Across Texas and the nation, educators are rising to the occasion to provide distance learning for their students. It is no easy feat to keep students engaged from afar, especially with absenteeism on the rise (including a crop of high school seniors with severe senioritis). Hang in there because this won’t last forever! Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.
CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Today, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference to announce several executive orders related to strategically reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing a plan to open businesses, Abbott stated that schools are to remain physically closed through the remainder of the school year, although teachers can still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). Gov. Abbott’s executive orders issued today follow President Trump’s release of guidelines for a state-led, phased reopening of the country. For more detail, read today’s breaking news post on Teach the Vote here.
Gov. Abbott gives a press conference at the Texas State Capitol, April 17, 2020.
In the new Executive Order EO-GA-16 issued today, Gov. Abbott writes, “Public education teachers and staff are encouraged to continue to work remotely from home if possible, but may return to schools to conduct remote video instruction, as well as perform administrative duties, under the strict terms required by the Texas Education Agency.” This afternoon, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) swiftly released new guidance on entering school buildings following today’s press conference.
Gov. Abbott added that he will issuing updated guidance for the state on April 27, 2020.
COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. As we reported last week, educator preparation and certification procedures stand in limbo with certification tests suspended through April 30, 2020. This week TEA posted updated information about certification testing. TEA also announced this week that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Solving this issue for those in other situations will likely require rulemaking by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and potential legislation during the next legislative session. Meanwhile, ATPE awaits a response from the commissioner of education to our request for statewide action in the application of educator appraisals, which are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions, as well as the recent request by a consortium of education groups including ATPE to suspend the expansion of charter schools during this pandemic.
As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, recent congressional action is making emergency funding available to individuals, businesses, and state governments during the pandemic. Read ATPE’s information about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) here and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act here. The CARES Act provided flexibility in the form of waivers of various federal laws, such as student testing and accountability requirements. CARES also provides $3 billion in relief through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. Read more about the new funding available to Texas under this provision in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.
Here are some additional resources to help educators dealing with the pandemic:
- The TEA coronavirus resource page offers a plethora of resources. New guidance added to the site this week includes information on instructional continuity, special populations, accountability, English language learner guidance, waivers and funding, educator and staff issues, remote counseling, and more.
- Also, TEA is assisting in the promotion of a meal finder tool and a home-learning website with resources for parents, educators, and school districts.
- Visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for frequently updated information for educators dealing with the pandemic.
- Follow the ATPE lobbyists and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest legislative and regulatory news related to this crisis.
ELECTION UPDATE: This week, a Texas district judge expanded the eligibility criteria for absentee ballots to include those who risk exposure to the coronavirus if they vote in person. The ruling effectively allows all Texans to vote by mail, but it is expected to be appealed. This is a temporary win for the Texas Democratic Party, which has filed two lawsuits against the state and the governor seeking expanded opportunities for mail-in ballots amid the risks associated with in-person voting during the pandemic.
According to a report in the Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats were concerned by the party-line decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in person in contradiction to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey has voiced opposition to expanding mail-in ballots, suggesting that mail handlers could also risk COVID-19 infection. Gov. Greg Abbott stated in March that “everything’s on the table,” but has been relatively quiet on the subject since then.
SBOE conducted its April meeting by video conference.
This week, the State Board of Education (SBOE) met virtually to consider an abbreviated agenda. The board added a May 2020 meeting to its calendar to take up postponed items, including a discussion of the health and physical education TEKS.
The SBOE gave final formal approval this week to the new African American Ethnic Studies course after lengthy discussion over the past year. Additionally, members of the board’s standing committees discussed concerns about charter school expansion and the health of the Permanent School Fund (PSF) during the pandemic.
ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has reported on this week’s SBOE meetings for our blog: read his Thursday blog post and Friday blog post for more.
The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees also met virtually this week, covering a wide range of topics during its truncated meeting on Friday, April 17, 2020. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the board adopted TRS-ActiveCare rates and benefits, as well as plans to improve ActiveCare in response to information gleaned from outreach to employers and stakeholders. Also of note, the board received a report on the TRS pension trust fund’s remarkable resilience during the current economic downturn.
TRS staff shared steps the agency has taken to protect the health of its employees while remaining open and able to serve members during the COVID-19 Pandemic. On a related note, TRS has hit the pause button on resolving it leasing and sub-leasing plans surrounding the need to house the TRS investment division until markets stabilize. While rents at their current location, which they plan to release after a change of course, may come down, the ability to sublease the space at the Indeed Tower location may be greatly reduced. Additionally, TRS will reevaluate its broader plan to ensure it has adequate space in light of lessons learned throughout this period of forced telecommuting.
For more on today’s hearing, view this Twitter thread by Exter who live-tweeted today’s hearing. You can also review the TRS board meeting materials or watch an archived video of today’s hearing.
As of yesterday, the 2020 U.S. Census national self-response rate was tracking close to 50%. There was a slight bump in responses after Census Day (April 1), and responses have been slowly increasing since then but appear to be leveling off now. Though Texas’ response rate is up to 45.1%, it is still under the national count. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever to push online/phone/mail census completion options.
This week, the Trump administration proposed delaying the date that census counts would be delivered to the states, which would push redistricting decisions in Texas into the 2023 legislative session. The proposed 120-day extension would have to be requested of Congress by the U.S. Census Bureau. While having conversations about the census, it is important to not politicize the intent of the counts, which are meant to ensure a fair and representative democracy, plus funding for public benefits such as schools and roads. Learn more about the 2020 Census, including timeline delays already in place, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and find census FAQs here.
ATPE member James Butler of Austin was featured during the last two weeks in news stories by KUT and KXAN for his daily “Mindful Moment” postings on social media. Butler is the social emotional learning mindfulness specialist for Austin ISD. He works with children (and adults) to instill a routine that includes breathing, journaling, naming your feelings, and showing gratitude in order to be mindful and present. Check out his post today, shown below, for a quick reset and some good feelings.
ATPE wants to hear how you are adapting to a new educational environment during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to email us your stories, best practices for distance learning, or strategies you’re using to stay upbeat during the crisis.