fall

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
June 23, 2020

Students gather in an auditorium before class. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas education officials are envisioning a largely hands-off approach to helping school districts bring students back to campus this fall, imposing few mandatory safety precautions but recommending staff and students wear masks, hand sanitize regularly and stay six feet away from each other, according to draft documents found on the Texas Education Agency’s website Tuesday.

“Consistently implementing recommendations to the extent feasible is the best way to reduce the potential negative impact of infection on students’ educational experiences,” the draft document reads.

The light-handed oversight role parallels the state’s overall approach to the coronavirus pandemic under Gov. Greg Abbott, with local officials, parents and students expected to devise their own strategies for protecting their health.

Abbott told state lawmakers last week that schools would open for in-person instruction in the fall, but gave few details. State education officials are expected to detail their approach for the upcoming academic year in a briefing with superintendents Tuesday afternoon.

Separate draft attendance guidelines found on the TEA’s website Tuesday said school districts will be required to offer on-campus instruction for students who want to return to schools, but the state will also count students taking virtual classes in the attendance figures use to determine state funding. Districts can choose to provide live virtual instruction or instruction that is not delivered in real time, including prerecorded video lessons or paper assignments.

State funding is typically based on classroom attendance, and many districts feared they might see dramatic drops in state money with parents saying they will not feel comfortable sending their children to school in person, especially as cases continue to rise in Texas.

Many of the public health guidelines in the TEA’s draft document are suggestions and not mandates for how school districts can keep communities safe during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the draft, Texas will require school districts to publicly post a summary of their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19, based on the guidance, though the plans are not subject to government approval. And school districts are required to separate students who show COVID-19 symptoms at school until they can be picked up by a guardian, and clean the areas used by anyone potentially infected.

Reopening schools is a large part of Abbott’s plan to jumpstart the economy, as Texans returning to their workplaces seek safe places to leave their children. But since Abbott first allowed businesses to reopen, the number of new cases and Texans hospitalized have reached record heights.

Abbott has urged Texans to wear masks and stay socially distanced, but has declined to issue a statewide requirement or shut businesses down again. He told lawmakers last week that masks and testing would not be required in schools in the fall.

According to the draft guidance, school districts should require staff and students to “self-screen” for COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their own temperatures, before coming to school each day. And school leaders should ask students at the beginning of each week whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone who tested positive.

“Regularly performing a forehead temperature check of otherwise asymptomatic students in school is not recommended, but the practice is also not prohibited by this guidance,” the draft document states.

Some school districts, especially larger ones in urban and suburban Texas, have already decided to offer “hybrid” programs, teaching some students in person and some remotely.

The draft document said Texas would continue to fund school districts serving students remotely. School districts providing live virtual instruction to students must track how many students are engaged each day, and will not receive funding for students who do not participate remotely.

According to the draft document, those that choose to offer remote instruction through worksheets and prerecorded videos must first get state approval of their instructional plans. They must track students’ daily progress through their interactions with their teachers or completion of assignments. Districts can also choose to offer a combination of both types of remote instruction, to meet more students’ needs.

This year, school districts scrambled to get computers and hotspots out to the students who needed it most and lost track of thousands of students, including the most vulnerable. Texas required districts to sign a form saying they were providing remote instruction in order to continue receiving funding — much less stringent than the plan in the draft guidance.

Reference

Draft public health guidelines from the Texas Education Agency.

Reference

Draft attendance and enrollment guidelines from the Texas Education Agency.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/23/texas-planning-few-mandatory-safety-measures-when-schools-reopen-draft/.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas students will return to school campuses this fall, Gov. Greg Abbott tells lawmakers

Cactus Elementary School in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas students will be returning to public schools in person this fall, Gov. Greg Abbott told state lawmakers Thursday morning.

The state’s top education officials confirmed the plans in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

“It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall. But there will also be flexibility for families with health concerns so that their children can be educated remotely, if the parent so chooses,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

When students return, school districts will not be required to mandate students wear masks or test them for COVID-19 symptoms, said Frank Ward, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency.

The TEA is expected to release additional guidance for school districts next Tuesday. Abbott has long said his intention is for students to return in-person this fall, saying this week that there will “definitely be higher safety standards in place than when they opened last year.”

“I will tell you that my goal is to see students back in classrooms in seats interacting personally with teachers as well as other students,” he told KLBK TV in Lubbock on Monday. “This is a very important environmental setting for both the students, for the teachers and for the parents.”

Abbott has pressed forward with reopening businesses and other public spaces for weeks, even as the number of new cases and people hospitalized with the virus has continued to rise. Democrats and officials in some of the state’s biggest cities have raised alarm about the pace, saying it’s putting people’s health at risk.

“Abbott’s failed leadership has cost lives and has led to Texas becoming one of the most dangerous states to live in during this pandemic,” said Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman in a statement Thursday.

According to state lawmakers on the 11 a.m. call, school districts will be able to also offer instructional alternatives for students. The decision comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise statewide, and local officials begin to put firmer restrictions in place to tamp down the spread in their cities and counties.

National surveys have shown many parents do not feel safe sending their students back to the classrooms, with one poll showing two-thirds in support of keeping schools closed until the pandemic’s health risk has passed.

