Texas election roundup: Early voting begins Monday, June 29

Early voting begins Monday, June 29, 2020, for the July 14 primary runoff elections across the state of Texas, as well as for a special election to fill an open Texas Senate seat in Central Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the runoff elections three months ago from their original May 26 election date over concerns about the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. Infections today are even higher than they were back then, which highlights the importance of making a plan to vote safely.

As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, the Texas Secretary of State last month released a list of “minimum recommended health protocols” for voting, which instructs voters to consider maintaining six feet of separation, self-screen, bring their own stylus or pencil with eraser, bring hand sanitizer, and wear a mask when they head to the polls. For those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, voters are encouraged to consider utilizing curbside voting if they meet the eligibility requirements. Curbside voting is typically reserved for voters with disabilities who are not physically able to enter polling locations without assistance or who may be likely to injure their health by doing so.

Texas polling places must offer curbside voting for certain individuals who are unable to enter a polling location due to a disability. The Secretary of State’s website explains, “If a voter is physically unable to enter the polling place, he or she may ask that an election officer bring a ballot to the entrance of the polling place or to a car at parked at the curbside. After the voter marks the ballot, they will give it to the election officer, who will put it in the ballot box. Or, at the voter’s request, a companion may hand the voter a ballot and deposit it for him or her.” The Secretary of State’s office suggests checking your county’s voting website and calling ahead to the polling location before voting curbside. You can read more about curbside voting in this post by Disability Rights Texas.

The Secretary of State’s office offered additional info on curbside voting and voting by mail in a webinar hosted earlier this month by the Texas League of Women Voters. State officials emphasized that if a voter has voted by mail in the past and their qualifying circumstances have not changed, they can still vote by mail.

With the possibility of a greater number of voters choosing to vote curbside and fewer election volunteers working at polling places due to the coronavirus pandemic, early voting and allowing ample time to cast your vote is extra important for this runoff. The Texas League of Women Voters recommends voting early during non-peak hours in order to encounter the fewest people possible. The Secretary of State’s office also recently reiterated the importance of voting early and following the health and safety protocols, stating, “It is essential to our democracy that Texans are able to safely and confidently cast their vote.”

Multiple lawsuits have been filed aimed at expanding the ability of Texans to vote by mail, as some voters feel they must make a choice this year between exercising their civic duty by voting and protecting their health and that of their families. The fact remains that voting is the single most powerful way to ensure elected officials prioritize public education, listen to educators, and put children first. The decision of whether to cast your vote is yours alone, and we recognize the courage it takes to participate in democracy at this unprecedented moment in history. We urge you to follow all of the safety precautions to protect yourself while you exercise this most critical constitutional right.

As a reminder, early voting runs June 29 – July 10, 2020. Check out ATPE’s profiles of candidates for the Texas Legislature and State Board of Education here on Teach the Vote.

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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.

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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.”


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From The Texas Tribune: Draft documents show Texas planning few mandatory safety measures when public schools reopen in fall

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
June 23, 2020

Students gather in an auditorium before class. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas education officials are envisioning a largely hands-off approach to helping school districts bring students back to campus this fall, imposing few mandatory safety precautions but recommending staff and students wear masks, hand sanitize regularly and stay six feet away from each other, according to draft documents found on the Texas Education Agency’s website Tuesday.

“Consistently implementing recommendations to the extent feasible is the best way to reduce the potential negative impact of infection on students’ educational experiences,” the draft document reads.

The light-handed oversight role parallels the state’s overall approach to the coronavirus pandemic under Gov. Greg Abbott, with local officials, parents and students expected to devise their own strategies for protecting their health.

Abbott told state lawmakers last week that schools would open for in-person instruction in the fall, but gave few details. State education officials are expected to detail their approach for the upcoming academic year in a briefing with superintendents Tuesday afternoon.

Separate draft attendance guidelines found on the TEA’s website Tuesday said school districts will be required to offer on-campus instruction for students who want to return to schools, but the state will also count students taking virtual classes in the attendance figures use to determine state funding. Districts can choose to provide live virtual instruction or instruction that is not delivered in real time, including prerecorded video lessons or paper assignments.

State funding is typically based on classroom attendance, and many districts feared they might see dramatic drops in state money with parents saying they will not feel comfortable sending their children to school in person, especially as cases continue to rise in Texas.

