Category Archives: Coronavirus

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 10, 2020

ATPE closed out its first virtual Summit today, which featured several discussions about COVID-19 and school safety. Read more about what happened this week from our Governmental Relations team:


The ATPE House of Delegates (HOD) approved new COVID-19 resolutions Thursday. The resolutions urge the state and federal government to delay in-person instruction this fall, suspend STAAR and TELPAS testing, require districts to include educator input in COVID-19 planning, and allocate funding for substitute teachers in light of quarantine requirements for educators. The HOD is composed of ATPE members and meets annually to vote on the organization’s policies, direction, and leadership. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said, “All along, ATPE has said that Texas students, parents, and educators deserve to be safe and have a firm understanding of the steps being taken to provide a safe learning environment, and this vote by our members strongly reaffirms our stance.” Read more in this Teach the Vote blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and on the ATPE blog.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its latest public health guidance this week pertaining to the return to school that has unfortunately left many educators with even less certainty about their safety than when draft guidelines were released a couple weeks ago. While the new guidelines recognize Gov. Abbott’s mask order, provide three weeks of district flexibility at the start of the year, and provide some strengthened districts requirements, they do not require the involvement of educators and parents in developing COVID-19 protocols .

ATPE issued a statement on the release of the guidance emphasizing the rights of students, parents, and educators to understand the steps being take to ensure safety. We will continue to advocate for strengthened health and safety guidelines, as outlined in our comprehensive recommendations. In an interview this week with News 4 in San Antonio, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter suggested a potential solution to the return to school could be to pair students who have chosen a virtual learning option with teachers who are least comfortable returning to school. Read more about the final guidance in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and listen to Exter’s comments on the guidance with KURV710 radio.

Many educators are starting to learn more about their districts’ plans for a return to school. Visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for the latest news and answers to educators’ commonly asked questions during the pandemic.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election ends today. Election day is Tuesday, July 14, but we highly recommend you early vote today in order to avoid crowds and lines if you can.

To date, turnout has been 3.25% in the Democratic runoffs and 2.13% in the Republican runoffs for a combined 5.38% turnout statewide. This number is incredibly small, yet still higher than in previous years. Voters had an extra week to vote early during this runoff election after Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period in order to spread out crowds at polling locations where COVID-19 may be spread.

The latest campaign finance reports paint a picture of some very deep pockets getting involved in runoff races. Meanwhile, candidates continue to participate in virtual public forums and face off in online debates. Get the full scoop on this week’s election news in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The recent uptick in Texas officials from both parties calling for a suspension of STAAR testing in the 2020-21 school year is a testament to the link between increasing voter engagement, politics, and the education profession. It’s become clear that the power of educator votes is recognized. Find a list of polling places here, and be sure to check out recent polling closures in Travis and Bexar counties. Review candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote and then create a personalized ballot here. Stay safe, Texas voters!


FEDERAL UPDATE: The education community buzzed over the past several days as federal officials tried to light a fire under states to reopen schools this fall. Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump tweeted that he disagreed with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines to reopen schools, saying they were impractical and expensive. New CDC guidance is expected next week. Throughout the week, the president tweeted that schools must open in the fall, even suggesting that the federal government may cut off funding to schools that don’t reopen. On Tuesday, the White House hosted a summit on “Safely Reopening America’s Schools” that emphasized the American Academy of Pediatrics’ push for an in-person return to school this fall, much as TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has done.

Though U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Tuesday corroborated on Fox News the president’s sentiment to withhold funding, she has since appeared to change her messaging. On Thursday, DeVos conveyed to Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the federal government is not suggesting withholding funds, but instead wants to allow “families to take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” echoing her previous support for private school vouchers as a solution to the fears around schooling during the pandemic.

In a Wednesday Coronavirus Task Force briefing held at the Department of Education, Vice President Mike Pence said the White House will be, “looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and an encouragement to get kids back to school.” Congressional work on a spending bill that includes education is still pending, but is expected to advance this month.


In addition to the final public health guidance released by TEA this week, the agency updated its resources on the Coronavirus Support Page and sent out new correspondence regarding principal training on remote instruction and optional beginning-of-year (BOY) assessments.

TEA has released new instructional continuity information on additional school days and a district planning guidebook for fall and various academic resources (on-campus course recommendations, graduation guidance, Texas virtual school FAQ). The optional BOY assessments for the 2020-2021 school year use released STAAR questions to measure understanding of TEKS from the previous school year and will not be used for accountability purposes, according to TEA. The agency also released several flyers and resources to help with district outreach to increase the number of families participating in the P-EBT program.

