Tag Archives: back to school

From The Texas Tribune: Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.

As students across Texas return to schools for in-person classes, there will be masks, distancing and lunches eaten at desks. Many students will remain at home, joining in on laptops and phones.

Students sit distanced from one another in the lunch room at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

“Things are ever changing. The one thing I’ve appreciated that stayed constant was the interest in students returning has been at 50%,” Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez said of his 7,200-student district east of San Antonio. “I believe that we can safely social distance at that number in our buildings.”

Parent interest in in-person instruction varies greatly across the state. In some hard-hit parts of the state, like Mercedes ISD in South Texas, the vast majority of parents are opting for virtual learning. In Texarkana’s Bowie County, where coronavirus cases have stayed relatively low, most Maud ISD parents have already sent their kids to school in person.

Local health authorities continue to clash with school districts over whether it’s safe to open, concerned that Labor Day festivities could lead to higher case numbers, as Memorial Day did this spring. Fort Bend County health officials sent Katy ISD a letter in late July urging it not to open classrooms or start extracurricular activities “before late September in the vast majority of cases,” until the “effect of the Labor Day holiday can be determined.”

Katy ISD, which has schools in Fort Bend, Harris and Waller counties, plans to reopen classrooms Tuesday.

When schools were forced by the pandemic to hurriedly switch to virtual learning in the spring, most Texas districts didn’t require teachers to conduct live virtual lessons, but more are attempting that type of instruction this year. That means many teachers will have to simultaneously instruct two groups of students: those in front of them, and those watching from their iPads and laptops.

In Seguin ISD, most of the lessons will also be recorded for students who couldn’t find time to log in and watch live, important in a district with 71% low-income students, Gutierrez said. “You have parents that have multiple jobs. They’re shift workers. To expect that our students are going to go through their entire day at home alongside the face-to-face learners is really unreasonable when they don’t have that support, that structure or that supervision at home. They would be missing out on instruction.”

He acknowledged that those students will be missing out on the benefits of live instruction: having a teacher correct their pronunciation of a challenging word or being able to ask questions about a complex math problem in real time.

Austin ISD starts virtually Tuesday and plans to open classrooms in early October. Eight-year-old Isla Arb will start third grade at Graham Elementary School online Tuesday and will continue virtually to avoid endangering her grandmother, who has cancer, said her mother, Katie Arb. Both Katie Arb and her husband work full time, so they hired another mother to watch Isla and her 4-year-old sibling on weekdays. They’re paying her about $15 per hour, as well as paid sick leave and vacation, replacing some of the pay she had received as a dental hygienist before the pandemic.

“The bulk of her responsibilities are going to be to keep the 4-year-old away from our 8-year-old,” Katie Arb said.

Isla is excited about getting to wear a unicorn onesie to virtual school every day at the messy desk in her bedroom. But she got quiet when she thought about her classmates and teachers returning to campus in October. “I don’t want them to get coronavirus,” she said sadly.

Even students who return to Austin ISD’s campuses will effectively be learning virtually. When she goes back to school in early October, Austin ISD high school theater teacher Rachel Seney will sit in a classroom, with a mask on, leading a virtual class through musical numbers or dramatic exercises. Students spread 6 feet apart will sit in front of her on their laptops, each one completing assignments or watching a different teacher deliver instruction.

Students will spend nearly the entire day, including lunch, in one classroom, a plan intended to reduce the public health risks during a pandemic. If one child or staff member gets infected, it will be easy to trace exactly who they were in contact with — meaning there’s no need to shut down entire campuses or districts.

Seney, who teaches at predominantly white and high-income Anderson High School, said she sees the model as more equitable since all students end up learning virtually in some way. “You’re not teaching equitably if you have some students in front of you and some students online. Now that some schools have started going back and are using that model, I’m already seeing it’s not happening,” she said. “It’s not really effective.”

Her sister Blair Seney will be doing just that at Cypress Falls High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, miles away in Harris County’s suburbs. A special education educator, she helps modify assignments or provide extra time on testing for students with disabilities alongside a primary classroom teacher.

“We’re expected to teach at the same time the kids that are in the classroom who don’t have access to technology and the students at home who are on the computer,” Blair Seney said. She has been a constant agitator for more safety requirements in schools and more flexibility for teachers terrified to return in person. In August, she stood in the back of a school board meeting with a sign that said, “Your attendance is required at my funeral,” while her mother, also a teacher at the school, spoke at the public hearing. That month, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD teachers unsuccessfully sued the district, asking not to be required to report to their campuses for training.

