Texas election roundup: The long delay

Election politics is pretty much in a holding pattern across most of Texas as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Gov. Greg Abbott announced late Friday that the primary runoff elections for state and federal offices originally scheduled for May 26 will be postponed until July 14. This is the same date as the special runoff election for Senate District (SD) 14 to replace state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who announced his retirement from the Texas Legislature earlier this year.

Speaking of the SD 14 race, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced this week she will push back her resignation in order to focus on the coronavirus response. Eckhardt had announced plans to resign her office, as she is legally required to do, in order to run for the SD 14 seat. Eckhardt is permitted to serve in her current office until a successor is sworn in, which in this case will be former Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) has also filed to run for the SD 14 seat.

Earlier this month, Gov. Abbott gave local political subdivisions (i.e. city councils, county governments, local school boards, etc.) the ability to postpone their elections to November 3 from their original May 2 uniform election date. According to TXElects.com, only a handful have formally delayed their local elections as of yet. While Georgetown and Fort Bend ISD are among those that have gone ahead and moved their elections, Waco and Waco ISD are considering sticking with the May 2 elections as scheduled. This has apparently created somewhat of a standoff in McLennan County, where the county elections administrator reportedly warned the city and school districts that the county would refuse to conduct the elections in May regardless of their decision.

The delays, coupled with local stay-at-home orders, have radically altered the campaign landscape in Texas. Many campaigns are suspending fundraising operations and focusing on community services. Most have put aside in-person campaigning in order to focus their resources online in order to reach people stuck in their homes. But while activity has ground down, it has certainly not stopped.

As candidates and officeholders continue to try shape their messaging in light of the current health crisis, they may be wise to consider the results of a national poll by Ragnar Research. First reported by the Quorum Report, the poll shows that 88% of Americans view the coronavirus outbreak as either “very serious” or “somewhat serious.” When sorted by political parties, 53% of Republicans said the coronavirus outbreak is “very serious,” compared to 83% of Democrats and 70% of independents. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control calls the coronavirus outbreak a “serious public health risk.”

Other political pollsters are also continuing to survey the American public more broadly during this time of national crisis. According to an Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday, 34% believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 54% believe it is on the wrong track. At the same time, 48% of respondents approve of the president’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while 46% disapprove. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of recent polls puts President Trump at -2.5% approval, or 47% approve to 49.5% disapprove.

It’s also easy to forget there is still a presidential primary underway to choose the Democrat who will face Donald Trump in the November election. Bernie Sanders won this month’s primary in Utah, while 12 other states and Puerto Rico have postponed their presidential primaries. Connecticut, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Delaware have moved their primary elections to June 2. With Joe Biden building an insurmountable delegate lead in the primary contest, the political forecasters at FiveThirtyEight.com have placed Biden at 98% odds to win the nomination. A Monmouth poll released Tuesday has Biden leading Trump by 3% if the election were held now.

 

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

It has been a strange week of social distancing, press conferences, rising coronavirus cases, and adjusting to new schedules and work environments. Feel free to get as close to your device as you’d like while reading the latest in education news updates from the ATPE Governmental Relations team, including a lighthearted reminder about the importance of teachers.


Gov. Abbott issues order to close all Texas schools, March 19, 2020.

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Last Friday, Gov. Abbott declared a state of public disaster due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday, the governor issued an executive order to close all Texas schools through April 3, 2020, including all Texas public and private K-12 and higher education institutions. The order, which is effective at midnight tonight, also requires the closure of gyms, dine-in restaurants, and bars, restricts nursing home visits, and limits gatherings to fewer than 10 people. In a virtual town hall yesterday evening featuring Gov. Abbott and several other state officials, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath indicated that school closures beyond April 3 will be determined in the coming weeks as the coronavirus crisis evolves.

The executive order follows a decision by the governor earlier this week to cancel STAAR assessments for this year. Many other states have taken the same action and have implored the the Department of Education to cancel federal assessment-related accountability requirements for this year. In a press release today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated that federal testing requirements will be waived, following a “proper request” from states. Read more about the announcement in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath speaks at town hall, March 19, 2020.