TEA also updated several resources on waivers, finance, and grants this week, including a revised attendance and enrollment FAQ stating that districts, “must offer sufficient on-campus instruction in every grade so that every parent has an on-campus attendance option every day for their student.” Therefore, no district can be 100% virtual and must offer in-person options five days a week. TEA also posted a revised equitable services FAQ, following the U.S. Department of Education’s officially published interim rule last week, along with revised documents on federal funding and waivers.

 


What can you do to spread the word about the 2020 U.S. Census? In this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier, read about key considerations for educators and community stakeholders when planning census outreach. Chevalier provides helpful tools and resources for messaging, recognizing hard-to-count communities, and knowing all of the facts as you get out the count. Happy census-ing!

ATPE House of Delegates adopts resolutions on COVID-19 educational considerations

This week, over 2,000 educators convened for the 2020 ATPE Summit, held virtually for the first time. The ATPE House of Delegates (HOD) met Thursday, July 9, for the association’s annual business meeting. Delegates from every region of Texas convened to elect state officers and adopt policies and official legislative positions of the association on behalf of its 100,000 members.

The HOD adopted two new resolutions pertaining to education and safety concerns of school employees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:

RESOLUTION #1:

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to safeguard the health and safety of students and educators by delaying in-person instruction until Texas has demonstrated a flattened curve in the number of COVID-19 cases; and

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to require local school districts to include educators and parents in the development of plans for the safe re-entry of students and district employees; and

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and our U.S. federal government to allocate emergency funds for substitutes in case of mandatory quarantine requirements for district personnel.

During debate on the resolution, ATPE members cited the fears expressed by teachers who have compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, especially in light of a recent, rapid increase in the number of cases. Delegates also spoke about the difficulty of containing viral spread, especially if teachers are placed in classrooms with students who may not be required to wear masks, and expressed doubt about the ability to carry out contact tracing in schools. With some teachers feeling that they are being asked to make unreasonable sacrifices in order to hasten a reopening of schools that is motivated by economic factors or political pressure, ATPE members are recommending a delay in returning to campuses in order to keep everyone safe. Only one delegate spoke against the resolution noting that ATPE has already been urging the state to take steps to safeguard the health and safety of educators and students.

RESOLUTION #2:

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and the U.S. Department of Education to waive requirements to administer the 2020-21 STAAR and TELPAS due to the disruption of in-person instruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The author of this resolution on standardized testing argued that students have lost critical learning time as a result of the pandemic and that teachers’ time should be devoted to fostering student learning rather than test preparation. Speakers observed educational quality varied widely as COVID-19 forced a sudden shutdown of schools. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the U.S. Department of Education both waived requirements to administer STAAR exams this spring. The ATPE resolution was amended yesterday to include the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) as well as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR), based on discussion about the importance of both tests and a plea to prevent English language learners who are struggling in an online learning environment from being subjected to unfair testing through the TELPAS.

Read ATPE’s statement about the newly adopted resolutions here. These resolutions will be implemented by the association over the next year and along with the ATPE Legislative Program will guide ATPE’s continuing advocacy work on numerous issues, including the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

ATPE expects more from state efforts to protect educators

Earlier this week, the Texas Education Agency released final public health guidelines for the return to in-person schooling in the fall. The guidelines were similar to the agency’s previously released “draft” public health guidance, with a few exceptions. ATPE’s statement on the guidance (see below) reflects our overall disappointment in the lack of clarity and specificity provided to educators who are concerned for their health and safety when returning to school.

TEA’s guidance prioritizes getting kids back in an in-person school setting without equal care for the educators who will stand alongside them in the classroom. Most educators would probably agree that students are experiencing setbacks due to the pandemic and that for some children, being away from the school environment means a lack of safety and stability amid a reported rise in child abuse. These are some of the reasons that would favor returning students to their campuses as soon as feasible, but it is equally important that educators and other school employees are able to work in a healthy and safe environment; otherwise the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning may suffer.

The TEA guidance document follows the same framework as what was in the agency’s initial health and safety guidelines draft and recommends designating an individual or group responsible for dealing with COVID-19 issues. ATPE’s Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines pressed the state to require districts to develop a more robust planning committee and COVID-19 policy approval process that includes educator and community input. Instead, the agency has opted to require districts to create a plan that is only posted for parent and public review one week in advance of the the school year and is not subject to school board approval, leaving it mostly to the discretion of superintendents.

One of the main differences in the new guidance document is that districts are granted flexibility in the form of a three-week back-to-school transition. During this time period, districts can require some students to engage in virtual or distance learning, if they have the internet and devices. Another big change in the new guidance versus the draft document is that, consistent with the governor’s recent mask order, schools must comply with face covering requirements. Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order includes exceptions, such as for those under age 10, those who have disabilities that prevent them from wearing masks, and other circumstances.

