Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar didn’t provide details as he told lawmakers Monday that the financial forecast isn’t as dire as earlier feared. But he said revenues are still down “significantly” compared with last year.
Comptroller Glenn Hegar discussed the biennial revenue estimate for the 2020-21 biennium at the state capitol in 2019. On Monday, he said state revenues are down during the pandemic, but not as bad as earlier feared. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Sales tax revenues, by far the largest part of the state budget, fell by 4.8% in the second half of the 2020 fiscal year compared with the same stretch last year, Hegar said. It was a much softer hit than he anticipated, thanks to Texans staying home and spending money on “staycations instead of vacations.”
Other revenue streams, such as taxes related to alcohol, hotel occupancy, and oil and gas, were down more than 40% in the same period this year compared with last, Hegar told lawmakers Monday during a Legislative Budget Board meeting at the Capitol.
“Revenues remain down significantly relative to a year ago, and well below what we expected to collect when the Legislature wrapped up work on the budget in 2019,” Hegar said.
Legislative budget writers decide how much money will be allocated for large state expenses like how much school districts get, how well health care programs are funded, which transportation projects get built and what amount state law enforcement gets based on how much the comptroller says will be available during the next two-year budget cycle, which runs from September 2021 through August 2023. Hegar will likely unveil that number as the session nears.
Hegar, whose office is in charge of collecting taxes owed to the state of Texas, last formally updated lawmakers in July, when he wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers projecting the state’s current two-year budget to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That would put the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar wrote in July.
On Monday, Hegar presented virtually to some of the state’s political leaders, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who co-chair the budget board and who appeared in person at the Capitol along with eight other colleagues from both chambers.
Plexiglass dividers separated the lawmakers, most of whom entered the room wearing masks and who were all tested for the coronavirus before attending the meeting, a possible preview of what the Legislature could look like once it begins Jan. 12.
Before Monday’s meeting adjourned, it also turned into a brief public goodbye between Patrick and Bonnen, who is retiring from the House after a 2019 political scandal.
“Thank you for all of your cooperation working with the Senate and leading the House during the interim,” Patrick said. “A much different level of cooperation than in the past, so I greatly appreciate that and I look forward to the new speaker.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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 week The Texas Tribune is hosting a free, online symposium on “The Future of Rural Texas.” A panel presentation on Tuesday centered on the challenges facing public education in rural Texas and featured State Representative Gary Vandeaver (R – New Boston), SBOE Member Georgina Perez (D – Ysleta), and Miami ISD Superintendent Donna Hale. The discussion was moderated by Texas Tribune public education reporter Aliyya Swaby and included such topics as digital learning, school safety, the possibility of budget cuts, and what do about STAAR tests this year.
Click the link below to watch Tuesday’s panel presentation on public education, or visit the Tribune’s website for more information on the entire “The Future of Rural Texas” symposium. Here’s more about the presentation from The Texas Tribune:
Rural school districts face different challenges than their urban and suburban counterparts as they struggle to keep staff members, educate students virtually on spotty internet and ensure staff and teachers are safe in their buildings — all while dealing with financial struggles.
Donna Hale, superintendent of Miami Independent School District, Georgina C. Pérez, member of the Texas State Board of Education, and state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, spoke with the Texas Tribune’s public education reporter, Aliyya Swaby, about how state leaders can do more to bolster public schools in rural regions, including continuing to fund them during an economic crisis.
They emphasized lack of broadband access as one of the main barriers to online learning. Perez, who served as a teacher and administrator for more than 10 years, said another challenge rural schools are facing is retaining great teachers.
The state budget is likely to be at the center of the upcoming legislative session, VanDeaver said. While he believes there will be budget cuts to education, “how we do that and do the least damage possible to our school districts, students and teachers is going to be the priority,” he said.
Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
A few battleground races in Texas are still not fully settled as the current runner-up holds off on conceding, waiting to see more votes get counted.
Here are contests where the candidate with fewer votes has not admitted defeat as of Monday morning:
State House District 112: Democratic challenger Brandy Chambers is losing to Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, by 224 votes out of 69,009 (0.32%)
State House District 135: Republican challenger Justin Ray is down against Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, by 317 votes out of 74,504 (0.43%)
State House District 47: Republican challenger Justin Berry is behind Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, by 1,324 out of 134,408 (0.99%)
24th Congressional District: Democrat Candace Valenzuela trails Republican Beth Van Duyne by 4,489 votes out of 340,933 (1.32%)
Rosenthal, Goodwin and Van Duyne have all declared victory, while the current No. 2 finishers across the four races have declined to concede.
