Category Archives: safe schools

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/.

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

School closures, election news, the census, how to wash your hands – many important topics are circulating right now. Rest assured, the ATPE Governmental Relations team has your education news update.


The ever-developing impacts of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 have left many educators feeling uncertain. To help you navigate these uncharted waters, ATPE has a new FAQ page to answer your questions, including information about districts’ ability to keep staff at home and how to deal with students who may be infected. As developments occur, check ATPE’s FAQ page frequently and watch for updates here on Teach the Vote and via our Twitter account.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency due to the effects of the novel coronavirus on March 13, 2020.

During a midday news conference today, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency in response to the crisis. As the number of confirmed cases in Texas continues a slow rise, many schools are implementing extended spring breaks, investigating options for online instruction, cleaning facilities, and taking other preventive measures. Some experts recommend proactive school closures to stem the spread of the virus, but recommendations have been mixed and local districts are making their own decisions.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has increasingly been in the spotlight as districts seek guidance on how to respond to the virus. In his Texas Tribune interview last Friday and in his testimony to the House Public Health committee (see 1:40:00) this week, Morath erred on the side of “local control,” leaving it up to districts to coordinate with local health authorities on how best to serve students. The commissioner added that low attendance waiver policies remain in effect and other measures could be taken to address low attendance should Gov. Abbott declares a state of public health disaster, which he did today at the press conference that Commissioner Morath also attended. Some are already urging the state to consider testing waivers, too, with STAAR assessments looming. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has set up a landing page with resources, including the latest guidance for districts that provides specific information regarding district decision-making and communication; funding questions; potential attendance waivers; special populations, and online learning.

Commissioner Mike Morath testifies before the House Public Health committee, March 10, 2020.

In addition to concerns about childcare, missed instruction and testing, and how to pay teachers, one of the biggest questions facing schools is how to feed children who rely on their schools for nutrition. As noted by Gov. Abbott during his press conference today, the state is also seeking federal waivers to help schools continue to provide meals to students who need them, even in the event of an extended closure. According to reporting by the Texas Tribune, some school districts are considering paying hourly employees to pass out food for students at a central location while others are considering options similar to food operations during the summer. Some districts already have begun operating mobile meal delivery stations for students. Another concern in light of anticipated school closures is the number of households that do not have the Internet access that would facilitate online instruction. According to Gov. Abbott, at least one private Internet provider is waiving fees to help its customers obtain access.

Elsewhere, TRS announced they are no longer taking walk-in appointments to their Austin headquarters, and numerous state legislative hearings and state capitol meetings have been postponed in an abundance of caution. In Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump also held a press conference this afternoon to make a national emergency declaration, which provides additional resources for states. Flanked by executives of companies such as Walgreens and Walmart, the administration announced plans to launch a screening website and new testing resources facilitated by the private retailers. Pres. Trump also said there would be a temporary waiver of interest on student loans during the crisis. Congressional leaders are also working to negotiate legislation could potentially provide relief in the form of sick leave, tax cuts, and aid to schools.

ATPE issued a press statement today and will continue to update our online resources as additional information about dealing with COVID-19 becomes available to us.


ELECTION UPDATE: Even if you didn’t vote in the March primary election, you may still be able to vote in a runoff on May 26, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in a primary election runoff is April 27, and early voting will begin May 18. Learn more about who is on the ballot and the rules regarding eligibility to vote in a runoff in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Election news continues to come out this week. Check out updates from the campaign trail here, including some big endorsements and a new Central Texas race shaping up to succeed state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin). With Sen. Watson resigning next month to become dean of the University of Houston’s new Hobby School of Public Affairs, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick this week appointed Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) to fill his seats on the Senate Education and Senate Higher Education committees. These are committee posts Sen. Zaffirini held previously. She has taught at the higher education level and is a former chairperson of the Senate Higher Education committee.

As always, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com for election resources created especially for educators, and use our features here on Teach the Vote to learn more about the candidates.