TEA has strengthened some of the language in the document to require districts to practice certain health and safety protocols, while continuing merely to suggest other practices. For example, educators and staff must self-screen, visitors must be screened, and parents must ensure that they are not sending their child to school with COVID-19 symptoms. Additionally, the new guidance says school systems must provide daily on-campus instruction for students who follow TEA’s public health guidance and whose parents want them to attend school in person.

Similar to the previous guidance, schools are encouraged to provide hand sanitizer, watch students wash their hands twice a day, and consider separating desks by six feet where possible, among many other health and hygiene suggestions. The guidance also suggests that schools reduce large assemblies and in-person staff meetings where possible.

Overall, the TEA guidance falls far short of what educators expect in terms of assurances that they will be safe when returning to work with students. ATPE will continue to work with education stakeholders and state leaders to gain better specificity for educators, as outlined in our recommendations, and to press for educators’ voices to be included in the decision-making process at all levels. Educators, and especially those who are cautious to return to school due to their age, pregnancy or nursing, health conditions, or the presence of vulnerable individuals in their household, deserve peace of mind and a seat at the table as we approach the fall.

Visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resource page for more information related to returning to school, including answers to such questions as whether your district can require you to get tested for COVID-19 or what might happen if you disagree with your district’s plan to reopen.


ATPE Statement on TEA’s Final Public Health Guidance
State’s largest educator association frustrated by TEA plan: “Too many questions are left unanswered by TEA’s guidelines.”

ATPE has reviewed the Texas Education Agency’s “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document posted on the agency’s website this afternoon.

Part of TEA’s “Strong Start” plan, the nine-page document lists minimal requirements and recommendations for school districts to consider as they prepare to start the new school year. While the final guidance contains a few more requirements than a draft leaked in mid-June, the responsibility for ensuring student and educator safety has been placed squarely on school administrators. Included in the new document are references to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order calling for masks to be worn in public, which will also apply to schools for as long as the statewide order remains in effect.

ATPE is frustrated that TEA has not heeded our call to provide more explicit guidance, nor is TEA requiring the involvement of educators and parents in developing COVID-19 protocols.

On July 2, ATPE released its own set of recommendations for state policies and district-level guidelines related to COVID-19. We urge school district leaders to follow ATPE’s recommendations as they work to fill in the gaps. Our recommendations would require each district to develop a COVID-19 advisory committee including non-administrative-level staff, parents, and community medical experts.

“Too many questions are left unanswered in TEA’s guidelines,” said Shannon Holmes, ATPE Executive Director. “We urge school district leaders to step in and fill this leadership vacuum to keep Texas children and educators safe, particularly as pockets of our state face rising COVID-19 outbreaks. All Texas students, parents, and educators deserve to be safe and have a firm understanding of the steps being taken to provide a safe learning environment.”

Read ATPE’s Recommendations for District-Level Guidelines.

Texas election roundup: Last chance to vote in the runoffs!

Friday, July 10, is the last day to early vote before the July 14 runoff elections across Texas, and campaigns are in the final sprint to the finish line.

With the pandemic ramping up across much of the state, heading to a polling location can seem like a frightening prospect at the moment. Check out a few ways to reduce your risk while voting in a pandemic, as well as this post on ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s experience voting.

Through Wednesday, 316,664 people cast votes in the Republican runoffs, 30% of whom voted by mail. Another 482,020 voted in the Democratic runoffs, 38% of whom voted by mail. Turnout was 1.94% for Republicans and 2.95% for Democrats, for a combined turnout of 4.89%.

Even though the turnout number is still extremely low, it marks a substantial increase from the 2.13% combined turnout by mid-week of early voting in the 2018 runoffs and 1.45% in the 2016 runoffs. Unlike previous runoff elections, Gov. Greg Abbott added an extra week of early voting during this year’s runoffs with the aim of spreading out voters to reduce crowding at polling locations.

The latest campaign finance reports show incumbents with the usual fundraising advantage. However there were some notable findings in the reports. Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign spent at least $125,000 after jumping into the runoffs to thrash Empower Texans, after the anti-public education organization mocked the governor’s disability. Speaking of which, Empower Texans bankroller Farris Wilks gave $425,000 to son-in-law Jon Francis in House District 60, where he faces Texas Parent PAC endorsed candidate Glenn Rogers in the Republican runoff.