The closure of Texas schools and cancellation of STAAR tests have prompted frequent communication from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In his segment during the governor’s town hall last night, Commissioner Morath reiterated the information related to the STAAR tests and school meals provided on TEA’s coronavirus resource page. Namely, without the STAAR and end-of-course (EOC) exams, school districts will use local measures to determine promotion and graduation decisions. Additionally, the state has just launched a new “meal finder” tool to help parents find the locations of meals as provided by school districts.

For educators and school district leaders looking for guidance on continuing to provide instruction despite the closure of schools, TEA today issued a set of new tools, including planning checklists and resources to help ensure students have Internet access at home. Other recent guidance from TEA has reminded school officials that continued funding during closure is dependent on students receiving instructional support even when they are unable to physically attend school.

As reported earlier this week on the Teach the Vote blog, in Washington, D.C. President Trump signed the second coronavirus bill, named the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Included in the bill is flexibility to allow schools that have closed due to COVID-19 to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. In Texas and across the nation, school leaders and educators await further changes that may be included in a third coronavirus bill, with a proposal introduced today by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The bill is expected to contain a three-month suspension on federal student loan payments and interest, as well as a provision that grants Secretary DeVos authority to waive any part of federal education law for one year (except certain civil rights laws).

For more on state and federal initiatives this week regarding the coronavirus, see this blog post by the ATPE lobby team. Visit ATPE’s frequently-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for expert answers and resources during this unique time. Also, watch for updates from the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and via our Twitter account as more regulatory developments occur.


ELECTION UPDATE: This week, Gov. Abbott announced local political subdivisions — such as city councils, county courts, and school boards — are permitted to postpone their May 2 local elections until November 3, 2020. The May 2 municipal elections are separate from the primary runoff elections, which at this point are still set to be held on May 26, 2020. Amid pressure to postpone the runoffs or expand options for early voting and the use of mail-in ballots, Gov. Abbott stated during his March 19 town hall that party leaders have been discussing options and that the state would be announcing more about the runoffs very soon, potentially as early as today.

In the meantime, with county and senatorial district party conventions originally scheduled to take place this weekend, the state Democratic and Republican parties have offered suggestions to their voters on how to keep up with the latest announcements about schedule changes. The Texas Democratic Party is asking voters not to attend county conventions and instead fill out an online form indicating interest in attending the state convention and presidential voting preferences.

The Texas Republican Party shared an update for its voters following last night’s town hall meeting and noted that county party leaders were making individual decisions about cancellation or postponement of their conventions this weekend. According to the message, Republican voters can email convention@texasgop.org or text the word “CONVENTION” to 72000 to receive contact information for their county and notices about conventions.

Read more about what’s going on regarding Texas elections in yesterday’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. 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.


As of this week, over 11 million people living in America filled out the 2020 Census. Census counts determine many important streams of funding, such as for roads, emergency services, and public education. Your response to the census is as crucial as helping to spread the word to others. For census FAQs and information on how coronavirus is impacting this very important data collection, check out this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


To slow the spread of COVID-19, schools all over the country are experiencing extended closures while many employers have instituted work-from-home policies. As schools try to continue instruction and learning for students from afar, parents and guardians are finding themselves thrown into a new and not-so-easy profession: teaching. Discovering how difficult it is to teach just a few kids (let alone a class of 22+), some parents have taken to social media to affirm that teaching is the work of heroes and that teachers should be paid more. For a little levity this afternoon, check out some of the best tweets we’ve seen lately, including one from award-winning popular tv producer Shonda Rimes:


 

 


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Feds announce availability of student testing waivers

The U.S. Department of Education today signaled its willingness to waive federal testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year for students who are impacted by school closures due to the coronavirus outbreak. According to its March 20 press release, the Education Department will waive the requirements for any state that submits a “proper request.” Texas already announced it was waiving state requirements for STAAR testing for the 2019-20 school year and seeking a federal waiver, and today’s announcement by the federal government supports this decision.

