Category Archives: Coronavirus

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

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


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

Rep. Gina Hinojosa

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A squandered summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frustration hits home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carrots and sticks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Throw ’em an anvil”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awaiting a fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandi Cai and Chris Essig contributed to this report.

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

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

Texas schools may access federal funds to reimburse remote learning costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATPE commends legislators for joining the push for STAAR waivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATPE releases report on educator experiences during COVID-19

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

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

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

View the ATPE survey data and analysis here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 13, 2020

From COVID-19 to Social Security and everything in between, check out this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations team on this Friday the 13th:


ATPE continues to lobby for a waiver of testing and accountability requirements this year because of the disruption caused by COVID-19. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote to Governor Greg Abbott this week to again urge relief from state testing laws. COVID-19 has caused mounting stress for educators and students, which is only amplified by standardized testing and the likely negative implications of unreliable testing data. “Despite the increasing backlash against testing, state officials thus far have offered the education community little hope for relief,” wrote Holmes, urging the governor to grant waivers and seek flexibility from federal officials. Read ATPE’s letter here plus additional detail in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

In an interview with NBC Local 23, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter argued that teachers should be able to focus on serving their students rather than testing, especially with heightened academic, social, and emotional needs stemming from the pandemic. Exter also stressed that teachers are best-equipped to assess their own students in a much more accurate and effective manner.


FEDERAL UPDATE: ATPE is urging educators to contact their members of Congress about a new retirement bill filed recently in Washington by U.S. Congressmen Richard Neal (D – Mass.) and Kevin Brady (R – TX). The association is asking the bill’s authors to amend their high-profile bill with language to repeal and replace the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), which reduces many public employees’ Social Security benefits. Both Brady and Neal have proposed a WEP fix in their previously filed bills, and ATPE is requesting the WEP language to be added onto their new legislation, the Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2020, in order to give educators the relief they deserve.

ATPE members are encouraged to visit Advocacy Central to send a quick message to the Texas congressional delegation about this legislation and the need for WEP relief.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard now shows that for the week ending November 1, the number of positive cases increased 4.5% among students and 5.4% among staff who participate in on-campus activities and instruction. More notably, however, the number of positive cases for the most recent week of data (ending November 8) appears to have risen a staggering 25.8% among students and 14.3% among staff. These numbers are alarming as data reported for the most recent week are usually incomplete and likely to increase with the next week’s update. It is unclear whether these trends are reflective of upward infection trends statewide or an increase in students participating in on-campus instruction as the school year progresses.

We reported here on Teach the Vote last week that ATPE sent a letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath sharing educators’ complaints about how the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has handled local issues arising from the pandemic. To date ATPE has not received any response to that letter. Last week we also reported on TEA’s clarification of its guidance allowing districts to require certain students to attend school in person. The topic has garnered much media attention. On Friday, November 6, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins spoke with CBS Austin and stressed that the state should focus on investing in education and prioritizing relief from testing.

Check out ATPE’s frequently updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for answers to numerous questions asked by educators. Also, don’t forget to visit Advocacy Central (for ATPE members only) to share your coronavirus concerns with legislators and other state and federal officials.


This week, The Texas Tribune’s education reporter Aliyya Swaby moderated a panel discussion about rural education in Texas. Swaby sat down with Donna Hale, superintendent of Miami Independent School District, Georgina C. Pérez, member of the Texas State Board of Education, and state Rep. Gary VanDeaver to talk about broadband access, teacher retention, and maintaining education funding, among other topics. Learn more and view archived video of the panel presentation here.


ELECTION UPDATE: With the election 10 days in the past, we have unofficial final results in Texas and just a couple races that may head to recounts, according to the Texas Tribune. This week on Teach the Vote, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on Texas’ record-breaking turnout, the presumptive next Texas House Speaker, and other news. Read Mark’s Texas election roundup here, and see ATPE’s list of the full election results for Texas legislative and State Board of Education races here. Thank you to all who voted!



The Senate Education Committee met today to hear remote testimony from invited witnesses only on virtual schools, special education, COVID-19, and the implementation of two of the major education bills passed last session. Read more about the hearing, believed to be the last one the committee will hold before the 2021 legislative session begins in January, in this blog post today from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Related: Monday marked the beginning of the pre-filing period for bills to be considered by the Legislature next session. As of today, 745 bills have already been pre-filed. Search, read, and follow bills that have been filed at Texas Legislature Online.