Campaigns have continued to find creative ways to deal with the pandemic even as infection rates soar. Futuro RGV hosted an online debate in Senate District 27, where state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) faces challenger Sara Stapleton Barrera. You can watch a video of their debate here.

Raise Your Hand Texas, which is funded by HEB owner Charles Butt to advocate for public education, hosted a pair of virtual panels this week featuring runoff races. Tuesday’s panel included state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) and attorney Xochil Pena Rodriguez, both of whom are running for the Democratic nomination to face Republican state Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) in Senate District 19. The seat was previously held by state Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), before flipping Republican in a special election in 2018. You can view their discussion here.

Thursday’s panel featured Democrat Dr. Suleman Lalani and Republicans Jacey Jetton and Matt Morgan sparring for an open seat in House District 26. Lalani is in a runoff with Sarah DeMerchant, who did not participate in the panel. During the discussion, both Jetton and Morgan announced support for vouchers. You can view their conversation here.

Our friends at the Texas Educators Vote coalition remind you to vote safely and make your voice heard! This begins with reviewing voting histories and candidate profiles right here at TeachTheVote.org under the candidates tab. Happy voting!

BREAKING: TEA posts updated public health guidance for school reopening

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) today released a new Public Health Planning Guidance document for the 2020-21 school year. While ATPE is still analyzing the guidance, it appears fairly similar to the previously released “draft” public health guidance, which was seemingly posted by mistake last month on the agency’s website.

Notably, TEA’s press release on the guidance released today states that all students, teachers, staff, and visitors coming to campus must be screened before being allowed on campus. Additionally, Governor Greg Abbott’s statewide mask order will require that masks are worn while in school buildings, with certain exceptions as outlined in the governor’s order. However, it is clear that TEA’s nine-page guidance issued today, much like its “draft” predecessor, continues to place most responsibility on local school districts for coming up with their own plans for dealing with COVID-19.

As previously reported, ATPE has released Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines for a return to school and factors that local and state decision-makers should consider. Read a press statement from ATPE about the July 7 guidance document released by TEA.

Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for more detailed analysis on the public health guidance coming soon from ATPE’s lobbyists, and visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for other news and updates.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 3, 2020

This week, we celebrated the anniversary of the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified July 1, 1971. Since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, now is the perfect time to celebrate with all the young people in your life as you make plans to early vote in the primary runoffs. Here is our wrap-up of this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team. We wish you a safe and relaxing Independence Day weekend!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott made headlines with an executive order requiring that Texans wear masks in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases. There are a few exceptions to the mask order, including for children under 10 years old, those with a medical condition that prevents wearing a mask, and in some specified circumstances such as driving. Violating the order is punishable by fine, but jail time for violations is prohibited. See the full executive order with a list of exceptions and exempted counties here. Abbott also reduced the limits of most allowed gatherings from 100 to 10 people. Both changes take effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday, July 3, 2020.

According to an article by the Texas Tribune republished here on our blog, Gov. Abbott gave an interview on Thursday afternoon in which he speculated about restarting schools this fall. ““If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program,” the governor is reported as saying, despite giving earlier assurances that it would be safe for schools to reopen soon. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to provide school districts with health and safety guidance needed to begin the new school year. The agency posted a public health document last week only briefly before quickly pulling it down and calling it a working draft.

ATPE has shared its own Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines to the state and districts, urging them to address the safety concerns of school staff, students, and parents well ahead of a return to in-person classes, especially with the current spike in Texas coronavirus cases. Our recommendations urge TEA to release COVID-19 reopening guidelines and require that prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year, each school district disseminate a local policy describing health and safety measures it will take to mitigate and respond to the threat of COVID-19. ATPE believes TEA should require districts to involve non-administrative, campus-level staff and parents as they develop such policies. Districts should promptly notify employees and parents of their policy, and they must also be ready to adjust their policy should pandemic conditions change. We also provided a list of other considerations for districts to consider as they develop their policy, which include accommodating varying levels of risk factors among their student and staff populations, minimizing person-to-person contact, planning for special populations, adjusting staff  leave policies as necessary, and addressing child care needs of their staff, especially since many districts are now contemplating staggered student schedules or mandatory remote instructional days.

Please visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for news and answers to educators’ commonly asked questions amid the rapid developments during this pandemic. Many of the categories of resources on the TEA Coronavirus Support Page were also updated this week, including an Operation Connectivity Survey, English learner guidance, waivers, finance, and grants (information on synchronous and asynchronous instruction), crisis code reporting results, July 4 public health resources, and child nutrition. Gov. Abbott also extended the P-EBT application deadline to July 31.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election started this Monday. Polls are closed today for the holiday, but early voting will continue through July 10. Election day is July 14, but we highly recommend you early vote in order to avoid crowds and lines. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier voted early and documented her experience here on our blog with tips to prepare for a safe trip to the polls.