“Votes are still being counted,” Chambers wrote Friday on Facebook. “Team Brandy wants every vote counted. We will not make any decisions until every single vote is counted.”
In Texas, Monday is the last day for counties to receive overseas and military mail-in ballots. Tuesday is the last day for counties to review provisional ballots so they can be sent to ballot boards for counting. Nov. 16 is the last day for ballot boards to count late-arriving mail-in and provisional ballots, and the next day is the canvass deadline.
A runner-up candidate is eligible to request a recount if the difference between the number of votes they received and the number of votes the No. 1 finisher received is less than 10% of the latter. (For instance, if the leading candidate gets 2,000 votes and second place gets 1,850 votes, the margin of 150 is less than 200, which is 10% of 2,000, so the second-place candidate can call for a recount.)
The deadline to request a recount is 5 p.m. the second day after the canvass. If the second day is on a weekend, the deadline rolls over to Monday.
All four races where there has not been a concession yet were hotly contested by both sides. Valenzuela and Van Duyne were competing to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, in what national Democrats saw as one of their best pickup opportunities in Texas. They aimed to flip 10 GOP-held seats here and have not notched any gains.
The three state House elections all factored in to the fight for the majority, which is remaining in Republican hands. Democrats were nine seats away from the majority before Tuesday, and they fell far short of it, picking up one seat and losing another.
In at least the 24th Congressional District, the No. 1 finisher, Van Duyne, has called on the current runner-up to accept defeat. Neither Decision Desk HQ, which is powering The Texas Tribune’s results, nor the Associated Press have called the race for Van Duyne.
“Once again, I will repeat, Beth Van Duyne will be the Congresswoman for Texas’ 24th District,” Van Duyne’s campaign manager, Donald Rickard, said in a statement Thursday. “Candace Valenzuela has no path whatsoever.”
After several miscarriages over the last few years, Joy Tucker is finally pregnant with her third child at the age of 37.
A school counselor at the Houston-based Windmill Lakes campus at the International Leadership of Texas charter school, Tucker talked to her doctor about the risks she and her child would face if she were to contract COVID-19 from students or other employees. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that pregnant people may be at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness, or even preterm birth. At her doctor’s recommendation, Tucker turned in a note asking her school if she could work remotely.
School leaders denied that request, saying she would have to return to work in person in September. If not, Tucker would have to use the rest of her paid leave to remain home, leaving her no time to recover after the baby’s birth. Her options quickly dwindling and her baby due in January, Tucker lawyered up and filed a grievance with the school district.
“I want nothing more than to go back to work and be with my kids,” said Tucker, who chose to use paid leave instead of returning in September. “If I have to choose between mine and my baby’s life, or going to work in a situation where we could get sick or we could die, there’s no choice to make — I have to stay home.”
Caitlin Madison, a spokesperson for the charter school, declined to comment on Tucker’s case but said, “since this school year started, the ILTexas policy has been that if we have students on campus, then we need to have our employees on campus as well.” About 28% of students in the district have chosen to return to campus.
“The only work-from-home exception for campus staff has been if they are sick with COVID or were potentially exposed to COVID and require a 14-day quarantine,” she added.
International Leadership of Texas is one of a number of Texas schools denying some teachers’ requests to work from home, as they balance staffing against often-fluctuating student enrollment. Federal disability law allows employees to ask their bosses for reasonable accommodations, such as temporary schedule changes, shift changes or working remotely, if an illness puts them at higher risk for COVID-19.
School districts must grant those requests unless they would pose an “undue hardship,” including costing too much or impeding their ability to run the school. With Texas largely requiring school districts to bring back all students who want to return, administrators like those at International Leadership of Texas argue they cannot run their school campuses properly if too many teachers stay at home. More than 2 million of 5.5 million Texas students were attending school in person as of late September, according to a state estimate, an increase from 1 million earlier this fall.
Experts say that school districts should layer safety requirements such as masks, social distancing and sanitizing to keep COVID-19 from spreading. In other countries, transmission in schools has been extremely low. But few of those countries had the same level of uncontrolled community spread as Texas, which has failed to contain the virus in many regions and is seeing regional surges in cases. State data on transmission in public schools shows almost 6,500 teachers reported positive COVID-19 cases, but the data is limited and full of gaps.