According to additional TEA guidance released this week, STAAR assessments in grades 3 through 8 planned or April, May, and June 2020 are cancelled. Student Success Initiative (SSI) requirements for promotion or retention are also waived for the current school year. Districts will be given discretion in deciding whether to promote students to the next grade, with consideration given to teacher recommendations, student grades, and other academic information.

STAAR End-of-Course (EOC) assessments are also waived for the 2019-20 school year. Districts will be allowed to utilize the individual graduation committee (IGC) process to determine graduation eligibility for all five STAAR EOC courses. On Thursday, the agency issued FAQ related to assessments, which you can find here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

At the federal level, additional relief is on the way for college and university students and those paying off student loans. The Education Department under direction from Secretary Betsy DeVos has suspended interest on all federally held student loans for the next 60 days. Additionally, students will be able to place their loans into forbearance for at least two months. According to the press release: “Secretary DeVos has directed all federal student loan servicers to grant an administrative forbearance to any borrower with a federally held loan who requests one. The forbearance will be in effect for a period of at least 60 days, beginning on March 13, 2020. To request this forbearance, borrowers should contact their loan servicer online or by phone. The Secretary has also authorized an automatic suspension of payments for any borrower more than 31 days delinquent as of March 13, 2020, or who becomes more than 31 days delinquent, essentially giving borrowers a safety net during the national emergency.”

Bloomberg News is also reporting that under federal stimulus legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Senate in response to the outbreak, students could defer student loan payments up to six months. The proposal would also protect existing federal student aid benefits for students who have to withdraw from classes due to the outbreak. As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, ATPE is closely watching the legislative proposals being considered by Congress and will report on any significant developments of interest to educators.

For additional resources for educators dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, visit ATPE’s FAQ and Resources page here.

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Texas election roundup: Municipal elections may be postponed

The coronavirus outbreak is affecting everything in Texas, including upcoming municipal elections. These elections for important local positions were originally scheduled for May 2, 2020, but Gov. Greg Abbott this week recommended local political subdivisions postpone their elections until the November 3 general election. The recommendation comes after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidelines recommending social distancing and avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people.

The Office of the Texas Secretary of State issued a memo this week explaining the process. The May 2 elections are only for local ballot measures and races, such as for city council, school board, or county offices. According to the secretary of state, if a municipality opts to postpone its election to the fall, local elected officials currently in office there would continue to exercise their official duties until after the November uniform election date. The postponement does not reopen candidate filing, so new candidates can’t suddenly enter these races. This also means that candidates on the ballot for May 2 who have filed for a separate race on the November ballot could be on the ballot twice. If a candidate were to win both positions, they would be required to resign one and trigger a new election to fill the vacated position.

It’s important to note that the May 2 municipal elections are completely different from the primary runoff elections scheduled for May 26, 2020. The May 26 runoff elections are to select Democratic and Republican nominees for state and federal offices — such as the Texas Legislature and U.S. Congress — who will face off in the November 3 general election. As of writing this post, the May 26 runoff elections have not been postponed.

The governor set a July 14 date for a special election to fill the open seat of retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) in Texas Senate District (SD) 14. Candidate filing will run from April 29 to May 13. Currently, state Sen. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt have announced plans to run. A number of local city council members have also expressed interest in the race.

Citing concerns over the ability of Texans to be able to participate in a meaningful election during the coronavirus oubreak, the Texas Democratic Party has called for both the May 2 and May 26 elections to be conducted entirely by mail. The League of Women Voters of Texas has asked the governor to promote mail-in ballots already allowed for those over the age of 65, as well as early voting to reduce crowds.

The outbreak will also impact the scheduling of local and statewide party conventions. The Republican Party of Texas announced plans to postpone to July 13 its state convention originally scheduled for mid-May. Party leaders at the local level are also being encouraged to postpone county and senatorial district conventions. The Texas Democratic Party is considering holding its June convention online.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on any additional changes that are made to election plans here in Texas. For general information about the new coronvirus, visit ATPE’s resource page at https://www.atpe.org/en/coronavirus.