Many of the public health guidelines in the TEA’s draft document are suggestions and not mandates for how school districts can keep communities safe during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the draft, Texas will require school districts to publicly post a summary of their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19, based on the guidance, though the plans are not subject to government approval. And school districts are required to separate students who show COVID-19 symptoms at school until they can be picked up by a guardian, and clean the areas used by anyone potentially infected.

Reopening schools is a large part of Abbott’s plan to jumpstart the economy, as Texans returning to their workplaces seek safe places to leave their children. But since Abbott first allowed businesses to reopen, the number of new cases and Texans hospitalized have reached record heights.

Abbott has urged Texans to wear masks and stay socially distanced, but has declined to issue a statewide requirement or shut businesses down again. He told lawmakers last week that masks and testing would not be required in schools in the fall.

According to the draft guidance, school districts should require staff and students to “self-screen” for COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their own temperatures, before coming to school each day. And school leaders should ask students at the beginning of each week whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone who tested positive.

“Regularly performing a forehead temperature check of otherwise asymptomatic students in school is not recommended, but the practice is also not prohibited by this guidance,” the draft document states.

Some school districts, especially larger ones in urban and suburban Texas, have already decided to offer “hybrid” programs, teaching some students in person and some remotely.

The draft document said Texas would continue to fund school districts serving students remotely. School districts providing live virtual instruction to students must track how many students are engaged each day, and will not receive funding for students who do not participate remotely.

According to the draft document, those that choose to offer remote instruction through worksheets and prerecorded videos must first get state approval of their instructional plans. They must track students’ daily progress through their interactions with their teachers or completion of assignments. Districts can also choose to offer a combination of both types of remote instruction, to meet more students’ needs.

This year, school districts scrambled to get computers and hotspots out to the students who needed it most and lost track of thousands of students, including the most vulnerable. Texas required districts to sign a form saying they were providing remote instruction in order to continue receiving funding — much less stringent than the plan in the draft guidance.

Reference

Draft public health guidelines from the Texas Education Agency.

Reference

Draft attendance and enrollment guidelines from the Texas Education Agency.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/23/texas-planning-few-mandatory-safety-measures-when-schools-reopen-draft/.

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Governor acknowledges COVID-19 surge, but no new mandates

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged that cases of COVID-19 are surging in Texas, but did not issue any new executive orders or require any additional action be taken to decrease the spread. The governor and his top healthcare advisors held an afternoon press conference Monday at the Texas Capitol, all donning masks while not speaking.

The governor repeatedly encouraged Texans to wear masks, which have been proven to slow the spread of the deadly disease. While acknowledging that some people view wearing a mask as infringing on their personal freedom, Abbott at the same time stressed that wearing masks is crucial to fully reopening businesses and to preventing deaths. Yet the governor again stopped short of making masks mandatory, instead suggesting individual communities could determine whether to require masks based on local needs. Gov. Abbott said today that because of the differentiation in the impact of COVID-19 from county to county, there must be “a level of flexibility.” The governor only recently allowed cities and counties to issue their own orders about the requirements for wearing masks in certain public places, marking a reversal from his previous warnings not to restrict individuals’ choices not to wear a mask.

Gov. Abbott did not announce any additional restrictions on businesses or social gatherings Monday, only cautioning that future action may need to be taken if Texans do not behave responsibly by continuing to wear masks, wash their hands, practice social distancing, and stay home if they’re sick. Regarding the upcoming elections, early voting for which starts next week, the governor suggested voters adhere to the same safety guidelines.

During today’s press conference, Gov. Abbott did not address plans to reopen schools in August with in-person instruction, on which the governor spoke and we wrote last week. The Dallas Morning News published an editorial Monday calling on schools to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and clear safety guidelines to keep students and teachers safe. Both the governor and the commissioner of education have said that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will provide additional information about the return to school and related guidelines this week, most likely tomorrow. ATPE has been updating our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for educators as we receive additional information from state officials, and we’ll continue to post updates here about any new developments.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 19, 2020

Today is Juneteenth, the day that notice of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves finally reached Texas (two and a half years later). Celebrations like Juneteenth help educate future generation about our shared past and are a perfect way to continue conversations and action about the current issues facing our nation. For what happened in education this week, read the update below from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Yesterday, Gov. Greg Abbott made a surprise announcement during a call to lawmakers that he intends for Texas schools to reopen for in-person classes in the fall, with flexibility offered for those who have health concerns. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) confirmed the plan in a brief statement, promising that more information will be forthcoming next week.