The education-focused nonprofit organization Raise Your Hand Texas is holding two virtual forums for runoff candidates next week (see below). If you’re not attending the ATPE Summit next week, find more information and submit questions for the candidate forums here.

  • Texas Senate District 19 (San Antonio to Big Bend area) – Tuesday, July 7 at 1:00 p.m. (CDT)
  • Texas House District 26 (Houston/Sugar Land area) – Thursday, July 9, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (CDT)

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating many challenges for our public education system that will be long-lasting and require a commitment of support from our elected officials. Voting is the best way to influence laws and policies in Texas that will affect your profession, your schools, and your students. Find a list of polling places where you can vote here. Generate a personalized sample ballot here. Review candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. Stay safe, Texas voters!


FEDERAL UPDATE: On Wednesday, July 1, the U.S. Department of Education officially published a final interim rule that states how public school districts must spend their CARES Act federal emergency funds for equitable services offered to private schools. The rule became effective immediately upon being published, but it is open for public comment through July 31, 2020. TEA held an update training session on Thursday in light of the changes; expect to find the training recording on TEA’s Grant Compliance and Administration YouTube playlist here. The new rule gives districts two options – spend CARES Act funds only on Title I schools and follow the longstanding interpretation of equitable services under federal law, or spend CARES Act funds on all schools and be held to the questionable interpretation of the equitable services law advanced by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s post on the rule from last week for more information.

DeVos also announced final rules that impact the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program, which provides up to $4,000 a year to college students who are taking certain courses in preparation to teach, so long as they continually certify that they meet certain requirements when they become teachers, such as teaching in a low-income school. If recipients do not continue to meet the requirements, the grant is converted to a loan. As reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2015, many TEACH Grant recipients had their grants converted to loans due to confusion over the requirements. The new rules change the department’s practices to expand how recipients can fulfill their service obligation, simplify the employment certification requirements, and allow recipients whose grants have been converted to loans to request a reconversion, among other provisions. Read a fact sheet on the rules here.


This week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter set the record straight on erroneous claims that teachers can temporarily retire due to the pandemic. The “temporary retirement” myth was mentioned in a news story following a conference call national teacher union affiliates held with Texas reporters last week. The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) has made it clear that there is no such option for “temporary” retirement, explaining that any teacher who retires and then returns to employment will be held to a fixed annuity amount as of their retirement date. There are a number of restrictions on early retirement that educators should consider. Read retirement facts in this blog post by Exter.


New data show student engagement declined when the pandemic forced schools to close this spring. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released crisis code reporting data this week, which includes crisis code reporting on student “engagement” and indicates that more than 600,000 students (about 11% of the student population) had inconsistent or no contact with their teachers or administrators. ATPE’s 2020 Membership Survey provided even more concerning data related to engagement, as just over 65% of our survey respondents reported that their students were less engaged during virtual learning. Moving forward, TEA and school districts will need to prioritize data collection and planning that works towards eliminating barriers students faced when attempting remote learning this spring, which goes far beyond access to Internet and devices. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to address several agenda items, including revision of physical education and health TEKS, which garnered over 12 hours of virtual testimony on Monday. Votes on proposed revisions to the curriculum standards will not occur until a future meeting of the board.

On Tuesday morning, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath appeared before the board during its virtual meeting and fielded questions from SBOE members on topics such as testing and how teachers would be protected against COVID-19 risks when schools reopen. The commissioner said no decision has been made yet as to whether Texas will seek a federal waiver of testing and accountability requirements like it did during the spring when schools were forced to close. Read a summary of Morath’s comments to the board in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

The SBOE committees’ work on Wednesday was largely uneventful, although the Committee on Instruction did amend an agenda item to keep computer science as a required high school course. On Thursday, the full board had a lengthy discussion about increasing the capacity of the charter school bond guarantee program by 20%. Upon a motion by Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), the board voted 5-9 in favor of maintaining the increase. The board moved forward with ease on their other agenda items.


An accurate count for Texas in the 2020 U.S. Census is essential for adequate funding of public schools and other services that will be sorely needed in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The Census Bureau has launched a self-response rates map, showing Texas currently ranks 40th and is tied with Arkansas. Rankings by county and city are also available, creating the perfect opportunity for some friendly competition! Congratulations to Mountain City, Texas and Fort Bend County for the highest census completion rates in Texas!

Find a Census response rate competition toolkit here, and keep spreading the word on social media and in other communications with family, friends, and the community about the importance of filling out the census questionnaire.