Given the unclear picture of COVID-19’s spread in Texas schools, teachers say school administrators are unfairly expecting them to put their lives in danger, in some cases requiring all staff to return to campuses even when most students have chosen virtual learning. Texas teachers have little leverage, given the state’s strict labor laws: Any teachers who strike could be stripped of their jobs, teaching certificates and pension benefits.
“You don’t need to be in an office to do your job,” said Tony Conners, who is representing Tucker and has exclusively represented teachers for more than 30 years. “Since spring break, when COVID-19 hit, everyone was working from home and [school districts] were taking the money from the government and they were telling the communities and parents that they were being well served.”
Conners said he’s heard from more teachers than ever before wanting counsel on how to get accommodations to stay home. The toughest cases, he said, are in charter schools and suburban districts. By law the process is individualized, requiring school leaders to talk with employees about how to meet their needs.
But districts do not have to hire new staff or create new positions to accommodate someone under the law, said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. “If more than half of students are coming back, you have to create social distancing in the physical environment, which may mean you need smaller class sizes and therefore you need all hands on deck,” she said. “A lot of districts responded to that by saying, ‘We don’t have remote-only positions.’”
Even districts currently providing teachers with accommodations cannot guarantee them for the entire year, since many are allowing parents to decide each marking period whether to enroll their students in virtual or in-person education.
“If we can provide some of those accommodations without creating a hardship on a campus where they wouldn’t be able to serve their students safely, then I wanted to be able to proudly say that we had valued both students and staff,” said Austin Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde.
About 700 of 5,000 total Austin ISD teachers have received permission to work virtually at least through December. But as more students return in person, “we will be challenged to keep all of those accommodations for a long time …… There is of course fine print that says, if it becomes necessary to rescind the approval for school student needs, then we would have to do so,” she said.
Some teachers have already had that rug pulled out from under them. In August, Gina Morreale, an Eanes ISD middle school history teacher, was approved to work remotely after turning in a note from her doctor explaining her chronic bronchitis and susceptibility to pneumonia. She even got an email from administrators asking her not to come on campus to do her work sponsoring the cheerleading team. Lean on the cheer moms, she was told.
A month later, Eanes administrators decided to bring back all students who wanted to come in person, instead of phasing them in slowly. Unfortunately for Morreale, that meant also bringing all staff back to campus.
“This can’t apply to me,” she remembers thinking. “Maybe this applies to someone who is in a walking boot — someone that wasn’t high risk.” She started to think through her options — Could she quit and move in with her parents? Did she need to look for a new job?
She asked her doctor for another letter with more detail, and said she is still working with district leaders, hoping they can agree on an accommodation.
Eanes ISD was forced to call its staff back to ensure there were enough personnel, said spokesperson Claudia McWhorter. The human resources department is working with concerned educators on a case-by-case basis. “Even when we were at 25% capacity, our campuses were short-staffed; some campuses have been forced to have an all-hands approach and even have principals serving as teachers in classrooms,” McWhorter said in an email. “Simply put: with more students returning, we need staff in the buildings.”
For now, Morreale has been able to work remotely, but she’s not sure how long the district will allow it.
“I hope I can until it is safe for me,” she said.
Administrators that deny teachers’ requests to stay at home are offering other options. Baskin said the school board association is training human resources directors to get creative in thinking about accommodations that could help teachers with health risks safely work from school buildings. That might mean offering a more remote office away from students and teachers or extra safety equipment.
Six years after finishing multiple rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer, Pasadena ISD high school English teacher Elizabeth Alanis asked if she could work from home. Her white blood cell count, which determines the health of her immune system, still yo-yos every several months.
To her horror, after a conversation with school leaders, she received a letter denying her request to stay home long term. The district instead offered to minimize her direct contact with students, provide her with plexiglass dividers and protective equipment, set up student desk shields or move her classroom to an external portable building so she didn’t have to pass many people in the halls.
“Your job duties and responsibilities require your physical presence on campus as of September 8, 2020,” they wrote in a letter Alanis provided to The Texas Tribune. “Consequently, the District does not believe allowing you to telework after the short-term program has ended and after students have returned to campus, is a reasonable accommodation based on your job duties and responsibilities as a classroom teacher.”
According to the district, she is one of 59 teachers who have formally requested to work from home through the federal disability accommodations process, of about 3,700 teachers total. None of them were allowed to work from home past Sept. 8, when students returned to campus. “Pasadena ISD must provide students attending in-person instruction with a safe, supervised school/campus environment, and that effort is supported by all of our staff being physically present,” said Arturo Del Barrio, spokesperson for Pasadena ISD. The percentage of students on campus is gradually increasing, from about 40% in September to almost half by mid-October.