As reported by the Texas Tribune, TEA has said that the state will not require districts to mandate that students wear masks or be tested for COVID-19 symptoms. However, TEA has also said that the state plans to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to districts. Overall, the ambiguity in both the governor’s and TEA’s messaging and the delay in providing additional guidance to school districts have spurred confusion and anxiety among educators, who fear for the health and safety of students in addition to their own personal safety, as shown by a recent ATPE survey.

In response to the state officials’ remarks yesterday, ATPE released a statement that highlights our commitment to fighting for safe learning environments and our members’ respect for local control, allowing decision-making by locally elected school boards with the input of their local educators and community. We know that school districts around the state are working to make informed decisions about when and how to start the new school year, including deciding on necessary safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even without state-level orders on wearing masks, for example, some districts have already indicated that they will require their students and staff to wear masks when school resumes. Other safety measures being implemented by some districts include temperature checks, limiting classroom occupancy, staggering the days that students and staff are on the campus, and providing for distance learning options. To make these difficult decisions at the local level, school districts need additional support and comprehensive guidance from the state, and ATPE is urging TEA to provide this information as soon as possible.

In the meantime, ATPE has updated our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page to address new questions about the developments this week. We will provide updated information as soon as TEA shares additional guidance to school districts next week.


Here’s more on the recent ATPE survey of educators about COVID-19. More than 4,200 educators and other school employees answered our poll on how COVID-19 has impacted education. No surprises here, educators responding to the survey cited student health and safety as their top concern, even more so than their own health and safety. Read this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a full rundown.


The U.S. Department of Education has shared information about Texas’ plans for using federal COVID-19 relief funds for education. The newly posted certification and agreement documents are part of the state’s applications for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds included in the CARES Act.

According to the application, the K-12 portion of the $29.2 million in Texas GEER funds will be used as follows:

  • to support remote learning for all students, including ensuring connectivity (Operation Connectivity);
  • to create a comprehensive set of online instructional materials, which we presume will be hosted on the existing TexasHomeLearning.com website operated by the Texas Education Agency (TEA); and
  • to provide a virtual dyslexia intervention service.

Of the $1.28 billion in ESSER funds going to Texas, TEA plans to reserve 9.5%, the maximum amount allowed under the law, to use for discretionary projects, which are mostly focused on supporting remote and online learning. The agency plans to implement the following:

  • an online summer bridge program to assist graduating seniors;
  • a support and monitoring program for districts that are adapting to remote learning settings;
  • a “turnkey” remote instructional support and content delivery service (likely what TexasHomeLearning.com will become);
  • a program in which select districts redesign their models for online learning;
  • mental and behavioral supports; and
  • a remote dyslexia instruction platform.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its coronavirus-related web resources this week. TEA’s closure support and guidance page includes updates on allotments for personal protective equipment. The general support page features new FAQs for school boards and charter schools. The Texas Home Learning resources have been updated on the instructional continuity page, which also includes new information about changing school start dates. New federal funding and CARES Act reimbursement information is on the waivers, finance, and grants page. Lastly, the agency has posted new information on its assessment page related to the optional extended online testing windows for the 2020-21 school year.

Check out ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for the latest information on COVID-19 issues facing educators.

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ATPE responds to plans for in-person instruction this fall

The Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) responded Thursday to news that Gov. Greg Abbott plans for Texas schools to resume in-person instruction when the 2020-21 school year begins this fall. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) confirmed the plans and is expected to provide more detail next Tuesday. The news comes as a new ATPE poll shows health and safety for students and staff are the top concerns of educators when it comes to the upcoming school year.

According to the Texas Tribune, Gov. Abbott informed state legislators on a conference call Thursday morning, June 18, of the plans for in-person instruction this fall, even as hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Texas hit record highs for a week straight. TEA confirmed the plans for in-person instruction with a brief statement from the commissioner claiming that “it will be safe” to return to campus this fall and that “flexibility” will be provided to those with health concerns.

In response to the news, ATPE released a press statement today, noting the association’s support for keeping school environments safe and empowering school districts to make decisions about the return to school that reflect the leadership of their elected school boards and local community input. The association also hopes local officials will consider the impact of the pandemic in their area and the recommendations of medical experts in crafting their return-to-school plans, but additional guidance from the state will be necessary.

State officials have indicated that they will not require school districts to mandate that students wear masks or be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, but districts are likely to adopt their own protocols that may vary locally. TEA has allocated funding to districts for personal protective equipment (PPE), posting a spreadsheet to show the allocation planned for each district.

