Category Archives: Virtual schools

TEA shares remote learning guidance for fall 2020

Despite announcements last week that schools wound be able to safely open in the fall, Texas policy makers have been quietly saying for months that as many as 20% (or maybe even more) of Texas’ 5.4 million students may not return to their neighborhood school when it reopens for the 2020-21 school year due to continued concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic. With this in mind, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been working on a funding framework that encompasses distance learning options within existing law, as opposed to simply waiving requirements as the state did out of necessity at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The agency’s Remote Instruction Guidance and accompanying 2020-21 Attendance and Enrollment FAQ released yesterday, June 23, include two remote learning options for school districts, along with funding assurances and methods for gathering attendance. These changes will only be in effect for the 2020-21 school year and are only possible under TEA’s waiver authority.

Several aspects of the provided options are promising, while others are concerning. The agency’s focus on tying student-to-teacher contact to funding will help ensure that students interact with schools and teachers on a daily basis. On the other hand, the agency does not provide guidelines for ensuring student-to-student interaction, which could hinder important social and emotional development. TEA does take a step in the right direction by refraining from simply expanding full-time virtual programs, as some legislators have recommended, under the Texas Virtual School Network, which has not proven to be an effective learning model for students in the past.

There remain some gaps in TEA’s guidance with regard to funding and resources. As many have said throughout this pandemic, districts are being asked to build a plane while flying it, and without any new resources to boot. TEA’s proposed “hold harmless” approach to calculating Average Daily Attendance (ADA) for the first 12 weeks of the new school year will help districts that experience a significant enrollment drop, but many believe this accommodation should be extended to cover the entire fall semester or the full year. School attendance may not stabilize until well after a vaccine has been widely distributed, which Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers Tuesday could be at the end of 2020 or early in 2021.

Here is a summary of the remote learning options outlined by TEA in its most recent guidance:

Synchronous Instruction

In the remote synchronous learning model, students “sit” in virtual classes with their teachers and teachers take attendance much like they would in the physical school setting. This method generates funding based on a minimum number of daily minutes, which do not have to be consecutive. A defining feature is that PK-2 students are not eligible for funding through this model, as many agree that this type of real-time virtual classroom environment is not developmentally appropriate for young students who may have difficulty sitting in front of a computer screen for long periods of time. In order to offer this remote synchronous instruction method, districts must submit an attestation, complete a checklist of preparation items, and post the attestation on their website.

Asynchronous Instruction

In the asynchronous model, students will be expected to complete instruction and school work  independently, with intermittent teacher interaction. According to TEA, even the youngest grades can participate in this self-paced method, and attendance will be determined based on student “engagement.” Engagement will be specifically defined by each district, but TEA notes that it can be shown through progress in the Learning Management System (LMS), student/teacher interactions in the LMS, or turning in an assignment. Engagement must happen any day a student is marked present, which would then generate full-day funding.

The asynchronous model requires more work on the district’s end than the synchronous model. Districts will have to apply to TEA and submit a plan that details expectations for scheduling, curriculum, student progress, and educator support. For this reason, the agency is providing an attendance grace period or “hold harmless” through the end of the third six-week period while districts go through the approval process.

The Texas Virtual School Network (a not-so-new method)

TEA also reminds districts in its guidance that the Texas Virtual School Network (VSN) is available. Funding for this method is based on course completion, and districts can choose to enroll students in up to three VSN courses. As we have previously reported here on our blog, some state lawmakers have been advocating an expansion of the VSN. However, ATPE supports the limitations in statute that prevent the expansion of virtual schooling, as data have repeatedly shown that student performance in Texas virtual schools falls well below that of students in brick-and-mortar settings.

Funding with “Grace”

TEA will implement an ADA grace period or “hold harmless” provision for the first two six-week periods of the school year so that if a district experiences more than a 1% loss in enrollment compared to the first two six-week periods of the 2019-20 school year, those weeks won’t be counted in the overall ADA calculations that determine funding. As mentioned above, an additional grace period for the third six-week period will be applied for districts adopting the asynchronous model. This grace period does not apply to charter schools opening in 2020-21, as they do not have comparative ADA data from a previous year of operation. Additionally, district ADA numbers will be capped at the attendance rate of the 2018-19 school year, with some exceptions.

Rights to On-Campus Instruction

TEA’s plans reflect Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s desire to make instruction in the 2020-21 school year similar to what instruction looked like before COVID-19, while keeping district offerings subject to parent wishes. In other words, whether parents request remote or on-campus instruction for their child, the district must meet the request. TEA’s guidance confirms limitations on schools converting to a virtual format. The agency’s FAQ document advises that schools will only be allowed to close for up to five days at a time if someone at the school is found to have been infected. The 90/10 attendance rule for students and truancy laws will remain in effect, and the agency does not plan to offer attendance waivers, instead directing districts to alter their calendars to build in flexibility.