Alanis used her personal leave days to remain at home until mid-October, but decided to return Tuesday, unable to afford unpaid leave for months. “I’ve spoken to my oncologist on this matter and he knows it’s a tough place to be in. My white blood cell count is still low, so that just means I’ll have to take extra precautions,” she said. “I am going to invest in a medical grade mask and I am going to also invest in an air purifier with a UV light.”
Sitting out of classes for even part of a semester is heartbreaking for Alanis, who has been a teacher for 16 years, most of them in Pasadena ISD. “There’s not much they can take from me at this point. They’ve already kind of taken who I am,” she said, her voice over the phone showing she was close to tears. “I’ve had such huge ties to my students, to my community. And oh my God, I love those kids.”
Partitions made from clear shower curtains and PVC pipe separate desks in a fourth grade classroom at Abilene’s Texas Leadership Charter Academy. The barriers are to prevent children from potentially spreading the coronavirus to classmates. Credit: Ronald W. Erdrich/Abilene Reporter-News
Coronavirus tests with results in 15 minutes or less are coming to a few Texas schools as part of a new pilot program announced Wednesday by Gov. Greg Abbott.
“As more students return to campus for in-person instruction, the State of Texas is working alongside school officials to provide resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff,” Abbott said in a news release.
John Wittman, a spokesperson for the governor, said the tests are part of the millions being provided to Texas by the federal government. The medical company producing the tests said the antigen tests require a nasal swab, cost $5 and are about the size of a credit card.
Through the program, the Texas Division of Emergency Management will provide the tests to school systems, which will receive personal protective equipment to administer them to willing participants, according to the release. The Texas Education Agency said in an email that it will provide a monthly allotment of tests to each school system. The agency said school systems will determine how the tests will be conducted because they know “what works best for their school and community,” and each school system will provide test administrators to give the tests.
“Thank you to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for providing these advanced antigen tests to the State of Texas,” Abbott said. “This rapid testing pilot program will be an effective strategy to protect the health and safety of students and staff while helping to further ensure that Texas students have access to a quality education throughout the pandemic and beyond.”
Eight school systems are participating in the launch of the program: Bob Hope School in Port Arthur, Fabens Independent School District, Grace Community School in Tyler, Granger Independent School District, Lampasas Independent School District, Longview Independent School District, Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District and Ysleta Independent School District. Other public and private schools interested in the program can apply through the TEA no later than Wednesday, Oct. 28, the release said.
Wittman said implementation and testing will be “ramped up significantly,” he said, but first any issues need to be worked out in the pilot program.
Rapid antigen tests, which can detect proteins on the outside of the virus, are more prone to giving false negative results than other coronavirus tests that use genetic material.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that a positive test result on an antigen test is “highly accurate,” but “antigen tests are more likely to miss an active coronavirus infection compared to molecular tests.”
But Joseph Petrosino, chair of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, said in a previous interview that the tests are most useful in settings such as schools because the same people can be tested every three to four days, eliminating the chances of having a false negative result.
The Texas Capitol is a bustling place when the Legislature is in session — the elevators are crowded, the hallways are packed, the committee hearing rooms are overflowing and the chamber floors are covered with state lawmakers.
But with less than 100 days until the 87th regular session and the coronavirus pandemic still upending once-regular ways of life, it’s unclear what typical functions at the Capitol will look like in January, or whether they will even exist.
That uncertainty this close to the session could have ramifications for what members say will be one of the toughest legislative sessions in recent years: tackling billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget, undergoing the process of redrawing the state’s political maps, and navigating issues like health care and public education that have been a focus during the pandemic.
On top of that, the Capitol has been closed to most everyone for months, prompting questions about the access that the public will have to the legislative process.
Senate and House members spearheading logistical discussions say that while much remains up in the air, the two chambers are working together to implement session rules that are consistent for both chambers. With wildly different dynamics in the 31-person Senate and the 150-person House, though, some suggest that the two chambers may not end up on the same page.
“Our primary concern is safety, transparency and public access,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who serves as vice chair of the House Administration Committee. “There’s so much up in the air.”
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chair of the committee, said the House is “in conversation with the lieutenant governor’s office,” but noted that “until there’s a presumed speaker, we don’t have a lot of guidance” in the lower chamber.