Money matters graphic from Villanueva’s CPPP report on HB 3

The Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) released a new report this week analyzing House Bill (HB) 3, the major school finance bill passed during the 2019 legislative session. The report written by Chandra Villanueva, CPPP’s Economic Opportunity Program Director, is entitled, “There’s a new school finance law in Texas… now what?” Villanueva’s report lauds the successes of HB 3, such as increased streams of funding for dual language, college and career readiness, and early education, but she argues there are aspects of the bill that could be improved to enhance equity. Villanueva stresses throughout the report that the legislature’s focus on reducing property tax collections and recapture while increasing funding commitments to school districts may hamstring future legislatures from being able to adequately fund schools. By highlighting the lack of new revenue sources to help Texas appropriators fill the gaps, the report reflects the apprehensions many educators feel about the sustainability of HB 3. The report also makes several useful policy recommendations, including full-day pre-K funding and regular adjustment of the basic allotment for inflation (which would trigger regular teacher pay raises).


In late 2019, the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM conducted a State of Teaching Survey of more than 5,000 teachers around the world. The study highlighted several findings that likely resonate with all teachers. First, teachers feel overwhelmed, undervalued, and believe they are not treated as professionals. Teachers work long hours, take work home, pay for supplies out-of-pocket, and don’t feel they have the resources (including administrator support) to adequately address factors such as student behavior. Second, and on the positive side, teachers do feel they have access to curriculum, planning time, and professional learning resources. Lastly, the role of social media is rapidly evolving as teachers increasingly rely on resources such as Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest for curriculum and professional learning. These findings underscore the importance of continuing to advocate for supportive working conditions in schools, adequate pay and benefits, and opportunities for collaboration and creativity among teachers.


Checked your mail lately? By April 1, households across America will receive an invitation to complete the 2020 Census. The census, conducted once every 10 years, counts EVERY person living in the United States. Getting a complete count will help to ensure Texans have fair representation in our state legislature and in Washington, D.C. Plus, census counts determine many important streams of funding, such as for roads, emergency services, and public education! Your response to the census is just as crucial as helping to spread the word to others. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


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

Election day was this week on Tuesday, March 3, and Texas is abuzz with the results. The ATPE Governmental Relations team has the scoop on what happened at the polls and other education news. Also happening this weekend: don’t forget to move your clocks forward one hour on Sunday!



BREAKING NEWS: Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other city officials held a press conference this afternoon to announce the decision to cancel the massive SXSW conference slated to begin next week amid concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus. Conference organizers quickly issued a statement indicating that they are exploring options for rescheduling the event and/or changing some of the programs to an online format. The cancellation also includes SXSW EDU, in which ATPE was slated to participate. We will report additional details about the cancellation as we learn them.

Meanwhile, school officials in Texas have been closely watching developments with the coronavirus. During an interview with the Texas Tribune on Friday, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath repeated that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) continues to monitor the virus. TEA sent a memorandum to school administrators last Friday advising that the agency is monitoring media reports and information shared by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and working with other state agencies to provide guidance to local school districts. The memo included the following list of general practices that will help prevent the spread of the illness:

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • If you’ve not already gotten one, a flu shot is encouraged.

Today, TEA sent updated correspondence to school districts offering guidance on dealing with students and staff who may travel over the spring break. TEA also used today’s letter to urge schools to deep clean and disinfect their facilities over the break.

According to news reports, a school district in San Antonio undertook a major cleaning of one of its elementary schools after learning that an employee of the school also worked in a local mall where an infected person reportedly visited. A spokesperson for Northside ISD told KSAT that the district took the step in order to “get ahead of false information.” In the Houston area, where a 70-year old Fort Bend man was diagnosed with the first local case of coronavirus, Pearland ISD announced this week that it would suspend perfect attendance rules for the remainder of the school year, as well as exam exemption criteria. Fort Bend ISD has not canceled any classes, and Fort Bend County has set up a hotline with information regarding the virus. Read more in this article from the Houston Chronicle.