ATPE is actively monitoring and analyzing all of TEA’s guidance, including the latest recommendations on remote instruction and urges educators to share their voices with district leaders and campus administrators as plans for remote learning are made locally. Educators can find more information on COVID-19 by visiting ATPE’s frequently-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.

NOTE: TEA has been frequently updating its guidance on the website. We advise educators to check for the latest versions on TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance Page.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 5, 2020

It’s been a difficult week of unrest around the country, falling on the heels of what was already a stressful spring semester for students and educators. As Texas enters phase three of reopening, many districts are contemplating the 2020-21 school calendar and a safe return to school that will meet the needs of staff and students. See our headlines below and read a recap of education developments this week from the ATPE Governmental Relations team. And don’t forget to register to vote by June 15 for the July 14 elections. Your vote is your voice!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced “phase three” of the reopening of Texas. In phase three, all businesses may operate at 50% capacity, with limited exceptions, and restaurants can seat bigger parties and expand their occupancy limits. Large outdoor events, such as Fourth of July celebrations, were made permissible but determinations on such events will be up to local officials. No changes for schools were announced in phase three. Find full details here.

Visit ATPE’s continually-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for the latest information on COVID-19 issues. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its coronavirus-related web resources this week as well, including updates on special education (continuity of learning), academics (Texas College Bridge and graduation), crisis code reporting guidance, reading diagnostics instruments guidance, and funding (CARES Act updates and FEMA guidance regarding a hurricane amid COVID-19).


ELECTION UPDATE: On Thursday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a permanent stay against a lower federal court’s ruling that ballot by mail could be expanded to all Texans. Further appeals are possible. This development follows last week’s Texas Supreme Court ruling that lack of immunity to the coronavirus does not constitute a disability that would make one eligible to vote by mail, but also explaining that it is up to voters to decide whether to claim a disability and local election officials need not verify such claims. Read more in yesterday’s blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.

The deadline to register to vote in the July 14 runoff election (and a Texas Senate District 14 special election happening the same day) is only 10 days from now on Monday, June 15. Make sure you’re registered and learn what’s on your ballot here. View candidate profiles, including their education survey responses and voting records, on Teach the Vote here. If you feel you meet the eligibility criteria to vote by mail, your application to receive a mail-in ballot  must be received by your local election administration (not postmarked) no later than July 2. Find additional information about voter registration from the League of Women Voters here, plus get election reminders and other resources from Texas Educators Vote coalition here,


As parents consider their children’s return to school this fall, they might wonder about virtual schooling options. However, a recent peer-reviewed study showed students who switched from brick-and-mortar schools to virtual charter schools experienced substantial learning loss compared to their traditional public school peers, even controlling for other demographic, teacher, and classroom factors. Perhaps it is virtual class sizes of 100 students or the profit-oriented nature of many virtual schools that leads to less learning. Educators would likely agree it is the lack of face-to-face, authentic interaction and relationship-building, which are essential to teaching and learning. Learn more about the study in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


School calendars and the return to school facilities remain hot topics this week. As we previously reported on Teach the Vote, school districts were allowed to reopen their facilities on June 1 for summer school. Some districts, such as Houston ISD and others, will only offer virtual summer school options as they cite challenges to implementing the health and safety protocols outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and the TEA. Texas Public Radio reported this week that at least two school districts in San Antonio will open for limited summer school programming with both in-person and virtual options. District plans include having students eat lunch at their desks, keeping students six feet apart, taking temperatures daily, and limiting group sizes.

ATPE GR Director Jennifer Mitchell

School districts are also fervently deciding on their 2020-21 school calendars and related budgeting matters. In an opinion piece published June 1 by the Dallas Morning News, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell wrote about the challenges surrounding school calendar decisions in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to health and safety considerations, many other factors need to be taken into consideration. As the Texas Education Agency (TEA) urges schools to consider longer, more flexible calendars, the extra costs of building in additional instructional days cannot be ignored at a time when many are worried about the impact of the pandemic on the next state budget. Calendar changes also impact businesses and working parents, too. “Few parents have the luxury of taking six weeks of additional leave from their jobs if students are sent home from school for extended breaks,” says Mitchell. ATPE has urged TEA to provide comprehensive guidance to help school boards navigate these decisions, and as noted in Mitchell’s op-ed, we also urge the community to support the school districts and educators who are taking on these challenges.