In ATPE’s recent survey of more than 4,200 Texas educators about their views on returning to campus during the pandemic, more than 63% of respondents named the health and safety of students as their 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. Read more about ATPE’s survey here. Following the news of the governor’s intentions today, numerous ATPE members reached out to us sharing similar concerns about health and safety.

The commissioner is expected to offer more details on the agency’s guidance for districts on reopening and school funding on Tuesday. ATPE is also awaiting more detail on allowances for students and staff who may not be able to return to school in person due to health considerations and associated funding concerns. As additional guidance is released by the state, ATPE will report on any new developments here on Teach the Vote and will continue to update our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for educators.

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From The Texas Tribune: Texas students will return to school campuses this fall, Gov. Greg Abbott tells lawmakers

Cactus Elementary School in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas students will be returning to public schools in person this fall, Gov. Greg Abbott told state lawmakers Thursday morning.

The state’s top education officials confirmed the plans in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

“It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall. But there will also be flexibility for families with health concerns so that their children can be educated remotely, if the parent so chooses,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

When students return, school districts will not be required to mandate students wear masks or test them for COVID-19 symptoms, said Frank Ward, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency.

The TEA is expected to release additional guidance for school districts next Tuesday. Abbott has long said his intention is for students to return in-person this fall, saying this week that there will “definitely be higher safety standards in place than when they opened last year.”

“I will tell you that my goal is to see students back in classrooms in seats interacting personally with teachers as well as other students,” he told KLBK TV in Lubbock on Monday. “This is a very important environmental setting for both the students, for the teachers and for the parents.”

Abbott has pressed forward with reopening businesses and other public spaces for weeks, even as the number of new cases and people hospitalized with the virus has continued to rise. Democrats and officials in some of the state’s biggest cities have raised alarm about the pace, saying it’s putting people’s health at risk.

“Abbott’s failed leadership has cost lives and has led to Texas becoming one of the most dangerous states to live in during this pandemic,” said Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman in a statement Thursday.

According to state lawmakers on the 11 a.m. call, school districts will be able to also offer instructional alternatives for students. The decision comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise statewide, and local officials begin to put firmer restrictions in place to tamp down the spread in their cities and counties.

National surveys have shown many parents do not feel safe sending their students back to the classrooms, with one poll showing two-thirds in support of keeping schools closed until the pandemic’s health risk has passed.

School districts’ surveys of parents are showing that many students will stay home, even when the classrooms are open. That could pose a financial risk to districts, which receive state funding based on student attendance. Already, many districts are planning for hybrid programs, with some students learning virtually and some learning in person, allowing them to keep class sizes small.

This year, Texas used federal stimulus dollars to fund school districts through this year’s mandated school closures, as long as they offered some type of remote education. But state officials have not yet said whether they will continue to fund them for students who do not show up in person in the fall.

With budget deadlines approaching at the end of the month, some districts are making tentative plans without clear state guidance. Fort Bend Independent School District announced earlier this week that its elementary and middle school students will return to their classrooms with adjusted schedules in the fall.

District officials are working to develop a plan for older students that combines virtual classes and classroom instruction. Online instruction will be an option for any student who doesn’t feel safe returning to the classroom in mid-August.

Cassandra Pollock and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/18/texas-schools-reopening-fall/.

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Educators cite health and safety as their top concern in ATPE survey

Educators say health and safety issues are their biggest concerns heading into the next school year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to results of a statewide poll of more than 4,200 educators recently conducted by ATPE.

Just over 72% of the respondents identified themselves as current classroom teachers. The rest included administrators, counselors, librarians, diagnosticians, support staff, and other school employees.

More than 63% of those surveyed said they were concerned over the health and safety of students heading into the 2020-21 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Just over 60% said they were concerned about their own health and safety. Roughly 45% voiced concern over student learning gaps and learning loss, and 35% listed increased workloads and demands on their time.

“Ever since campuses closed, Texas educators have expressed to ATPE and each other their concern for students’ welfare, both in terms of their health and safety and educational opportunity,” ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said in a press release accompanying the poll results. “Public education is headed into uncharted waters as schools deal with the complexities related to student and educator safety as well as the rising challenges that come with educating a diverse student population with varying needs.”

Policymakers are wrestling with how to address the unique challenges placed on the public education system by the deadly coronavirus pandemic at a time when the economic recession has severely curtailed the amount of revenue that will be available to schools. It’s more important than ever for educators’ voices to be a part of that conversation.