To Geren’s point, there’s only so much the House can do to prepare for the next session when its speaker is retiring and control of the lower chamber could flip to Democrats in November. There aren’t any declared candidates yet in the race to replace Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. However, if a member collected the votes needed to win before January, they could become the presumptive speaker and informally lay the groundwork on what protocols would be in place.
On the Senate side, rumors have lingered for weeks over what Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has told senators to expect come January. On a recent call with Senate chairs, according to several people who had knowledge of the call but weren’t authorized to speak on the record, Patrick outlined a worst-case scenario that involved limiting the legislation allowed for consideration and banning the public, press and lobbyists from entering the chamber.
A senior adviser for Patrick declined to comment for this story. And state Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who chairs the Senate Administration Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.
Some decisions have already been made. Plexiglass dividers have been installed in several House committee hearing rooms, Geren said. Such barriers, he said, won’t be installed on the 150 House floor desks in the chamber after a trial run with a couple of them because they would interfere with the light used by new mobile sanitizing machines, as The Dallas Morning News first reported. House and Senate offices have also offered free webcams to offices in preparation for conducting more business virtually.
The Legislature, though, still faces a list of seemingly never-ending questions: Should temperature checks or some other form of screening be required before people enter the building? How can the House spread out 150 desks on the chamber floor — and will press and essential staff still be allowed on it? How can the public testify on legislation in committee hearing rooms, particularly on measures that generate a lot of interest?
Buoying those questions are layers of uncertainty about whether the virus will spike this winter, whether a vaccine will be available — and accessible — and, heading into the November election, whether Democrats will have control over the House, which could mean a change in leadership style to counter the GOP-controlled Legislature.
In August, Geren sent members results from a House survey over how and when the Capitol should reopen. Not every member responded, but those who answered questions about requiring temperature checks upon entering the Capitol and requiring face masks while inside committee rooms and public meeting spaces overwhelmingly supported those measures.
Howard told the Tribune that members are considering different sorts of screening protocols for how the public enters the Capitol but that no decisions have been made on what that could look like.
Since mid-March, the Capitol has been closed to the public, preventing members from holding interim committee hearings inside the building with public testimony. Those hearings are usually scheduled to help members consider or research business that could come up during the next session.
On Monday, hearing notices were posted for Senate Higher Education and Education interim committee hearings, both of which are set to happen next week. Each notice states that access to the Capitol “is limited to legislators and staff only” — and that only invited testimony will be allowed. “Invited testimony will be conducted via video-conference,” the notices say.
As a sort of workaround in the House, the speaker’s office released a memo in July detailing three options for how to conduct committee business while also adhering to lower-chamber rules, which do not allow for virtual hearings. Some committees have carried out interim business following that guidance.
Still, Democrats and Republicans have called on Gov. Greg Abbott, who oversees the Capitol, to reopen the building in recent weeks, arguing that if in-person fundraisers and public schools can resume, so can interim committee hearings. Such requests have gone unanswered publicly, and a spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment for this article. A spokesperson for the State Preservation Board also declined to comment.
“It certainly looks like we’re not going to have anything open before session starts,” Howard said. “We’ve really had no opportunity to have interim hearings, which has been extremely frustrating.”
State Rep. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican who chairs the House Redistricting Committee, said that “right now, we’re just locked out” — and added that it’s his “strong preference” that the Capitol reopen as soon as possible.
“I think it’s time now,” he said.
In the meantime, some members are already mapping out what office-specific guidelines they may issue for the 87th session. While most members say they are waiting to finalize those plans until closer to January, a number of them have already laid out protocols.
State Rep. Jon Rosenthal’s office, for example, has established a set of guidelines that staff and the lawmaker “will adhere to independent of rules and procedures the House Administration Committee provides the members for the 87th Legislative session,” according to a memo from the Houston Democrat’s office and assuming he wins reelection.
Masks will be required to enter Rosenthal’s Capitol office, which will not allow more than six people inside at a time. Rosenthal and his staff, the memo says, will also be tested for the virus “a minimum of once per week.” And interns, should they be hired, will work from home unless “dramatic changes happen” to prevent the spread of the virus.
On the other hand, state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican from Deer Park and a member of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he and his staff “absolutely will not” mandate masks — and that his “office will be open to all just as it has been since I was first elected.”
“It won’t bother me if visitors want to wear [a mask], I’m not going to make them take them off,” Cain told the Tribune. “In 2017 or 2019, if someone wanted to wear a mask, I would not have cared.”