ELECTION UPDATE: The percentage of voters who turned out during Texas’ primary elections on “Super Tuesday” was slightly lower than in the 2016 primary, with over 4 million casting votes. The number of voters in each party’s primary was split nearly 50-50.

In many races, Tuesday’s primary winner will be unopposed or face weak opposition in the November general election in November. Other races are headed to a runoff, including those of four incumbents in the state legislature. Read more on the results here.

Even if you didn’t vote in this primary election, you may still be able to vote in a runoff to make your voice heard on May 26, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in a primary election runoff is April 27, 2020, and early voting will begin May 18. Visit TexasEducatorsVote.com to view an election countdown, get text reminders, and find additional election-related resources for educators. Also, remember that you can view candidate profiles and responses to ATPE’s candidate survey here on Teach the Vote. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey.


On Wednesday, March 4, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the School Safety and Victims’ Services Research Survey, to be distributed to approximately 500,000 educators across Texas. Read more about the survey in this article from the Texas Tribune. A link to the survey, which is said to take 20 minutes to complete, will be sent directly to educators. The results will provide invaluable educator input regarding school safety and will inform policy at the state level. Be sure to weigh in on this important topic!

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also begun distribution of a voluntary survey aimed at high school counselors. School districts will receive the High School Counselor Survey and forward the link to their high school counselors in order to send information back to the TEA and the American Institutes for Research, “about the resources, activities, and tools that their teams use to assist students.” Read more about the High School Counselor survey from TEA here.


FEDERAL UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Education has announced a delay in changes that would reduce funding for many rural schools. Hundreds of rural schools around the country were facing funding cuts pursuant to a new federal interpretation of eligibility criteria for Rural Low-Income Schools (RLIS) grants. The department announced this week that it would postpone the change for at least another year, following criticism Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos received from members of Congress. Read more in this Teach the Vote blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier reports that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is sharing examples of some new STAAR test questions. House Bill (HB) 3906 passed by the Texas legislature in 2019 eliminated the STAAR writing tests given in grades 4 and 7. However, this change won’t take effect until Sept. 1, 2021, which means the grades 4 and 7 writing assessments will stay the same until the 2021-22 school year. Instead of standalone writing assessments, writing content will be assessed in the reading and language arts STAAR tests, as discussed below.

Sample STAAR revising and editing question, grade 4 (Source: TEA)

TEA will begin field-testing revising and editing questions on the reading/language arts STAAR test as part of the Spring 2020 and Spring 2021 assessments. These items will not impact accountability. To help educators understand what these new test questions will look like, the agency has released sample test questions such as the one pictured here.


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath spoke Friday, March 6, at a live event hosted by the Texas Tribune and sponsored in part by ATPE. In an interview with the Texas Tribune‘s Evan Smith, Commissioner Morath touched on several topics, including the state’s preparedness for dealing with the coronavirus and implementation of House Bill (HB) 3. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes, staff lobbyists, and members of our marketing and communications department attended the event. During an audience Q&A portion of the interview, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter asked the commissioner about teacher preparation and certification in light of state laws that exempt many school districts and charter schools from the requirement to hire certified teachers. The the commissioner responded that he believes teachers should undergo “extraordinarily robust training.” Watch video of the full interview with Commissioner Morath here.


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 20, 2019

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Ellis and Bahorich

Dr. Keven Ellis (R) of Lufkin has been appointed as the new chair of the State Board of Education (SBOE). Dr. Ellis assumes the role after the previous chair, Donna Bahorich (R) of Houston, served the maximum of two terms over the last 4 years. Bahorich presided over last week’s SBOE meetings, which we covered here on our Teach the Vote blog, and she will remain a member of the board. Dr. Ellis has been an elected member of the board since 2016, and he recently represented the SBOE as vice chair of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Read more about Monday’s announcement of the SBOE change of leadership here on Teach the Vote.