As state legislators and the staff at the Texas Education Agency are weighing questions about how to allocate state and federal funding, local school districts are facing tough decisions about how best to deliver education services in the upcoming school year in a way that minimizes the spread of COVID-19. The results of the ATPE poll indicate educators’ top concern by far revolves around an educational environment that protects the health of students, faculty, and staff.

“There are no easy solutions here, but ATPE stands behind our state’s educators as they tackle these challenges head-on,” Holmes said. “It is imperative that we listen closely to their needs, concerns, an experiences as we head into the new school year, however it may look.”

Read more about the poll in this blog post on atpe.org.

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 12, 2020

You have until Monday, June 15, to register to vote in the July 14 primary runoff election (and a special election if you happen to live in Texas Senate District 14). While you are making your voting plan for the July election, check out this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Phase three to reopen Texas is well underway, with restaurants allowed to expand capacity to 75% starting today. By next Friday, amusement parks and carnivals in counties with more than 1,000 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 may open at 50% capacity. Gov. Greg Abbott spoke with CBS Austin this week and noted that, with cases on the rise, his contingency plan should there be a resurgence will be to first roll back non-essential surgeries and other medical procedures.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated quite a few coronavirus-related web resources this week. TEA’s closure support and guidance page includes updates on personal protective equipment and other safety guidance for summer school, graduation, and UIL. Information on residential programs has been updated on the special education page. TEA also provided an updated COVID-19 waivers document.

Changes were also announced this week that will impact educator certification candidates who are beginning internship requirements but have not taken their test and candidates who are required to complete otherwise face-to-face educator preparation program (EPP) requirements in the 2020-21 school year. Specifically, eligible candidates who are beginning internships will be able to obtain an intern certificate upon recommendation of their EPP, without having to meet testing requirements first. (Fingerprinting requirements remain in place.) This is similar to a previous waiver that allowed certification candidates who had completed all EPP requirements except their test to obtain a probationary certificate. Candidates who would otherwise be expected to complete face-to-face requirements such as clinical teaching will be able to meet these in a virtual setting. Read more here and find more information below about similar developments at the State Board for Educator Certification this week.

As always, ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page is being frequently updated with the latest information on COVID-19 issues for educators.


ELECTION UPDATE: It’s almost election time again! 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 Monday, June 15, 2020. For more on registration and why this election is important, check out this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Make sure you’re registered and learn what’s on your ballot here. View candidate profiles, including their ATPE survey responses and voting records, on Teach the Vote here. If you feel you meet the eligibility criteria to vote by mail, your application for 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 the Texas Educators Vote coalition here. Early voting begins June 29!


FEDERAL UPDATE: Facing the unprecedented threat of the deadly novel coronavirus, Congress entered the spring of 2020 with what has become an extremely rare sense of bipartisan purpose, passing four large legislative packages to provide funding for hospitals and health care workers fighting the virus, as well as for businesses and individuals affected by the closures and stay-at-home orders implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The federal CARES Act provided $30 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, including $13.5 billion for elementary and secondary education formula funding to be provided directly to states.

David Pore

ATPE has been tirelessly lobbying Congress to enact laws and policies that protect your ability to effectively educate students and retire with financial security. That includes fighting to repeal the arbitrary Social Security offsets that unfairly reduce the retirement benefits of educators. Read more about how ATPE is advocating for you in Washington, D.C. in this update from ATPE’s federal lobbyist, David Pore, as published in the ATPE News Summer 2020 edition.

 


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held a special meeting this week to consider a new rule that will allow more flexibility for educator certification candidates undergoing face-to-face requirements such as internships, field experiences, clinical experiences, practicums, and observations. The changes will be limited to the 2020-21 school year and will allow for at least partial completion of these requirements in a virtual setting. Read more about yesterday’s SBEC meeting and the proposed rule language in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


A recent study by researchers at Princeton and Tufts Universities finds that “teachers are people too,” when it comes to racial biases. In the peer-reviewed study published in the prestigious journal Educational Researcher in April 2020, the authors found that teachers, while surely well-intentioned, are no different in their levels of implicit and explicit biases from non-teachers of the same race, level of education, age, gender, and political affiliation. This finding highlights the need for training and supports to help teachers work toward recognizing and combating biases that may negatively impact students. The study authors also point out that due to the progress we must make with respect to teacher racial bias, schools are not likely to be the great societal equalizers that so many conclude they are. Read more about the study here.

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