Another Republican, state Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont, said his office is considering limiting staff and the number of visitors allowed in the office at one time. He said his office is also thinking about trying to move meetings online, though no decisions have been made yet. Across the rotunda, state Sen. Borris Miles’ staff members said they have already installed a plexiglass shield at the front desk in the Houston Democrat’s office.
Meanwhile, a group of House Democrats including state Reps. Joe Moody of El Paso and John Turner of Dallas have spent the past several months working on a governance platform to add to the conversation about what the session should look like.
“Keep the ‘People’s House’ accessible to all who wish to safely participate,” read a line in a one-pager that was presented at the House Democratic Caucus’ recent virtual retreat. “Institute daily COVID checks for everyone entering the Texas Capitol,” reads another. Another one: “Propose penalties to discourage anyone from flouting pandemic rules.”
The pandemic has, of course, impacted other issues tied to the Legislature and its usual timeline. In addition to addressing the billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and other core issues during session, state lawmakers are also set to undergo the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps.
The pandemic has already halted several hearings that both the House and Senate redistricting committees had scheduled across the state during the interim. And, on top of that, King, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said the census data that helps lawmakers draw political maps is not expected to arrive until at least June — which could put the Legislature on track to work beyond the 140-day regular session.
“I think we’re headed for a special session on redistricting regardless,” King told the Tribune.
Others agree. At a virtual event in July, the lieutenant governor said the Legislature could be in session until at least September, citing the budget and redistricting.
“I’ve told my staff and I’ve told senators,” Patrick said, “don’t plan any vacations until maybe after Sept. 30 of next year.”
The Texas Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting in 2017. Photo Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Less than three weeks before early voting begins in Texas, a U.S. district judge has blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option for people who go to the polls this November.
In a ruling issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo cited the coronavirus pandemic, saying the elimination of the voting practice would “cause irreparable injury” to voters “by creating mass lines at the polls and increasing the amount of time voters are exposed to COVID-19.”
Marmolejo also found that the GOP-backed law would “impose a discriminatory burden” on black and Hispanic voters and “create comparatively less opportunities for these voters to participate in the political process.”
She acknowledged the burden the decision could put on local and state election officials, who will have to recalibrate voting machines or reprint ballots. But she reasoned that the potential harm for those suing, including the Texas Association for Retired Americans, was “outweighed by the inconveniences resulting.”
The popular practice of straight-ticket voting allowed general-election voters to vote for all of the candidates of either party in an election by simply picking a straight-ticket option at the top of the ballot. But Texas Republican lawmakers championed a change to the law during the 2017 legislative session, arguing it would compel voters to make more-informed decisions because they would have to make a decision on every race on a ballot.
Most states don’t allow for one-punch voting, but its elimination in Texas met intense opposition from Democrats, who fear the change will be most felt among voters of color and lead to voter drop-off, particularly in blue urban counties that have the longest ballots in the state. In Harris County, for example, ballots can go on for pages because of the number of state district judges and other local officials up for election. Democrats worried that having to vote on each individual race would slow people down, causing longer lines at the polls.
Over the past four presidential elections, one-punch voting has generally proved more popular among Democrats in Texas’ 10 largest counties. About two-thirds of people who voted in Texas in the 2018 general election used the straight-ticket option.
Although the change was signed into law almost three years ago, a last-minute amendment to the legislation delayed its implementation until this year’s general election. The delay proved ill conceived for the majority party in 2018, when down-ballot Republicans faced a rout in urban counties where Democrats were aided by straight-ticket voting.
The Texas Democratic Party joined other Democratic groups and candidates in suing the state in March to overturn the law, but Marmolejo dismissed the case. Another suit was then filed, but with the Texas Association for Retired Americans added as plaintiffs and the state party removed. Nonetheless, Democrats celebrated the judge’s order Friday.
“Time and time again Republican leadership has tried to make it harder to vote and time and time again federal courts strike it down,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement after the ruling. “Texas Democrats will have to continue to win at the ballot box to protect the right vote. Until the new Texas majority wipes out these out-of-touch Republicans, Texas Democrats will never stop fighting for Texans in court.”
Despite the partisan split on the 2017 law, there was considerable uncertainty about how the elimination of straight-ticket voting would impact the 2020 elections in Texas. Some Republicans have privately expressed concern that Donald Trump supporters would vote for president and then leave the polls, hurting the GOP down the ballot. Democrats, meanwhile, worried that long lines in urban areas would deter their voters.
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.
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.
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