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State and federal officials respond to virus with new closures, contemplate aid for schools

Regulatory developments stemming from the growing concerns about the new coronavirus pandemic gripping the nation have been occurring swiftly these last two weeks. Numerous school districts announced decisions to extend spring breaks and/or close their doors temporarily, leaving school leaders and educators scrambling to find ways to continue providing instruction during the closures. Many municipalities, including Austin, have ordered certain businesses to close and limited the size of permitted gatherings.

Statewide closure orders

In a press conference today in Arlington, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a new executive order calling for statewide closure of schools, gyms, bars, and restaurants through April 3. The governor has faced some recent criticism at home and nationally for leaving closure orders up to the discretion of local officials prior to now. The statewide closure order, which takes effect at midnight tomorrow, also restricts gatherings of 10 people or more and limits visitors to nursing homes. The order affecting bars and restaurants will still permit food delivery and takeout. In what may be welcome news for many stressed-out educators and parents of students now stuck at home, Gov. Abbott is also allowing restaurants that already hold liquor licenses to deliver alcoholic beverages along with their food deliveries.

Guidance for Texas schools

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has shared new guidance with school officials about issues related to school closures, including the cancellation of STAAR testing this year. Texas, like many other states, has requested that the U.S. Department of Education waive student testing and accountability requirements that are part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), but a decision has not yet been made. In the meantime, TEA issued correspondence this week providing information to districts on how the cancellation will impact academic operations.

In the absence of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) scores, districts will have discretion in promotion decisions for 5th and 8th grade students. Without the necessary end-of-course (EOC) assessments, graduating seniors will use the Individual Graduation Committee (IGC) process to graduate. For non-graduating students who are in courses with an EOC, they will not have to take the EOC in a future year so long as they earn credit for the course this year. The STAAR Alternate 2 exam is also cancelled. Determinations regarding students receiving special education services will be completed by their admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) committees. The Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) is also impacted by this cancellation and the agency is still undergoing conversations to determine how to proceed to serve these students. See TEA’s Coronavirus Support and Guidance webpage for more information.

Yesterday the governor announced the planned launch this weekend of a new “Texas Students MealFinder Map,” offered in conjunction with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to help parents find available meals for their children during the school closures. Also yesterday, Gov. Abbott gave local officials the authority to postpone their May 2 elections. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins will have more on the election-related order in his election roundup blog post for Teach the Vote later today.

Tonight, Gov. Abbott will be joined by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and other state officials in a virtual town hall that will be aired by television stations and live-streamed starting at 7 p.m. CDT.

Federal initiatives

While there are a multitude of state and local activities that impact Texas public education in response to the coronavirus pandemic, there is also significant legislation being considered and enacted at the federal level.

Last night, President Donald Trump signed into law the second coronavirus-related aid bill passed by Congress, which is dubbed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Among the bill’s several provisions, most of which do not directly impact public education or educators, is a provision giving the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to waive federal provisions regarding the National School Lunch Program. This flexibility should allow schools that have closed due to COVID-19 to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. The first coronavirus bill signed by the president was a supplemental appropriations package that sent $8.3 billion to federal agencies to promote their work in combating the developing crisis in America.

In general, members of Congress and the White House are still looking to appropriate funds to ease the burdens of unexpected costs for needs such as school cleaning, counseling, online/distance learning support, and campus closures. Additionally, funds are being considered to facilitate remote work by employees of the U.S. Department of Education and to ease student loan obligations temporarily. There are also widely publicized discussions ongoing about the potential for sending payments directly to individuals to help them deal with the crisis.

Currently, proposals vary widely on the amount of spending that should go toward schools, with numbers from as little as $100 million to as much as $3 billion being touted in various press releases. In addition to the uncertainty on the amount of funding, it is also too soon to know specifically how funds would flow. What is certain is a general agreement that public education providers and institutions of higher education need assistance and should be a part of the broader conversation on federal relief.

Check back for more information on federal aid as specific proposals gain traction and move toward passage. Also, be sure to visit ATPE’s coronavirus FAQ and resources page for comprehensive information to assist educators in dealing with the pandemic.

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2020 Census: FAQs and coronavirus

Have you completed your 2020 Census questionnaire yet?

As of today, over 11 million people living in the United States completed their census questionnaire. An accurate census count is crucial to funding in Texas that supports infrastructure, public schools, healthcare, and other services. In this post, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier shares answers to commonly asked questions about the census, including the impact of COVID-19 on this census collection.

I haven’t received my invitation in the mail yet. When will I get it?

Invitations are being sent out to 140 million U.S. households from March 12-20. About 5% of the country will be visited in-person by a census enumerator because mail is not delivered to physical addresses in those areas.

Can I take the census if I haven’t received my invitation?

Yes, you can! If you are home due to concerns with COVID-19 and have access to the internet, now is a great time to fill out your census questionnaire, and you don’t have to wait on the mail (or touch the mail).

How do I complete the census? Is it available in non-English languages?

The online portal at my2020census.gov is a secure website that will walk you through the census, even if you haven’t received your invitation in the mail yet. The online questionnaire is translatable into 13 different languages, and the Census Bureau also has guides in 59 non-English languages, including American Sign Language, Braille, and large print. Individuals also have the opportunity to fill out the paper-based census questionnaire, which in areas with limited internet will be mailed with the initial invitation. The Census Bureau will send out reminders during the summer to non-responders that will include a paid-postage envelope and a paper questionnaire. Individuals can also respond by phone.

How do I fill out the race, ethnicity, and origin questions on the census?

An individual’s answers to the race, ethnicity, and origin questions are based on how they self-identify. In the series of race/ethnicity/origin questions, the census will first ask about Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin and notes that these are not considered racial categories. Individuals who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish will be required to also choose a racial category (White, Black or African American, etc.) and write-in an origin. This can be confusing for those who already stated their origin in the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish question. A good rule of thumb is to simply answer as you identify and to not worry about your answers being right or wrong.

Is there a citizenship question?

No, there is not a citizenship question on the census.

Is taking the census safe? Can the information I provide be used against me?

The Census Bureau is prohibited by law from releasing identifying information to any entity, including law enforcement. The online website is secure, but beware of scams. Make sure you are using the website that has the “.gov” address before starting the questionnaire.

How will COVID-19 impact the census collection?

The Census Bureau is actively monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and modifying its protocols as necessary. Currently, they are working on changes to cover some of the harder-to-count populations, since these often require in-person visits. Additionally, in-person visits to non-responders have been pushed later into April. According to news released today, field operations for the census have been suspended until April 1. As the situation develops, the Bureau will continue to make changes as necessary to protect the health of census workers and of the general public. The Bureau is urging everyone to take the census online, by mail, or by phone as early as possible.

For more information and a full list of FAQs about the census, please visit 2020census.gov. Also, don’t forget to check out texascounts.org for specific information regarding the census in Texas, as well as tool kits and other helpful resources.

Please also visit ATPE’s coronavirus FAQ and resource page for more information about COVID-19 and its impact on educators and education.

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From The Texas Tribune: Texas’ coronavirus strategy is a patchwork of different local rules

While other states fighting coronavirus enforce widespread closures, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott goes with a patchwork system

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has employed a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the new coronavirus however they see fit. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, states across the country are increasingly taking a more heavy-handed approach to contain the new strain of coronavirus — shuttering schools, bars and restaurants and deploying state militaries.

Nearly 30 states have mandated temporary school closures, for example, with some orders applying even to private institutions. In Texas, though, only half of school districts have ordered students to stay home after spring break.

That’s because Gov. Greg Abbott has clung so far to a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the virus however they see fit. The result has been a patchwork of local policies that differ from county to county, with leaders setting various limits on public gatherings and other putting in place other regulations meant to encourage “social distancing.”

Over the weekend, Abbott said he was confident that cities will make the best decisions for their communities. And he appeared to double down on that approach Monday at a news conference in San Antonio, where he praised Mayor Ron Nirenberg for opening the state’s first drive-through testing facility and choosing to go well beyond almost every other Texas city in banning public gatherings of more than 50 people, following recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those are smart strategies that will prove effective,” he said.