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/.

ATPE survey, TEA data show pandemic-related decline in student engagement

This spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic sent our educational system into triage mode, Texas educators were asked by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to document “student engagement” using crisis codes in the state’s Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS). The data collected by the agency was released yesterday, but take it with a big grain of salt. The term “engagement” might be a misnomer based on TEA’s definitions, and ATPE’s own survey of Texas educators indicates we have a lot of work to do on re-engaging students.

Student engagement as we familiarly know it typically refers to factors such as attendance, participation in lessons, timely completion of assignments, and students’ attitudes toward learning. For reporting purposes during the crisis, TEA defined an engaged student as one who was responsive and completing assignments, which is rather vague. For example, secondary students in multiple classes were considered engaged if they were completing assignments in any core content area. Therefore, an “engaged” middle school student could have completed some assignments in an ELA course but in no other courses. An “unengaged” student was defined as responsive but not completing assignments, regardless of the underlying reason for the student’s lack of engagement. An “uncontactable” student was defined as not responsive at all.

As defined, the TEA crisis codes seemed to measure whether students were present as opposed to their true engagement. Additionally, these definitions leave out students who may not regularly complete assignments as part of their schooling, such as those who receive special education services.

The student engagement data newly released by TEA, which is still being updated by districts through July 16, showed that 88.72% of students were “engaged.” The agency reported that approximately 11% of students either were not engaged for some time or their school districts lost or had no contact with them. For context, this amounts to approximately 609,000 Texas students who severely lacked the emotional, academic, and social stability traditionally afforded by schools and educators this spring. That’s a disturbing number, even under TEA’s rudimentary definitions of engagement, but input we’ve solicited from ATPE members suggests a much larger number of students became less engaged once schools were forced to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The recent ATPE Membership Survey conducted June 5-19, 2020, included a question on student engagement that we believe provides much more insight about how students were participating and learning during remote instruction this spring. When asked how engaged their students were during remote instruction, just over 65% of ATPE members surveyed said their students were “slightly less engaged” or “much less engaged” on average as compared to their level of engagement during previous in-person instruction. This information was provided by 3,250 survey respondents.

ATPE 2020 Membership Survey results on student engagement during the pandemic-related school shutdown

The misnomer of “engagement” as loosely defined by TEA is even more problematic when applied to the agency’s disaggregated PEIMS data, which are presented in such a way that suggests students of color, low-income students, and students in younger grades were not as “fully engaged” in school this spring as other students. Whether or not these subpopulations of students were engaged is more accurately framed, we believe, by the barriers students may have faced both in accessing school materials and having the necessary instructional support at home. (Having a stable home setting and parents or caregivers who are present make a difference.) Through TEA’s “Strong Start” resources, districts are being encouraged to collect some survey data from families and educators related to barriers as they plan for the upcoming school year.

Where do we go from here? Evidence is mounting that the “COVID slide” will be steep and likely even steeper for students of color, low-income students, and younger students who may not be developmentally ready for remote instruction. With an upcoming school year that will include an even greater emphasis on remote instruction and no plans as of yet from TEA to halt state testing and accountability mandates, it is more important than ever to gather information on the barriers students face and make concrete plans to address them. TEA has said the state intends to use federal emergency dollars to improve connectivity and access to digital devices for students, but these will be of little use if a child has inadequate instructional support at home or no place to call home at all.

Including teacher voices to gather their experiences with students during remote learning and their take on how to improve access to education during a crisis is crucial. ATPE has urged the state and school districts to solicit feedback from educators, including classroom teachers, as they develop plans for the next school year.

An ATPE member told a story of sitting with their student (virtually) to talk through their parents’ loss of income, their fears about the pandemic, and adjusted assignment expectations since the student was now working at a job, too. This is not necessarily “completing an assignment,” but it is engagement and it is at the core of the work that educators do. If you can’t engage a student and have a meaningful relationship, their basic needs will not be met (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?), and they will never get to a place of learning .

Read this reporting by the Texas Tribune to learn more about the “COVID slide” and the engagement data recently released by TEA.

Setting the record straight on the myth of “temporary” teacher retirement

After representatives affiliated with a national teachers’ union held a conference call with Texas reporters last week, at least one news story sparked confusion and a flurry of inquiries by reporting that it would be possible for teachers to retire “temporarily” during the coronavirus pandemic and later return to their previous jobs.

“Many teachers are capable of temporarily retiring,” the media report stated, erroneously adding that Texas teachers could “sit out a year or two, still get paid, and come out of retirement after COVID is under control.” The staff of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) asked ATPE and other stakeholders to help them clear up the confusion. The simple fact is that “temporary retirement” is not an option for educators under Texas law!