ELECTION UPDATE: Tuesday, September 24, will mark the eighth annual National Voter Registration Day (NVRD), a non-partisan effort to increase civic participation. For more information on NVRD and other election news, including announcements about a key senator’s retirement and the race to succeed him, check out this week’s election update from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


This week’s edition of our “New School Year, New Laws” blog series on Teach the Vote covers the topic of special education. Following media reports and a federal investigation that found Texas had for years imposed an arbitrary, de facto cap on enrolling students into special education programs, this year’s legislative session was heavily focused on addressing special education, from increasing funding to enacting laws to raise awareness of students’  and parents’ rights. Read the latest blog post in our series by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier for a breakdown of new legislation that affects special education.


The TRS board met in Austin this week discussing topics ranging from healthcare affordability to retirees’ recently issued 13th check and potential office moves for the agency. Read more about the discussions in this new post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, who attended the TRS meetings this week.


A pair of hearings on the subject of school safety and preventing school violence took place this week in Texas and in Washington, DC, with more meetings scheduled in the near future.

First, in the nation’s capital this week, the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor met Wednesday for a markup of H.R. 4301, the “School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act” filed by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D – Hawaii). The measure calls for an annual report by the U.S. Department of Education on school violence data and would define in federal statute the terms “mass shooting” and “school shooting.” After a heated debate, the committee approved the bill by a party-line vote of 27-22, with some Republicans on the committee, including its ranking member, deriding it as a “publicity stunt.” For members of the Texas congressional delegation serving on the committee, Democrat Joaquin Castro voted for the measure, while Republicans Van Taylor and Ron Wright voted against it.

Here in Texas, the new House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety held its first meeting on Tuesday. During the organizational meeting, committee members heard invited testimony only from state law enforcement officials and mostly focused their conversation around the topic of threat reporting and investigations. A similar select committee established in the Texas Senate will hold its first meeting next week on Sept. 26.


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 6, 2019

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


In the wake of the tragic shootings in El Paso and Odessa, Gov. Greg Abbott has issued executive orders addressing public safety. While most of the orders focus on improving agency-level responses like developing standardized intake questions and guidelines on when to submit Suspicious Activity Reports, executive orders number five and six deal directly with schools. The orders are as follows:

  • Order No. 5 The Department of Public Safety shall work with the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on ways to better inform schools, students, staff, and families about the importance of Suspicious Activity Reports and how to initiate that process.
  • Order No. 6 The Department of Public Safety shall work with local law enforcement, mental-health professionals, school districts, and others to create multidisciplinary threat assessment teams for each of its regions, and when appropriate shall coordinate with federal partners.

Learn more about the executive orders in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


Earlier this week U.S. Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX 17) announced that he would not be seeking re-election in 2020. This season has seen the announcement of a number of departures from Capitol Hill as well as many campaign launches. The special elections to fill the seats vacated by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), and Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) have been set to coincide with voting on the constitutional amendments on Nov. 5th. The deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 5th election is Oct. 7. For more on the races in the upcoming election check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. 


Curriculum and instruction is the subject of this week’s installment of ATPE’s blog series, “New School Year, New Laws.” This blog post examines bills such as House Bill 4310 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) which stipulates that sufficient time be given for students to learn the scope and sequence of TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills); and parts of House Bill 3 that provide funding for gifted and talented programs. For the full list of laws visit this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. 


The latest edition of the Texas Education Agency’s weekly video series, “HB 3 in 30,” covers special education and dyslexia. You can find a link to this week’s video and all previous videos here.


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) has announced a time frame for retirees to receive their 13th ThinkstockPhotos-465016790_moneycheck. According to the TRS.Texas.gov website, retirees will receive their 13th check on or around Sept. 15, 2019. A list of frequently asked questions about the check can be found here. More of Teach the Vote’s coverage of Senate Bill 12 (the bill responsible for the 13th check) can be found in this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter..