Category Archives: safe schools

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.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas schools tell teachers with medical risks to return to classrooms

Several school districts are trying to accommodate teachers with health conditions who want to work from home, but many are being called back in as more students return to classrooms.

Joy Tucker outside her home in Deer Park. Credit: The Texas Tribune

Texas schools tell teachers with medical risks they must return to classrooms during the pandemic

After several miscarriages over the last few years, Joy Tucker is finally pregnant with her third child at the age of 37.

A school counselor at the Houston-based Windmill Lakes campus at the International Leadership of Texas charter school, Tucker talked to her doctor about the risks she and her child would face if she were to contract COVID-19 from students or other employees. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that pregnant people may be at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness, or even preterm birth. At her doctor’s recommendation, Tucker turned in a note asking her school if she could work remotely.

School leaders denied that request, saying she would have to return to work in person in September. If not, Tucker would have to use the rest of her paid leave to remain home, leaving her no time to recover after the baby’s birth. Her options quickly dwindling and her baby due in January, Tucker lawyered up and filed a grievance with the school district.

“I want nothing more than to go back to work and be with my kids,” said Tucker, who chose to use paid leave instead of returning in September. “If I have to choose between mine and my baby’s life, or going to work in a situation where we could get sick or we could die, there’s no choice to make — I have to stay home.”

Caitlin Madison, a spokesperson for the charter school, declined to comment on Tucker’s case but said, “since this school year started, the ILTexas policy has been that if we have students on campus, then we need to have our employees on campus as well.” About 28% of students in the district have chosen to return to campus.

“The only work-from-home exception for campus staff has been if they are sick with COVID or were potentially exposed to COVID and require a 14-day quarantine,” she added.

International Leadership of Texas is one of a number of Texas schools denying some teachers’ requests to work from home, as they balance staffing against often-fluctuating student enrollment. Federal disability law allows employees to ask their bosses for reasonable accommodations, such as temporary schedule changes, shift changes or working remotely, if an illness puts them at higher risk for COVID-19.

School districts must grant those requests unless they would pose an “undue hardship,” including costing too much or impeding their ability to run the school. With Texas largely requiring school districts to bring back all students who want to return, administrators like those at International Leadership of Texas argue they cannot run their school campuses properly if too many teachers stay at home. More than 2 million of 5.5 million Texas students were attending school in person as of late September, according to a state estimate, an increase from 1 million earlier this fall.

Experts say that school districts should layer safety requirements such as masks, social distancing and sanitizing to keep COVID-19 from spreading. In other countries, transmission in schools has been extremely low. But few of those countries had the same level of uncontrolled community spread as Texas, which has failed to contain the virus in many regions and is seeing regional surges in cases. State data on transmission in public schools shows almost 6,500 teachers reported positive COVID-19 cases, but the data is limited and full of gaps.

Given the unclear picture of COVID-19’s spread in Texas schools, teachers say school administrators are unfairly expecting them to put their lives in danger, in some cases requiring all staff to return to campuses even when most students have chosen virtual learning. Texas teachers have little leverage, given the state’s strict labor laws: Any teachers who strike could be stripped of their jobs, teaching certificates and pension benefits.

“You don’t need to be in an office to do your job,” said Tony Conners, who is representing Tucker and has exclusively represented teachers for more than 30 years. “Since spring break, when COVID-19 hit, everyone was working from home and [school districts] were taking the money from the government and they were telling the communities and parents that they were being well served.”

Conners said he’s heard from more teachers than ever before wanting counsel on how to get accommodations to stay home. The toughest cases, he said, are in charter schools and suburban districts. By law the process is individualized, requiring school leaders to talk with employees about how to meet their needs.

But districts do not have to hire new staff or create new positions to accommodate someone under the law, said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. “If more than half of students are coming back, you have to create social distancing in the physical environment, which may mean you need smaller class sizes and therefore you need all hands on deck,” she said. “A lot of districts responded to that by saying, ‘We don’t have remote-only positions.’”

Even districts currently providing teachers with accommodations cannot guarantee them for the entire year, since many are allowing parents to decide each marking period whether to enroll their students in virtual or in-person education.

“If we can provide some of those accommodations without creating a hardship on a campus where they wouldn’t be able to serve their students safely, then I wanted to be able to proudly say that we had valued both students and staff,” said Austin Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde.

About 700 of 5,000 total Austin ISD teachers have received permission to work virtually at least through December. But as more students return in person, “we will be challenged to keep all of those accommodations for a long time …… There is of course fine print that says, if it becomes necessary to rescind the approval for school student needs, then we would have to do so,” she said.

Some teachers have already had that rug pulled out from under them. In August, Gina Morreale, an Eanes ISD middle school history teacher, was approved to work remotely after turning in a note from her doctor explaining her chronic bronchitis and susceptibility to pneumonia. She even got an email from administrators asking her not to come on campus to do her work sponsoring the cheerleading team. Lean on the cheer moms, she was told.

A month later, Eanes administrators decided to bring back all students who wanted to come in person, instead of phasing them in slowly. Unfortunately for Morreale, that meant also bringing all staff back to campus.

“This can’t apply to me,” she remembers thinking. “Maybe this applies to someone who is in a walking boot — someone that wasn’t high risk.” She started to think through her options — Could she quit and move in with her parents? Did she need to look for a new job?

She asked her doctor for another letter with more detail, and said she is still working with district leaders, hoping they can agree on an accommodation.

Eanes ISD was forced to call its staff back to ensure there were enough personnel, said spokesperson Claudia McWhorter. The human resources department is working with concerned educators on a case-by-case basis. “Even when we were at 25% capacity, our campuses were short-staffed; some campuses have been forced to have an all-hands approach and even have principals serving as teachers in classrooms,” McWhorter said in an email. “Simply put: with more students returning, we need staff in the buildings.”

For now, Morreale has been able to work remotely, but she’s not sure how long the district will allow it.

“I hope I can until it is safe for me,” she said.

Administrators that deny teachers’ requests to stay at home are offering other options. Baskin said the school board association is training human resources directors to get creative in thinking about accommodations that could help teachers with health risks safely work from school buildings. That might mean offering a more remote office away from students and teachers or extra safety equipment.

Six years after finishing multiple rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer, Pasadena ISD high school English teacher Elizabeth Alanis asked if she could work from home. Her white blood cell count, which determines the health of her immune system, still yo-yos every several months.

To her horror, after a conversation with school leaders, she received a letter denying her request to stay home long term. The district instead offered to minimize her direct contact with students, provide her with plexiglass dividers and protective equipment, set up student desk shields or move her classroom to an external portable building so she didn’t have to pass many people in the halls.

“Your job duties and responsibilities require your physical presence on campus as of September 8, 2020,” they wrote in a letter Alanis provided to The Texas Tribune. “Consequently, the District does not believe allowing you to telework after the short-term program has ended and after students have returned to campus, is a reasonable accommodation based on your job duties and responsibilities as a classroom teacher.”

According to the district, she is one of 59 teachers who have formally requested to work from home through the federal disability accommodations process, of about 3,700 teachers total. None of them were allowed to work from home past Sept. 8, when students returned to campus. “Pasadena ISD must provide students attending in-person instruction with a safe, supervised school/campus environment, and that effort is supported by all of our staff being physically present,” said Arturo Del Barrio, spokesperson for Pasadena ISD. The percentage of students on campus is gradually increasing, from about 40% in September to almost half by mid-October.

Alanis used her personal leave days to remain at home until mid-October, but decided to return Tuesday, unable to afford unpaid leave for months. “I’ve spoken to my oncologist on this matter and he knows it’s a tough place to be in. My white blood cell count is still low, so that just means I’ll have to take extra precautions,” she said. “I am going to invest in a medical grade mask and I am going to also invest in an air purifier with a UV light.”

Sitting out of classes for even part of a semester is heartbreaking for Alanis, who has been a teacher for 16 years, most of them in Pasadena ISD. “There’s not much they can take from me at this point. They’ve already kind of taken who I am,” she said, her voice over the phone showing she was close to tears. “I’ve had such huge ties to my students, to my community. And oh my God, I love those kids.”


Texas schools tell teachers with medical risks they must return to classrooms during the pandemic” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/20/texas-schools-teachers-coronavirus-pandemic/.

 

Texas adjusts incorrect data on COVID-19 in schools

The state has adjusted numbers on the dashboard managed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Department of State Health Services (DSHS) that tracks COVID-19 cases in public schools.

The adjustment was made after the state posted a spreadsheet containing district level COVID-19 case counts that did not add up to the same number of cases the dashboard was reporting statewide. This is not the first time the state has struggled when it comes to accurately reporting COVID-19 case data.

A message appearing on the dashboard over the weekend explained that “issues resulting from the integration of the school COVID case report data set with the school enrollment data set were identified in the school district data file,” and that both agencies were working to post the correct district level numbers on Monday. These numbers should allow Texans to see how many COVID-19 cases each district is reporting.

According to the website, 275 student cases and 203 staff cases were not previously counted. With those cases included, the new statewide total indicates 3,750 students and 3,053 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of August. Of those, the state reported 1,212 new student cases and 660 new staff cases added during the week ending September 20. ATPE reported on the dashboard stats in our Week in Review post last week with the previously reported numbers. You can see the dashboard with the updated case counts here.

U.S. Department of Education hosts webinar on school reopening

The U.S. Department of Education hosted a virtual panel presentation today, Sept. 23, on successful strategies to reopen schools this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The live webinar opened with a statement from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who reiterated her support for school choice by saying that parents need options more than ever during this time. DeVos also maintained her position that every school should offer an in-person option for parents who want that for their children.

Next, a panel of invited witnesses shared best practices in how they have re-opened their schools during the pandemic. Panelists included the following:

  • Sue Blakeley, founder and administrator of Lake Mead Christian Academy in Nevada, a private school
  • Shane Robbins, superintendent of Kershaw County School District in South Carolina
  • Jeremiah Newell, superintendent of MAEF Public Charter Schools in Alabama
  • Nisha Gupta, administrator and teacher at Homestead Montessori School in New York, a private school
  • Glen East, superintendent of Gulfport Schools in Mississippi
  • Frank Brogan, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Newell shared that his charter school, a specialty charter for students age 16 and older who have dropped out or fallen behind, is offering parents the option on selecting in-person learning, synchronous/asynchronous virtual instruction, or night schooling for students who need to work to support their families. He also stressed that sitting in front of a computer is not an effective form of learning for students.

Blakeley’s private school created a task force to bolster communication between stakeholders in her school community and consulted with an infectious disease expert regularly. Her school also staggered reopening and conducted “rehearsals” by gradually opening the school’s day care and early childhood facilities.

East said his public school district opened at 30% capacity and has since increased capacity to 100%. The district also hired additional instructional support staff so that there are two adults in each classroom, in order to support students.

Gupta’s private school simplified classrooms by removing furniture and marking the floor with dots. The number of personalized materials was increased, too, including some materials that the school 3-D printed and laser-cut on their own. Spaces were organized to isolate cohorts, along with scheduling changes, and experiential learning was moved outdoors. Teachers moved classroom furniture outdoors and a local Native American leader donated additional outdoor space so that students could learn in weather-proof teepees.

Robbins said his public school district was already an e-learning district and that the transition was a little bit easier because of this fact. The district created a task force that formed subcommittees made up of healthcare professionals, parents, and teachers. Robbins said responding to the pandemic has created an expensive situation, especially with the new learning environments and need to ensure health and safety. His district has partnered with local businesses to provide internet access to students and has created a COVID-19 dashboard to show the number of cases in their schools.