TRS had this to say in a statement responding to the June 24 news story:

“There are no provisions in the law that allow a teacher to ‘temporarily retire.’ A news article published on June 24 by a north Texas media outlet stating as much is mistaken. While the law allows a retired teacher to return to employment without restriction after a 12-month break in service, the teacher’s retirement annuity amount would be fixed as of the retirement date. Any employment after retirement does not increase the annuity amount.”

Exactly what is the law, and what considerations should educators be aware of as they are making retirement decisions in the wake of COVID-19? The first step is considering whether or not an educator is eligible to retire.

Educators who began teaching prior to 2007 and have not had a break in employment since then may be eligible to retire and receive a regular pension if they are at least 65 years of age with five or more years of employment, or they meet the “Rule of 80.”  The Rule of 80 is met when an educator’s age plus their years of service credit equal 80 or more. (For example: 50 years of age plus 30 years of service credit equals 80.)  Those educators who have not worked continuously since 2007 must meet the rule of 80 and be at least 60 years of age to retire, or they may retire at 62 years of age if the educator had not earned five years of service credit prior to 2014 or has not worked continuously since 2014.

Educators who are not eligible for full retirement may still be eligible for early retirement, but they are subject to early retirement penalties. To be eligible for early retirement, an educator must either be  55 years old with five years of service credit or have at least 30 years of service credit without having met the Rule of 80. The penalty for early retirement can be as much as a 53% reduction of your standard annuity if you are between ages 55 and 64 and have between five and 19 years of service credit, but do not meet the Rule of 80.

Additional factors to consider include the fact that the amount of your pension is greatly impacted by your pre-retirement years of service, TRS’s lack of an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), and the impact of the retire-rehire surcharge.

The amount of an educator’s annual annuity is determined by taking the average of their highest three to five years of salary and multiplying that figure by a percentage, which for those receiving a regular retirement, is determined by multiplying their years of service by 2.3. For example, a teacher with 20 years of service credit would have 46% applied to their salary figure; if their highest average salary amount is $60,000, the educator would be eligible to receive an annuity of approximately $27,600 per year. A teacher whose highest average salary was also $60,000 but had 30 years of service credit would be eligible to receive approximately $41,400 annually.

Once you retire, you cannot earn additional service credit and your annuity cannot be recalculated, even if you go back to work after sitting out a year.

In addition to lost credit for service worked after retirement, the unpredictability of a COLA is another factor that can make early retirement less attractive. A fixed annuity with no regular COLA built in, and the possibility of only infrequent one-time COLAs, tends to lose its purchasing power over time due to inflation. Locking in the amount of your annuity much earlier than you might have otherwise planned to retire may magnify this effective decrease in your annuity’s value over time, on top of the other reductions discussed above.

Finally, although you can retire and then return to work after sitting out for 12 months, those retired educators who do return to work on more than a half-time basis will be subject to retire-rehire surcharges. The amount of the pension surcharge is equal to the amount of both member and state contributions on the compensation paid, which is currently 15.2%.  A health benefit surcharge is also due for TRS-Care, which is currently $535. While the educator’s employer can choose to cover these surcharges, they often pass them on to the retiree.

As you can see, an educator’s decision to retire early, with the intention of making it a “temporary” retirement in which the educator would sit out a year or two before returning to the classroom, comes with many significant financial consequences. ATPE urges educators to carefully consider these factors before they take an action that could permanently and negatively impact their future standard of living and their ability to truly and fully retire at a later date.

Note: There are a number of variables that affect an educator’s annuity, including start date, breaks in service, total years of service, retirement age, and other individual benefit decisions. Figures cited in this blog post are used for illustrative purposes only. Texas educators should contact TRS directly for assistance calculating the individual pension benefits they are eligible to receive.

Commissioner discusses COVID-19 issues at the June SBOE meeting

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is holding its June meeting this week. On Monday, the board heard over 12 hours of testimony from more than 250 people on the review of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for physical education and health TEKS. The board’s discussion of these TEKS was pushed to Tuesday’s meeting.

On Tuesday, the board began with an appearance by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, whose comments were primarily related to education issues stemming from the current coronavirus pandemic. Because Texas lacks end-of-year student learning data, Morath pointed to an outside study on the blended learning tool “Zearn,” which showed disparate outcomes in learning between students with different wealth measures. Morath did note that data will likely be released today on Texas public school student engagement, which was gathered by teachers in the spring. Morath stressed that we cannot allow the public health crisis to become an educational crisis and discussed transitioning from crisis-mode instructional support to instruction, in order to minimize learning loss.