ATPE again urges state officials to waive student testing requirements during COVID-19

ATPE sent a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott November 11 seeking relief for Texas public schools as they face rigid testing and accountability requirements while still dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter from ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes reiterates requests ATPE made to state officials in July, specifically including a waiver of requirements for STAAR and TELPAS testing and related accountability laws.

Shannon Holmes

“A growing chorus of educators, parents, and elected officials have opposed standardized testing this year,” writes Holmes, citing concerns that the state-mandated tests create unnecessary added stress, take time away from instruction, and are unlikely to yield reliable data. “Despite the increasing backlash against testing, state officials thus far have offered the education community little hope for relief.”

The letter from ATPE notes the increase in educators’ workloads this year and the mental health effects of the pandemic on students. With Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath expressing his intent that testing continue this year in spite of the pandemic and that all students be required to take the tests in person, ATPE is concerned that test administration alone will contribute to health and safety risks already disrupting the educational environment. In addition, the letter highlights the numerous high-stakes decisions that are tied to standardized testing data, which may not be reliable under the circumstances surrounding this difficult school year.

Relief from standardized testing mandates is one of the needs most frequently expressed by ATPE members and was the subject of a resolution adopted by the ATPE House of Delegates in July. The association is also lobbying for a waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements similar to the flexibility granted during the 2019-20 school year.

Read the full letter from ATPE to Gov. Abbott here.

From The Texas Tribune: A presentation on public education in rural Texas

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.


“Watch: Conversations on the future of rural Texas” was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/21/future-rural-texas-event/ by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 6, 2020

It’s been a long week, but the election isn’t the only thing happening. Catch up with these news highlights from ATPE Governmental Relations:


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, we celebrated a long-awaited Election Day for the 2020 general election. Despite record turnout, Texas ended up seeing less of a “blue wave” than many polls had anticipated. Republicans maintained control of the Texas House and Senate, the State Board of Education and statewide offices on the ballot such as Texas Supreme Court seats.

While results are still up in the air nationally for the presidential race, we know more about what the election results mean here at home in Texas. Read this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a preliminary analysis of the election, including what the results mean for the election of a new House Speaker. ATPE will provide additional analysis of the election results in Texas once ballot counts are more complete.

ATPE is grateful to all who turned out to vote in this historic election!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made several updates to its Coronavirus Support and Guidance page this week. TEA’s public health guidance was updated to include instructions for when asymptomatic, test-positive individuals can return to school and a clarification that close contact can be 15 minutes over the course of the day rather than 15 consecutive minutes. This is a consequential change for teachers and students who are in intermittent close contact throughout the day.

TEA also updated its attendance and enrollment FAQs to allow districts to require a student to come back for in-person instruction (e.g., a remote student who is falling behind), following certain protocols. Additionally, as has been the case in TEA’s guidance on STAAR testing, students must be on-campus for STAAR testing. The agency has noted that the paper-testing window cannot be extended due to processing requirements. ATPE has been urging state and federal officials to waive testing requirements this year due to the pandemic.

ATPE also wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath this week asking the agency for more local help for schools that are struggling during the pandemic. Read more in in the next section.

Updates to the Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard show that for the week ending October 25, the number of positive cases increased 10.8% among students and 7.7% among staff. We are not reporting on the data for the week ending in November 1 because the most recent week’s data has consistently been incomplete, typically showing a marked increase the following week as districts input new information. Positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities. It is unclear whether these trends are reflective of upward trends in the state or an increase in students participating in on-campus instruction as the school year progresses.

Check out ATPE’s frequently updated COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for answers to common questions asked by educators. Find additional ATPE resources related to the pandemic on our professional learning portal, and don’t forget to visit Advocacy Central where ATPE members can contact their legislators and other state and federal officials to share concerns about the coronavirus response or other issues.


This week ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote a letter to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to complain about the state’s recent handling of local COVID-19 issues. “As the pandemic continues to affect all aspects of life, educators are disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of leadership shown by state officials and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as school districts across the state grapple with very real challenges,” wrote Holmes.

The letter cites two examples of local challenges stemming from the pandemic that TEA has failed to adequately address. The first example is in El Paso, where soaring COVID-19 cases prompted local superintendents to ask the state for additional time for remote instruction. TEA released revised guidance in a Region 19 School Safe Zones plan that would allow El Paso school districts to have fewer students on their campuses. ATPE lauded the agency’s decision use objective, virus-related metrics at the local level in determining when it is safe to reopen campuses, which we have long recommended, but we also shared recommendations on making the Region 19 plan more effective and expanding it for statewide use. ATPE’s letter also criticized TEA for failing to enforce its own COVID-19 guidance when some school districts have refused to implement health and safety precautions or neglected to report COVID-19 case numbers on their campuses. TEA has declined to take any enforcement action, saying instead that local school boards should decide what to do in those cases.

Read more in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, and read ATPE’s November 2 letter to Commissioner Morath here.


With the election now (mostly) in the rear-view mirror, more attention is turning toward the upcoming 2021 legislative session and the outlook for public education funding. With a Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, the fate of funding and education policy will rest in the same hands (albeit with some new members and a new Speaker of the House) as during the 2019 legislative session.

The last legislative session saw major school finance reforms and an increase in public education funding that enabled a pay raise for many Texas teachers. But with the state facing a deficit, many have wondered if lawmakers will allocate resources to preserve the gains made last session. ATPE State Treasurer Jayne Serna and ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with KXAN news this week about school funding and the anxiety many educators feel about their pay.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also spoke to the media this week about the need for increased resources to help public schools deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Mark spoke about the anticipated need for remediation of students as a result of learning losses during the time that the pandemic has disrupted the school environment. Extra help for struggling students will necessitate additional financial resources. Watch Mark’s Thursday interview with Fox 7 Austin here.

For more on the funding needs for public education, keep reading below.


The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) held joint hearings this week regarding legislative appropriations requests (LARs) that have been submitted recently by multiple state agencies, including the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Education Commissioner Mike Morath briefly outlined his agency’s LAR on Thursday, which he said seeks to maintain current funding levels with the exception of two new “exceptional” items aimed at addressing COVID-19 issues. The first exceptional item is meant to alleviate learning loss that has disproportionately impacted students from low-income backgrounds, through targeted teacher and student-focused interventions. The second exceptional item would restore the 5% budget cuts made to the Windham School District.

Officials with the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also addressed the LBB at this week’s hearing. Executive Director Brian Guthrie testified that the TRS pension trust fund values decreased early in the pandemic, but they have since rebounded. TRS expects a 7.24% rate of return for this year. Guthrie also outlined his agency’s LAR, which includes requests for funding to hire additional TRS staff and open a regional office in El Paso.


 

 

ATPE criticizes state’s response to local COVID-19 issues

On Monday, November 2, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes sent a letter to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to complain about the state’s recent handling of certain local COVID-19 issues.  “As the pandemic continues to affect all aspects of life, educators are disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of leadership shown by state officials and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as school districts across the state grapple with very real challenges,” wrote Holmes. The letter cites two recent examples of local challenges stemming from the pandemic that TEA has failed to adequately address.

The first example is in the El Paso area, where coronavirus-related hospitalizations have soared, leading a local judge to order a two-week shutdown of non-essential businesses, which Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately sought to undo this week. The alarming increase in case counts also prompted Region 19 superintendents to ask state officials for additional flexibility on reopening their campuses for in-person instruction. TEA subsequently released revised guidance in a Region 19 School Safe Zones plan that would allow school districts in that particular region to have fewer students on their campuses than previously required. The state has limited the time that school districts can operate remotely without risking a loss of funding, but the Region 19 plan offers the possibility of additional flexibility for some districts.

ATPE lauded the agency’s decision to begin using objective, virus-related metrics at the local level in determining when it is safe to reopen campuses, which ATPE has recommended for months in previous communications with Morath and the governor. However, our letter this week also included specific recommendations on making the Region 19 School Safe Zones plan more effective. ATPE also urged TEA to apply the revised criteria statewide so that added flexibility could be used by any school district facing a surge in cases similar to what we have seen in El Paso.

In our letter, ATPE also criticized TEA for failing to enforce its own COVID-19 guidance and turning a blind eye toward some school district decisions to ignore recommended and mandated health and safety precautions. Some districts have neglected to report COVID-19 cases to the state as required or have refused to enforce other safety measures, including the governor’s order on wearing masks. TEA has declined to take any action in response to complaints that it considers to be “local in nature,” leaving them instead for school boards to decide. The letter from Holmes to Morath state, “ATPE feels compelled to speak out in condemnation of both a reckless disregard for safety in some districts and your inaction in the face of these situations.”

Read the full ATPE letter here.