Several of the panelists said they created videos in order to best communicate with their families.

A few things come to light in analyzing these comments from school leaders across our nation.

  1. The pandemic is costly to school systems and has created new costs that should continue to be reimbursed by the federal government.
  2. Teachers are rarely included in the considerations and conversations engaged in by school leaders. In this panel at least, leaders did not express a balance of concern for their educators or share best practices on how to engage educators.

ATPE has continuously advocated for the involvement of educators throughout the pandemic. For resources and support for educators, please visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources. To share your opinions on back-to-school health and safety, ATPE members can visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central to fill out a quick two-question survey open until Sept. 27, and also use the communication tools there to share input with their elected officials.

Teachers, superintendents, and commissioner speak at Tribune Festival

The Texas Tribune is holding its annual Texas Tribune Festival this month. Rather than an in-person event jam-packed with speakers over a few days, this year’s festival is taking place virtually throughout the entire month of September. The event still features a prominent strand of panels and interviews related to education. A session held this morning, “Public Education in the Time of COVID,” featured two teachers, two superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. Here’s what the panelists had to say.

No more high-fives or cozy reading corners. Texas public school teachers Paige Stanford (Waco ISD) and Ale Checka (Forth Worth ISD) are optimistic about the school year and simultaneously saddened by the lack of physical interaction they anticipate having with their students. Both teachers highlighted how the pandemic has changed their community, from inspiring more empathy to creating traumatic situations. In Stanford’s school district, she said, “the streets went empty,” when Waco ISD principal Phillip Perry passed away from COVID-19, but Stanford added that students are now excited to help others by wiping down their desks after class. A shift in attitudes has impacted teachers, too. Checka said she, “will never forget or forgive the way that state leadership has tried everything possible for us to not be able to follow local public health guidelines.”

Superintendents Dr. LaTonya Goffney (Aldine ISD) and Dr. Michael Hinojosa (Dallas ISD) were each in different stages of reopening their districts for instruction, but both expressed that assessment will be key in determining how to support students and fill in learning gaps from the spring. Since Aldine ISD has already started instruction, Goffney was able to confirm that enrollment in the district has declined by about 3,500 students (out of 67,200), with more than 50% of the decline occurring in pre-Kindergarten. This comment trends with other anecdotes gathered by ATPE, which suggest parents are choosing to keep their children out of optional grades such as pre-K and Kindergarten. Goffney said her district is trying to identify students who are not showing up to school, but many students are impacted by policy changes outside of the school’s purview, such as the rental assistance program in the Houston area.

Both superintendents on today’s panel said their districts spent millions of unanticipated dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies, sanitizer, plexiglass, face shields, masks, misters, food, and devices to keep students safe and learning. Aldine ISD spent $10 million while Dallas ISD spent $31 million. Many of these costs will be reimbursed at 75% through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, while others will be handled through the state’s Operation Connectivity program. In the long-term, Hinojosa said he is concerned about being able to maintain many of the programs his district offers.

It would have been nice for Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to respond directly to some of the comments made by the teachers and superintendents, as would have been possible in a regular in-person panel. However, the answers he provided to moderator and Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby did shed some light on important policy topics, such as accountability.

It is no secret that Morath loves data, as it undergirds all of his discussions. Much like they did in the spring, Texas school districts will use existing data reporting systems to track where students are receiving instruction. The commissioner said we are about two or three weeks away from being able to look at this data, but Morath noted that it seems the majority of students are in remote instructional settings. This is despite the fact that the “overwhelming majority” of districts, according to Morath, are offering in-person instruction.

With regard to standardized testing and accountability, Morath expressed his view that most people want more data during a pandemic, not less. The commissioner said assessing expectations of students is still important for ensuring they are meeting milestones for success later in life. Morath believes the STAAR tests are an accurate gauge for mastery, which then provide educators with information on who needs extra support so that we can help students reach their potential. These comments reflect the commissioner’s views of assessment as a diagnostic tool, which Morath spoke about during an SBOE meeting earlier this year.