To be sure, Abbott has taken notable steps to combat the spread of the virus. Last week, he declared a state of disaster — as every state has — and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees. He restricted visitation to high-risk facilities including nursing homes, hospitals, day cares and jails. Amid panic buying, he waived regulations on the trucking industry to streamline the flow of goods to depleted grocery stores. And on Monday, amid bipartisan pressure from state lawmakers, he waived standardized testing requirements for public schools, saying it would be impossible to administer the STAAR tests as planned given the closure of more than 560 districts and charter schools beyond spring break.

Overall, though, Abbott’s cumulative actions stop short of those taken in many other states, including neighboring Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana, whose governors shuttered schools across the board, mobilized their militaries and implemented travel restrictions.

According to the National Governors Association, about 20 state leaders have activated their national guards and limited travel of state employees or citizens, and about 17 have passed legislation to divert state funds to the response effort. (Abbott promised Monday that federal money is on the way.) More than a dozen have also ordered restaurants and bars to close to in-house patrons — a policy various cities and counties, including Houston and Dallas, enacted Monday.

Local decision-making

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of the new coronavirus, said Sunday that “Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

On Sunday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents and lawmakers that decisions on extended school closures would be left up to locals.

That means that policies may differ even among neighboring school districts.

Public-health experts said such a patchwork approach can be confusing and make it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of containment policies. They also said governors have sufficient authority to ensure such consistency during emergencies.

It “makes people feel that they don’t really know what’s going on and that the people who are in charge don’t really know what’s going on,” said Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

Leaders should be consistent not only in policy, said Bassett, who was New York City health commissioner during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, but also in messaging, “otherwise people aren’t confident that they’re being given good advice.”

She noted that President Donald Trump has largely deferred to governors on COVID-19 response strategy.

Because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention health care, it’s an authority that largely resides with the states, and some have more decentralized approaches than others, said Claire Standley, a researcher with the Center for Global Health Science and Security and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University.

That can be a good thing, particularly when the federal government’s response is inadequate, Standley said, noting that New York was able to expedite COVID-19 testing before federal guidelines were finalized.

But having many different response policies across a state might make it difficult to manage the crisis, too.

“I honestly think it’s more about coordination between central level and peripheral level and having that trust in place,” she said. “If people don’t trust their authorities, they’re not going to comply with regulations, which is largely what we’ve been seeing so far with a few exceptions.”

Elected officials respond

Abbott has also been in frequent contact with members of the Texas Legislature and other local officials since the spread of the virus reached a fever pitch last week. The governor’s office has organized a number of conference calls already in an attempt to get state lawmakers and local players on the same page as new information becomes available.

Many Republicans and some local officials have lauded Abbott’s decentralized strategy so far, thanking his office for his leadership approach, giving local governments the flexibility to operate as they see fit on most matters.

“I have not been one who has been bashful about criticizing Abbott in the past,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who has previously criticized Abbott for micromanaging county spending. “But I think he’s doing a fantastic job and giving us the flexibility to do what’s right for our areas. I don’t see any politics in this deal; I see [Abbott] really trying to tackle a difficult issue and recognizing the importance of the fact that this is a huge state.”

Meanwhile, a number of Democrats have offered muted praise for Abbott’s crisis management, though some have suggested the governor could be doing more to offer guidance for local governments.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat from Driftwood, said she thinks clearer guidance at the state and federal levels would better position local governments to respond to the virus.

“I’ve observed confusion from my local decision makers,” Zweiner told The Texas Tribune. “I see my city councils, my city administrators, my county commissioners desperate for answers on what the right thing to do is, and they’re not getting answers; they’re getting general advice.”

Another House Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, told the Tribune that the best thing leaders can do is “give to the people of Texas consistency, uniformity and predictability, because that’s not coming from any other direction.”

“To the extent we can give people some normalcy … and whoever has the most authority to do that as swiftly as possible, should do it,” Moody said. “They should do it with an understanding that no one expects them to be perfect right now, but that we expect them to act quickly so that we remain ahead of the virus.”