School start dates are a particular concern for many educators now that summer is here. Austin ISD still expects to start the school year August 18, the same date previously approved by its board earlier this year, but several other districts are heeding TEA’s advice to move up the start of the next school year. Alief ISD‘s 2020-21 calendar, posted this week as an example on the TEA website, includes an earlier start date in August, two extra instructional days, and extra week-long flexible breaks in October and February that could be used for instruction if needed. It is important for educators to pay close attention to calendar deliberations in their districts, especially since the school start date directly affects the deadline for educators to resign without penalty.

Educators can find resources and answers to frequently asked questions about returning to school on ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. As calendar decisions are being contemplated, we also encourage educators to take advantage of any opportunities to share their voices at school board meetings or whenever staff or community input is sought by the district.


ATPE joined 20 other organizations writing a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath urging support for prioritizing students’ mental health and social-emotional needs, especially as those needs have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic. As stress and reports of family violence and trauma have increased across the state, the letter calls for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to use available resources to infuse mental and social-emotional health strategies and practices into the state’s education priorities for the benefit of students and school staff alike. The letter was spearheaded by Texans Care for Children, a non-profit focusing on the well-being of Texas families and children.


U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady

With more educators thinking about retiring from the profession in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many are concerned about their Social Security benefits. Spearheaded by our Washington-based lobbyist David Pore, ATPE continues to urge Congress to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) that reduces many educators’ Social Security benefits. One of those leading a bipartisan effort to replace the WEP with a more equitable solution is U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-The Woodlands, Texas), former chairman and now ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means. Texas Retired Teacher Association (TRTA) Executive Director, Tim Lee, sat down with Rep. Brady this week for a Facebook Live conversion about the congressman’s efforts to reform the WEP. As noted by Lee (on the video at 13:15), ATPE has worked with TRTA and Rep. Brady for many years on pursuing WEP relief both for educators already retired and those who will retire in the future.

To learn more about the WEP and how it might affect you, read this Teach the Vote blog post or the Social Security information on the main ATPE website.

Virtual charter school students experienced learning loss, study shows

Virtual schooling is in the spotlight right now, especially with many parents considering how to approach returning to school this fall in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. For this reason, we took note of a recent study published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, which found a significant decline in achievement for Indiana students who switched to a virtual charter school. The virtual setting’s impact on the students’ achievement in math and English language arts (ELA), compared to that of their traditional public school peers, was “uniformly and profoundly negative,” according to the study’s authors.

The Indiana study showed that students in grades 3-8 who switched from a traditional setting to a full-time virtual setting experienced an 11 percentile point loss in ELA and 16 percentile point loss in math on annual assessments when compared to their peers who stayed in the in-person setting, even controlling for factors such as race, sex, poverty, achievement, and teacher and classroom characteristics. Other studies outside of Indiana have found similar results. The study authors conclusion suggests that parents who choose this type of virtual option may be putting their children at a severe disadvantage when it comes to learning.

Why might this learning loss occur in students attending virtual schools? The researchers note that the virtual schools in the Indiana study had an average class size of 100 students, which is about four to five times greater than the acceptable class-size limits fought for by education advocates such as ATPE. Additionally, virtual schools often use for-profit vendors, aiming to capitalize on the need for children to learn, to deliver the school’s educational content. Unfortunately, profit-oriented behaviors never seem to play out well in the public education field because it is difficult to cut corners in an industry that thrives on human relationships. In fact, the integral nature of relationships to teaching and learning has become even more apparent during the pandemic, as both teachers and students have resorted to parades, sidewalk chats, yard signs, driveway lessons, personal mail, and other methods of interacting when virtual classrooms just won’t cut it.

In a recent blog post, the authors of the study wrote that virtual charter schools are “ill-equipped” to expand their presence and enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic. They recommend that policymakers focus on greater accountability and oversight for these schools. ATPE has also long fought for greater accountability and oversight in numerous debates over full-time virtual programs, whether such a program enrolls students through a charter school or a school district.

Here in Texas, after the pandemic began, Republican members of the Senate Education Committee asked the Texas Education Agency to consider expanding virtual school options in Texas, despite the negative data showing virtual schools do not perform as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The Coalition for Public Schools, of which ATPE is a member, responded by sending a letter in early May to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to explain why such an expansion would not benefit Texas families. ATPE will be weighing in as developments unfold with regard to virtual schooling amid the pandemic, such as potential efforts to expand virtual or private schooling options using federal emergency dollars as touted by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Stay tuned to the Teach the Vote blog and Twitter for updates.