The commissioner stressed that the state tests use data on student growth over the course of the year and that parents still deserve to know that information about their school. ATPE and many others have questioned whether any growth measures will be accurate this year, given the loss of learning in the spring during COVID-19 school closures, rapid transitions to remote learning, and the loss of contact with 11% of students. Nevertheless, Morath didn’t indicate any easing up on district and campus accountability ratings using the test scores, saying the data will help to identify best practices of those who do well during the pandemic. Unscientifically identifying some things that work during one year of an exceptional time might satisfy the curiosity of some, but at what expense to schools and districts that experience negative accountability interventions and sanctions due to a pandemic?

Morath closed out his remarks by expressing satisfaction with the amount of money that had been allocated to districts to mitigate COVID-19 costs and pay for closing the digital divide. He also expressed hope that public health data expected to be posted toward the end of September will help the state identify if there is viral spread in schools.

The Texas Tribune Festival continues through Sept. 30, and it includes numerous free events that are available to stream right now. As usual, the festival features specially priced educator and student tickets, which provide full access at a fraction of the cost. Nearly all of the festival events, including this morning’s education panel, are available for replay on demand for ticket holders who may have missed previous events.

COVID case reporting in schools and more updates from TEA

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released official correspondence today detailing COVID-19 case reporting in schools.

As we reported here on Teach the Vote last week, TEA is coordinating with the Department of Health State Services (DSHS) to collect and disseminate weekly case information on test-confirmed COVID-19 infections in students, teachers, and staff who participate in on-campus activities. School districts will be expected to report data on confirmed cases beginning with the first day of instruction and will begin their weekly submissions September 8. DSHS will report weekly positive case numbers at the district level starting at the end of September.

Districts will be required to provide information such as what campus reported the infection and whether it was a student, teacher, or staff member. Districts must also report what action was taken in response to the infection. In addition to COVID cases, TEA is asking districts to report enrollment data for the first and fourth weeks of school. This data is meant to give TEA an idea how many students are on campus in order to provide context to the case reporting.

TEA also updated several other resources on their COVID-19 webpage this week, including minor changes to COVID-19 public health orders. the term “lab-confirmed” was revised to “test-confirmed” to acknowledge the increased use of on-sight rapid testing, which does not always require a test to be sent off to a lab in order to get a result. The agency also updated resources for special education and special populations, including resources for highly mobile and at-risk students, English learners, and G/T students. Texas Home Learning resources were also updated.

Also of note, the deadline for school districts to apply for Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) is quickly approaching (September 30). The CRF, established through the CARES Act and administered by the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM), provides up to 75% reimbursement for allowable expenses from March 1 through March 20, 2020. TDEM has advised that in order to complete the application process by September 30, districts will likely need to have completed the first step of registering an account by September 7.

As always, the ATPE Coronavirus FAQ and Resources are frequently updated and available for public use. Recent updates include an interactive timeline of COVID-19 developments and webcasts with ATPE’s legal services team.

BREAKING: Schools receive updated TEA guidance on closures, reflecting new advice from attorney general

Earlier today, Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton issued a press release sharing a letter he penned to Stephenville Mayor Doug Svien about local authorities’ power (or lack thereof) to restrict schools from reopening for on-campus instruction. Though non-binding, Paxton’s letter cautions that local health authorities cannot issue closure orders or other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that would conflict with either state law or Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders already in effect. Paxton then argues that orders recently issued by some local health authorities conflict with both.

The AG’s letter notes that a handful of cities and counties — mostly located in urban areas more acutely affected by rising numbers of COVID-19 infections — have recently issued orders to restrict area schools from opening their doors prior to a particular date. Paxton counters with advice that such “blanket quarantine orders” issued as a prophylactic measure are prohibited. Only actual infection on the campus, according to the AG’s reasoning, would warrant the issuance of a local order to close the school to on-campus instruction. “To the extent a local health authority seeks to employ section 81.085 to order closure of a school, the authority would need to demonstrate reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease,” writes Paxton in the letter.

On the heels of the AG’s letter, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document that was issued July 17, 2020, with a newer version today, along with an “Attendance and Enrollment FAQ” document that is similarly revised.

In the latest guidance, TEA explains that because of the AG’s interpretation, “a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction.” This differs from prior TEA guidance which assured schools they would continue to receive funding if they were forced to close by a local order. Now those closure orders would have to meet the additional hurdles outlined by AG Paxton, including a vague requirement of being based on “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.” Notwithstanding the AG’s letter, TEA also clarifies in the newest documents out today that schools may still be funded while operating remotely if they are doing so under other permissible conditions, such as during the allowed four-week transition period that was announced in the earlier TEA guidance.

Many Texas public schools have already announced plans to operate virtually for the first few weeks of their school year while preparing for a return to on-campus instruction. School districts may also request a one-time extension of the state-sanctioned four-week transition period if voted upon by their board of trustees. It is believed that most of the existing local health orders restricting a return to campus would overlap with the four-to-eight-week transition period already authorized by TEA, making it unlikely that a school district would have to risk a loss of funding because of a delay in returning to campus at the beginning of the school year. Once the transition period expires, however, school districts may find themselves in a precarious position if their local health officials’ recommendations conflict with state orders in effect at the time. TEA also points out that school districts have their power to set their own calendars, which some may find a need to revise.

TEA’s new resources shared today also include a “Guidebook for Public Health Operations,” which includes protocols schools may use in responding to an lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 and recommendations for collaborating with local health officials to discuss and conduct planning exercises ahead of the new school year:

“School systems, local health departments and local health authorities should make contact prior to the start of school and conduct a tabletop exercise (detailed at the end of this document) to determine how they will work together. …  As part of the exercise, these parties will determine how to best work together in the instance of a positive case.”

While ATPE is pleased to see the suggestions for collaborative planning to respond to the COVID-19 infections within a local school community that are likely to occur in the near future, it would have been more helpful for schools to have received this guidance from the state earlier in the summer rather than within days or weeks of starting the new school year. The new TEA guidebook also adds a somewhat perfunctory statement that local “planning efforts should also engage parents and teachers,” which ATPE has urged for months now in our recommendations to local and state officials.

We are aware that many school district leaders are grappling with a maze of differing and even contradictory orders and advice on how to begin the new school year. This is especially true for districts located within the boundaries of multiple city or county jurisdictions that may not agree on how to respond to the pandemic. As noted in a statement issued today, ATPE urges the state to provide clearer direction and leadership to help schools decipher these orders and guidelines.

“ATPE recognizes that COVID-19 has created fluid situations that demand frequent updates and revisions to plans. However, with multiple directives and guidance being issued by different branches and levels of government, it is no surprise that school leaders and educators are frustrated. The state should do everything in its power to protect the lives of Texans and support a safe and productive learning environment, not create needless confusion.”

As additional developments occur and guidance from government officials continues to change, ATPE encourages educators to visit our COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for answers to frequently asked questions, which we will continue to update.

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 reacts to preview of TEA’s health guidance for next school year

ATPE issued a statement this afternoon on a draft document that was widely circulated today regarding state officials’ plans for the next school year. The draft of the “SY 20-21 Public Health Guidance” document from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) includes recommendations for school districts as they plan to prevent and respond to COVID-19 in their communities.

The proposed guidance includes certain notice requirements for school districts, including posting a  summary of the district’s plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 before the start of school. It would also require schools to instruct students on the first day of school about hygiene practices to reduce the spread. Most of the recommendations in the draft document, however, are merely suggestions and not mandates. For example, the draft advises that having students, staff, or visitors wear masks on campus and placing student desks six feet apart are things a district should “consider.”

As noted by the Texas Tribune today, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told school superintendents this afternoon that his agency was not yet ready to issue final health and safety guidance today. Educators, school district leaders, and parents have been anxiously awaiting additional direction from TEA after the governor and commissioner made comments last week about plans for students and staff to return to school.

Saying last Thursday, “It will be safe,” regarding schools’ resuming in-person instruction this fall, Commissioner Morath promised additional guidance early this week on the plans for instruction during the 2020-21 school year, as well as “flexibility” for families with health concerns. The draft document circulated today includes assurances that parents will have options for virtual instruction of their children if they choose not to attend classes on campus. The draft does not include any similar guidance on flexibility for staff with health concerns related to COVID-19, instead stating, “Employees of school systems, like employees of any organization, must continue to meet the work expectations set by their employers, subject to any applicable employment contract terms.”

A recent increase in reported cases of COVID-19 infection is one of the reasons state officials are said to be revising the guidance and not ready to release it today. The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in Texas hit a new record high on this Tuesday, adding to the difficulty of decision-makers at the local and state level to implement appropriate precautions. As we await additional information from TEA or the governor that we will promptly share here on Teach the Vote, below is a copy of ATPE’s June 23 public statement about the TEA draft guidance:


ATPE Statement on Texas Education Agency’s Public Health Guidelines
State’s largest educator association: TEA’s draft guidance shows need for more work to provide the support schools need

Earlier today, ATPE reviewed a draft of what Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and TEA are calling the “Strong Start” plan—a framework for school districts to follow as they implement COVID-19 safety protocols to bring students and faculty back to school. The draft comes after the governor’s announcement last week that students and teachers would be back in classrooms this fall.

While the Commissioner has pledged to release the final guidance in the coming days, it’s clear from this draft that much is being left up to individual school districts to determine what works best for their local communities, with few state-level requirements beyond notice to parents and students of a district-adopted plan and protocol following a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19.

Considering this, ATPE strongly urges the state to require stronger actions to ensure the safety of school employees and Texas students. ATPE also asks school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendations of medical experts regarding the impact of the pandemic in their area as they implement their back-to-school safety protocols. 

ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes

“Nothing in this guidance so far offers additional peace of mind for teachers, school district leaders, or parents,” said Shannon Holmes, ATPE Executive Director.  “Elected school boards and superintendents now face a difficult balancing act between preventing COVID-19 outbreaks and ensuring children are in the most productive learning environment possible—a physical classroom with an in-person teacher. They deserve to have support and actionable guidance from the state of Texas.”

According to a just-concluded survey of ATPE’s 2020 membership, more than 65% of ATPE members said their students were less engaged in learning when required to attend school virtually. This fact must be balanced with health and safety concerns, which are top-of-mind to a large portion of Texas educators, according to another recent ATPE survey, this one open to all Texas educators.

The COVID-19 Educator Impact Survey, which focused on educators’ top concerns related to returning to campus during the pandemic, showed that more than 65% of the educators surveyed named the health and safety of students as a top concern. Sixty percent of respondents listed their personal health and safety, and more than 45% reported concern about student learning gaps and learning loss.

ATPE is committed to ensuring the success of Texas educators and public schools, especially during these uncertain times. In early March, ATPE launched a COVID-19 resource and FAQ page at www.atpe.org/coronavirus. The webpage, one of the first COVID-19 resource webpages directed specifically toward Texas educators, lists government resources, breaking news, self-care resources and tips, and a comprehensive FAQ with fact-checked answers to common questions on everything from district requirements, health and employment, and working with students.

In addition, ATPE staff have been engaged in daily communications with ATPE members, elected officials, agency staff, school district leaders, and other stakeholder groups to find solutions to the many challenges created by COVID-19. As an association representing approximately 100,000 educators across Texas, ATPE welcomes any opportunity to share input from our research with TEA as officials finalize their guidance.