But Republicans said Abbott has handled the situation appropriately — and that he has rightly shifted certain responsibilities to local governments.

“In terms of a crisis, we don’t need somebody to act like a dictator and push all of that information down to people,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. “We need those empowered local officials to make the detailed decisions, and the governor has empowered local officials to make those judgments.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/17/experts-say-texas-patchwork-strategy-coronavirus-problem/.

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Coronavirus and Texas education: Policy implications as of March 16

Here’s a rundown of the latest information we have so far regarding how the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is impacting the public education system in Texas. Governor Abbott announced Monday morning that the state is waiving STAAR testing for the 2019-2020 school year and is requesting a federal testing waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

The governor repeated this announcement in a Monday afternoon press conference on the latest state actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19. According to the governor, 57 Texans across 15 counties have confirmed cases of COVID-19. Little more than 200 people have been tested, and the state is waiting on the results of 300 more individuals. More than half of school districts are closed (a listing can be found here).

The announcement regarding STAAR testing came following calls to cancel the test from elected officials and stakeholders all over Texas over the past week. Many warned that lost instruction time, the unknowns introduced by distance learning required by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), questions over online testing, and the stress on students caused by coronavirus concerns would render any results unreliable for statistical and accountability-related purposes. You can read more on that in this breaking news post from earlier today.

According to reporting by the Texas Tribune, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told leaders over the weekend that schools could be closed through the end of the school year. Morath reportedly indicated those decisions would be left to local superintendents. Superintendents will also be allowed to administer the STAAR for their own purposes if they choose to do so, although it will not be required by the state. Specific guidance regarding students who would otherwise be required to take the STAAR in order to graduate or advance is expected later this week.

The College Board announced it is cancelling SAT tests scheduled for May 2, as well as makeup exams for the March 14 administration that were scheduled for March 28. The College Board stated it will work to provide additional testing opportunities as soon as feasible.

The TEA released an initial guidance and FAQ last week in which the agency announced schools seeking state aid and waivers due to the coronavirus would be required to provide some form of distance learning to students who remain home, regardless of whether those students are at home by choice or due to school closures.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released an updated nationwide guidance this weekend that recommends canceling or postponing gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. The guidance makes exceptions for schools, institutes of higher learning, and businesses. In a news conference Monday afternoon, the White House suggested limiting gatherings to ten people.

ATPE has compiled and is frequently updating a list of general information regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus, which we encourage you to check out here. We’ll continue to use Teach the Vote for updates to how Texas government and state agencies are handling the outbreak with respect to public education.

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BREAKING: STAAR testing waived for 2019-20 school year

Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Monday that Texas is waiving STAAR testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Both the agency and the governor’s office shared the announcement via social media this morning:

TEA responded with the following statement:

State officials are also asking the U.S. Department of Education to waive federal testing requirements. Along with the announcement, the governor emphasized the agency’s efforts to help schools continue to deliver instruction to students who are at home because of coronavirus concerns or school closures, including students with special needs. Ensuring that students have access to meals has also been a top priority.

Late last week, as ATPE lobbyists shared on Twitter, we saw a growing, bipartisan push for cancelling the required state testing this year. Numerous elected officials, school superintendents, educators, parents, and non-profit associations from all parts of the state were asking state officials to suspend STAAR testing for the current school year.

It is very important to acknowledge that there are many unanswerable questions at this time about the decision to cancel STAAR tests this year, as well as questions about how long schools may be closed. Many aspect of the Texas public education system and numerous programs are tied to the tests. It is simply too early to know how this change will affect other programs, such as graduation requirements for students, school accountability ratings, and educator compensation plans that involve student test performance. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath is communicating daily with school district officials, and ATPE is monitoring these communications. We will continue share information and recommendations for educators as we learn more about the state’s response to this rapidly evolving crisis. We urge educators to keep in mind that the foremost concern and top priority is and should be the health and safety of students, public school employees, and our communities; all other considerations are secondary at this point.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on political and regulatory developments, and be sure to monitor ATPE’s coronoavirus FAQ page for the most comprehensive resources and tips on responding to the outbreak.

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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.


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