As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Morath explained that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has used its waiver authority to set up two new school finance mechanisms, which will allow districts to receive funding for either a synchronous or asynchronous remote instructional model next school year. In a later answer to a question by board member Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-Converse), Morath explained that attendance (tied to schools’ ability to receive funding) in the asynchronous method of remote learning will be specifically determined through a district’s definition of progress and engagement, which must abide by an already established framework defined by TEA. Morath stressed that it is essential to get as many children back in school as possible and as quickly as possible, but the commissioner said he understands that it may not be safe for some children to return to school.

Morath stated that the risk of COVID-19 infection, transmission, and complications in children is much lower than for adults and expressed confidence that districts can implement enough strategies and protocols so that parents feel safe sending their kids to school. This appeared to leave some board members wondering, “What about the teachers?”

Board member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) later asked the commissioner to address how the agency is prepared to protect educators and deal with infected school employees who have to miss school or quarantine. Morath pointed to the agency’s provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shields, plus guidance the agency has provided to districts suggesting screening protocols and considerations for higher levels of distancing. Similarly, member Aicha Davis (D-Dallas) later asked Morath if there was going to be any state support for teachers who are pregnant or have asthma, to which Morath responded that it will be left up to school districts to address this issue, and TEA has provided them guidance regarding staff who fall into a high-risk category. Morath suggested that there would not be any additional state financial support for districts in dealing with this issue of accommodating staff around such COVID-19 concerns.

During his presentation, the commissioner commented on the financial situation facing Texas public schools. He stated that while negative downturns in the economy will impact tax revenue, Texas has not announced cuts to public education funding and does not plan to cut funding in the coming years. Morath explained that the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund created as part of the federal CARES Act will be used to execute the “hold harmless” provision for Average Daily Attendance (ADA) that the agency recently announced. This means that cuts to funding in the coming year will not be necessary, according to the commissioner. In addition to the ESSER funds, half a billion dollars will be allocated through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), also part of the CARES Act, which will fund 75% of schools’ coronavirus-related expenses incurred during the 2019-20 school year. Morath said the state also plans to provide PPE to every school district, fund access to broadband and digital devices through Operation Connectivity, and offer the free, optional Texas Home Learning platform and resources for districts that do not already have a learning management system (LMS) in place. The commissioner added that 24% of Texas students needed paper learning resources this spring, which is likely why connectivity and access to devices are a large focus of how the state plans to spend its emergency funds provided by Congress.

When board member Davis asked the commissioner how racial equity would be addressed in his agency’s efforts, Morath referenced the increases in funding that resulted from the legislature’s passage of House Bill 3, Operation Connectivity, and the Texas Home Learning network. Similar to his previous positions, the commissioner suggested that each district is responsible for closing the gaps and that TEA can only provide robust resources within the limits of the agency’s own funding. Member Barbara Cargill (R-Conroe) asked Morath how the Texas Home Learning network was being vetted and what was being done to ensure that it will not become the next CSCOPE. Morath responded that the new home learning resources were meant to be extremely transparent and available to the public, but the commissioner added that he would like those resources eventually to be vetted by the SBOE .

Before taking questions, Morath also commented on the reading academy requirements included in House Bill 3, stating that all requirements are still on schedule. Reading academies will be offered mostly in a blended learning form. Providers may begin offering cohorts in July. More information on reading academies can be found here.

Board member Tom Maynard (R-Florence) asked about TEA’s future plans for administering the STAAR test. Morath answered with a long-winded explanation of why assessments are important for measuring learning for diagnostic purposes and emphasizing the correlation between STAAR test scores and future outcomes for students. To provide districts some flexibility, the commissioner stated that the agency has extended the testing window for the coming school year and that there will likely be future adjustments to the A-F accountability system to compensate for not being able to calculate growth. In response to a question by board member Georgina Pérez (D-El Paso), Morath said he isn’t sure if Texas will be requesting another testing waiver from the federal government in the upcoming academic year.

Lastly, Pérez asked the commissioner to comment on charter school expansion requests and if TEA could improve its process for notifying SBOE members of charter school expansion amendment requests. (ATPE was among a coalition of education groups that asked the commissioner to impose a moratorium on granting charter school expansion requests during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to save the state money.) Morath replied that expansion requests are being processed as normal. With regard to notice requirement, Morath did not have an answer.

The SBOE will continue to meet through Thursday of this week. Find the full agenda here.

For all information and guidance that TEA has provided to districts during the pandemic, visit the TEA COVID-19 Support page. Be sure also to check out ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources for frequently updated information for educators about issues related to COVID-19.