“Given the current trends related to COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, it is impossible to predict the public health situation in August 2020,” said Holmes. “What we at ATPE can guarantee is that we will be with our members each step of the way, helping individual members navigate concerns related to policy decisions in their districts and championing the tremendous contributions of educators as essential workers in this crisis.”


From The Texas Tribune: “Between 0 and 100%”: Texas schools weigh the odds of students returning this fall

It’s way too early to know how COVID-19 cases will trend over the next few months, but school leaders are trying to draw up preliminary plans for bringing students back to classrooms.

A student walks down the hallway at Cactus Elementary School. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“Between 0 and 100%”: Texas schools weigh the odds of students returning this fall” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas schools might start bringing students back to classrooms on staggered schedules in the fall. Or they might have some students show up at school while others continue their coursework online.

Or they might stay completely virtual until 2021.

While it’s much too early to pin down all the permutations of how and where COVID-19 might remain a health risk come August, Texas superintendents are starting to game out how public education will look in the fall.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott closed all schools in late March, school districts have cobbled together combinations of online learning and old-school written worksheets handed out to students without reliable internet. The evolving, makeshift system has raised concerns about students without computers being left out and overwhelmed parents struggling with their new roles as home school teachers.

Some superintendents worry that students will fall ever further behind the longer school buildings are closed. And they know they must improve remote teaching in case the return date ends up being even further off than projected.

They’re watching the number of cases rise and fall in their regions as the state slowly begins allowing some businesses to reopen and some public health experts warn against sudden moves. They’re stocking up on Chromebooks and hard-to-find Wi-Fi hotspots.

And they’re cautiously rolling out information to staff and parents as they weigh the health risks of bringing kids back too early.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has been holding biweekly phone calls with superintendents across the state to discuss plans, but no official decisions have been made.

“The bigger question is: How can you plan to be nimble so that if the situation changes quickly, you can adjust to the change either way, either toward bringing kids into buildings, or perhaps once you bring kids into building, having to put them back into distance learning environments?” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio.

“If you ask me today, what’s the percentage chance we come back in August? I have no idea. Somewhere between 0 and 100%.”

About half the students in the 100,000-student school district are economically disadvantaged, and 12% are receiving special education services. Woods and his staff are considering bringing back those students least likely to be served virtually in the fall while keeping the other half in distance learning as a way to reduce exposure.

But that method of splitting students up is less possible for districts like small Hearne ISD, outside of College Station, where 96% of students are economically disadvantaged, meaning pretty much all are hurting while school buildings are closed.

Superintendent Adrain Johnson is stocking up on Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to prepare to start virtual schooling more smoothly in August than it began in March. And he’s asking the regional education service center to train teachers to better educate students across a screen.

Most teachers and even some students in Hearne ISD commute into town from elsewhere in the Brazos Valley, making the decision to return to school even more complex.

If the local health authorities permit schools to open their buildings, Johnson is considering spreading individual classes out across multiple classrooms and using technology to broadcast lessons.

“We just don’t know, so it’s hard to plan definitively,” he said.

Even details for graduation and summer school are up in the air for some districts, though the end of the school year is quickly approaching.

Worried about staff and students burning out, Johnson said Hearne ISD is probably going to take June off and return for summer school after July 4 to “hit it hard with any kid that we know needs help, either those kids struggling before this ever happened or the ones that have struggled since.”

Free meal distribution, however, will not be paused, he said.

Sunnyvale ISD, in suburban Dallas, is planning to reopen Aug. 19, but Superintendent Doug Williams knows COVID-19 cases might resurge in the summer. His administrative team is considering staggering students in the morning and afternoon, or even on different days of the week, so that all students can get direct contact with their teachers.

“I don’t know if you can continue in an online format and have the same rigor, the same depth of instruction that we believe is necessary,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/04/texas-schools-reopening-coronavirus/.