School districts’ surveys of parents are showing that many students will stay home, even when the classrooms are open. That could pose a financial risk to districts, which receive state funding based on student attendance. Already, many districts are planning for hybrid programs, with some students learning virtually and some learning in person, allowing them to keep class sizes small.

This year, Texas used federal stimulus dollars to fund school districts through this year’s mandated school closures, as long as they offered some type of remote education. But state officials have not yet said whether they will continue to fund them for students who do not show up in person in the fall.

With budget deadlines approaching at the end of the month, some districts are making tentative plans without clear state guidance. Fort Bend Independent School District announced earlier this week that its elementary and middle school students will return to their classrooms with adjusted schedules in the fall.

District officials are working to develop a plan for older students that combines virtual classes and classroom instruction. Online instruction will be an option for any student who doesn’t feel safe returning to the classroom in mid-August.

Cassandra Pollock and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/18/texas-schools-reopening-fall/.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas schools can hold summer classes, but students can’t be required to attend in person

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
May 18, 2020

A classroom in Cactus Elementary School in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas school districts can offer in-person summer school. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas public school districts may offer summer school in their classrooms as early as June 1, but they cannot require any students to attend in person.

In April, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all school buildings closed through the end of the academic year, but he announced Monday that districts could offer in-person summer school. The decision came as part of his second wave of the economic jumpstart during the coronavirus pandemic, with parents struggling to figure out how to work and take care of their children.

The state is encouraging school districts to prioritize making on-campus summer school available for their most vulnerable students, including students with disabilities who cannot learn virtually, homeless students and students with significant academic gaps. Many of those students were left behind during the academic year as school districts struggled to ramp up online instruction quickly once the pandemic hit.

School districts must use their best judgment, based on the local spread of the new coronavirus, to decide whether to offer summer school on campus, according to guidance from the Texas Education Agency issued Monday. And they cannot make in-person attendance mandatory, even for students who need to attend summer school to move to the next grade.

Staff members or students who go back to school buildings this summer will experience a marked change from the typical summer school. Teachers will have to take students’ temperatures every day, students will be supervised while washing their hands for 20 seconds twice a day, and dividers will separate student desks.

Any students and staff members who attend summer school in person must stay 6 feet apart and cannot meet in groups larger than 11. School districts are encouraged to stagger school start and end times to reduce the number of students walking close together in the hallways, and parents are encouraged to stay outside to pick up and drop off their children.

Students cannot attend assemblies, go on field trips or gather in groups outside of individual classes unless 30 feet can be kept between groups. A positive COVID-19 case in a school will require a two-week closure of the classes that were exposed to the sick person. School gyms, weight rooms and indoor workout facilities cannot reopen, but students can participate in some outdoor sports as long as they follow Department of State Health Services guidance.

School districts have been writing up back-up plans for their back-up plans as they wait to see how and whether the coronavirus continues to spread this summer and spring.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/18/texas-students-cant-be-required-attend-summer-school-classes-person/. “Texas schools can hold summer classes, but students can’t be required to attend in person” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Guest Post: One parent’s questions about TEA’s optional assessments

Kristi Hassett

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced recently the implementation of optional standardized end of year (EOY) and beginning of year (BOY) assessments as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One concerned parent shares her concerns about the testing.


I am thankful the Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath advocated in March to remove the state assessment requirements for our Texas students this school year. I also appreciate the information posted by TEA to districts and parents during this pandemic. I was surprised the TEA released a statement on May 7th that parents and schools could choose to give their students a version of STAAR. TEA suggested these End of Year (EOY) assessments would provide a better understanding of the progress their students have made this year.

My primary concern is how the TEA will use the data to research the statewide educational impact of the current crisis to prepare for the next school year. This leads me to multiple questions. How valid will this limited dataset be? How will this data be used? If only a small portion of students participate, how will it provide any insight into the statewide education impact on students? Drawing group or statewide decisions, conclusions, or recommendations on this limited data is problematic at best and potentially harmful at worst.

Another issue with using these optional tests is the TEA will continue to post-equate the EOY assessments. Post-equating is a statistical process, rather than an educational analysis, used to adjust scores after the students take the test so TEA can compare tests from year to year. How can TEA use such a limited student dataset to scale the scores to compare against previous tests?

Another concern I have is Texas Partnership campuses (Senate Bill 1882), which are controlled by charters and universities, may choose to administer the EOY assessments even if the district chooses not to administer these tests to its students.

My last concerns surround the TEA’s new, optional Beginning of Year (BOY) assessment for next school year. Districts are only allowed to benchmark the state’s assessment twice a year; thus, how is the TEA using all of these assessments – the EOY, BOY and Interim assessments? Also, the TEA has said these BOY assessments are diagnostic. Knowing STAAR questions have multiple embedded TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills learning standards), how is the TEA going to provide results to teachers and schools to identify deficits in students? The results provided after STAAR are not diagnostic.

Everyone is working very hard during this pandemic to support students educationally and mentally. Rather than taking a very small, possibly invalid dataset of student assessment to prepare students for next school year, I think the TEA should broadcast known strategies schools have used in the past to create authentic, effective learning for students.


Kristi Hassett is a mother of two public school graduates and another current public school student in Texas. An elected school board trustee, Hassett also serves on the board of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessments (TAMSA), a group of Texas parents concerned about the overuse and potential abuse of Texas’ standardized testing regime.