About 42% of students have decided to attend school in person, according to a district survey. Often, Blair Seney pulls students into her office, a tiny storage closet with no ventilation, for one-on-one assistance. “I’m not sure how that’s going to work,” she said. “It is definitely a thought that’s keeping me up at night, trying to figure out how we’re going to make all this work.”

Health precautions vary among districts and schools. Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, everyone over the age of 10 must wear a mask. But guidance from the Texas Education Agency leaves districts largely on their own to design protections against a virus that spreads undetected in as many as 40% of those who have it. In many districts, maintaining 6 feet of distance among students will simply not be possible.

“It’s very scattershot,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “There’s a huge variation in the policies that are being put in place within districts to protect the health and safety of educators, from physical structures to logistics to access to [personal protective equipment]. Absolutely there have been districts that say, ‘Here’s your two gloves and your mask, that’s all you’re getting.’”

In Houston-area Humble ISD, where kids have been back in classrooms since late August, “it has been surprisingly normal,” said Timbers Elementary School fifth grade teacher Stacey Ward. “Question mark?”

The 10- and 11-year-olds who tramp in for Ward’s science and social studies classes have been surprisingly compliant about wearing their masks, though she sometimes has to remind them, with a single word — “mask!” or “nose” — to ensure the fabric covers their noses, too. Every other student sits behind a plexiglass barrier, spaced out as far apart as possible, but with 18 to 20 students per class, it has not been possible to keep 6 feet among them.

Instruction stops five minutes early so kids can wipe down their desks. Ward collects their books at the end of the day. There is no sharing of supplies.

And Ward has made one more adjustment. Typically, when students enter or exit her classroom, they get three options: high-five, hug or handshake.

This year, she’s pivoted: “Now, it’s an elbow, a knee or a foot,” she said in a phone interview after her fourth day of in-person school. Elbow bumps are the runaway favorite.

Afterward, the students know to take a squirt of hand sanitizer. “It’s normal to them now,” she said.

ProPublica’s Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article, “Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Congressional panel discusses school reopening, safety considerations

The U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education met Thursday morning, July 23, in Washington, DC, to discuss the safe reopening of public schools across the nation.

“All of us want our schools to reopen for full-time, in person instruction as soon as possible. That fact is not up for debate,” Subcommittee Chair Gregorio Sablan (I-Northern Mariana Islands) announced at the beginning of the hearing, explaining that the question is how to accomplish reopening safely for students and staff. “We are all coming to a new understanding of just how essential schools are to life in America.”

Sablan pointed out that nearly one in four teachers have health conditions that put them at serious risk if they contract COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has made it clear that fully reopening schools carries the highest risk of creating new spikes in COVID-19 infections. As we reported here on Teach the Vote last week, the White House blocked CDC officials from testifying at Thursday’s hearing.

According to the American Association of School Administrators, the average school district will need an additional $1.8 million to reopen. Sablan said the House has already approved this funding, and noted that the White House and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened to strip funding from public schools that delay in-person instruction to protect the health of students and school employees. While the administration likely does not have the authority to withhold that funding, ranking subcommittee member Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA 12) used his opening statement to announce the filing of new legislation that would allow the president and secretary to carry out that threat.

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa was the first witness to testify. Hinojosa said that at the beginning of the pandemic, 30% of district parents surveyed preferred remote instruction, compared to 70% who preferred their children to learn on campus. That the number has since shifted to about 50/50, according to Hinojosa, and he believes now more than 50% of parents would prefer remote instruction for their child. According to the superintendent, DISD found that 91% of its teachers at the beginning of the pandemic reported they felt ready to return to classrooms, while he believes that number is 50/50 or less now.

Also, Hinojosa told the committee that Texas has used the federal funding from the CARES Act to supplant state funding for public education, rather than supplement funding. While acknowledging the state’s reason for doing so, Hinojosa cautioned that Texas will need additional funding in the coming years to provide for public education.

Up next, National Parent Teacher Association President Leslie Boggs said claims that children do not spread or get sick from COVID-19 are “simply untrue.” Boggs said the organization conducted a national survey of parents that found 72% believed schools were not prepared to reopen in a safe manner. Boggs reaffirmed the organization’s opposition to diverting tax dollars intended for public schools through private school vouchers and urged Congress to appropriate additional funding to help schools deal with the pandemic.

The committee also heard from Dr. Sean O’Leary, who co-wrote the much-cited document from the American Academy of Pediatrics that seemed to downplay the danger to children posed by COVID-19 and has been used to justify swiftly reopening schools across the board. O’Leary clarified that the document was not necessarily meant to encourage schools to resume in-person instruction arbitrarily, adding that the AAP believes not all schools can immediately reopen for in-person instruction five days a way. Dr. O’Leary also recommended Congress allocate $200 billion to help schools reopen.

Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT 5), the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, pressed O’Leary on the need to regularly test students and staff. Hayes also asked Superintendent Hinojosa how he is dealing with school employees who are medically vulnerable. Hinojosa answered that Dallas ISD has asked staff to identify whether they are at high risk and pledged to work with them on an individual basis.

Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that virtual instruction is a poor substitute for in-person instruction and shared the goal of resuming in-person instruction as soon as possible. Democrats emphasized the need to do so safely for students and staff and to avoid prematurely returning to classrooms and triggering additional COVID-19 outbreaks. Republicans on the subcommittee downplayed the risk of COVID-19 to children and argued that all schools should offer parents the option to send their children to school immediately. Republicans on the committee also suggested many schools could resume normal activity without additional federal funding. The hearing took place one week after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claimed in an interview that children are effective “stoppers” of the virus.

Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA 3) asked Dr. O’Leary about how to deal with a student who begins to show COVID-19 symptoms. O’Leary did not answer directly, emphasizing that proper social distancing and other precautions should reduce community spread. Chairman Scott pointed out that once a student becomes symptomatic, they have likely been unknowingly spreading the disease on campus for some time. O’Leary deferred to state and local leaders, but suggested that one case should not shut an entire school down. That said, O’Leary dismissed comparisons between COVID-19 and influenza.

“To minimize the risk of COVID-19, I think, is a mistake,” said O’Leary. In his answer to a question about reopening schools in COVID-19 hot spots, O’Leary warned, “It’s not safe. Students are going to get sick. Teachers are going to get sick. Staff is going to get sick. So that’s number one. Number two, it’s not practical. If you open schools when the virus is circulating widely in the community, it is inevitable that it’s going to get into those schools and you will just have to shut them down immediately.”

The Democrat-led House passed the Heroes Act in May, which would offer more than $100 billion in emergency funding for schools. The bill has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate for the past two months. The White House and Senate Republicans agreed this week to a plan for $105 billion in relief funding for K-12 and higher education that would carry out the administration’s threats to withhold funding from schools that deem it unsafe to reopen immediately for in-person instruction. The Republican proposal includes $70 billion for K-12 schools, however half of that funding would only be given to schools that reopen for in-person instruction. Those schools and the other schools that are unable to open for in-person instruction would share the remaining $35 billion.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on federal legislative developments pertaining to COVID-19.

BREAKING: TEA issues new reopening guidance; ATPE deems it insufficient to ensure safety

Today the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced it would allow school districts to begin their school year with a four-week transition period of virtual instruction (up from three weeks permitted under prior TEA guidance). The new public health guidance and attendance and enrollment FAQ also allow districts, with school board approval, to apply for an extension to add four more weeks to the transition period based upon local health conditions. ATPE issued a statement today saying the revised guidance is insufficient to address the serious safety concerns of educators and parents and that the state must take stronger, more decisive action to protect Texans’ lives.

TEA’s updated guidance attempts to offer school districts additional flexibility around moving to a full-time, in-person instructional environment. But the updated guidance continues to miss the mark by imposing arbitrary time limits that are not tied to any statewide, medically determined standard that would calculate and reflect the actual risk of viral spread in a particular community. ATPE has urged the state to gate reopening decisions by objective epidemiological metrics to give parents and educators confidence that reopening decisions are based on sound public health science that is applied consistently throughout the state.

TEA previously issued guidelines allowing districts to avail themselves of a three-week transition period at the beginning of the school year during which students could attend school virtually. After three weeks, the school district would be required to provide full-time in-person instruction in order to continue receiving state funding. On Friday, TEA extended that transition period to four weeks and is allowing districts, with the approval of their school boards, to request an additional four weeks of transition based upon local health factors.

While this additional opportunity to extend the transition period between remote and in-person instruction is appreciated, it remains arbitrarily time-limited and not tied to any quantitative, health-based metrics. A four- or eight-week delay might be appropriate in some parts of the state, but not others. ATPE has consistently argued that school reopening decisions should be guided by local health conditions as measured by a statewide framework.

The extension of the transition period also seems to be available only at the subjective discretion of school boards and the commissioner, although the new guidance around this is vague. TEA states, “All waivers are approved upon receipt,” but at the same time stipulates that districts must provide additional documentation along with their request, including information regarding local health conditions relating to the safety of returning to campus. Weekly case counts and positive tests are cited as examples. If the commissioner intends to grant all waiver requests upon receipt, it is not clear why districts are being forced to collect local health data and provide additional paperwork to TEA. It is also puzzling why the state cannot identify a state-level source for such COVID-19 data and use that to guide reopening decisions, as ATPE has recommended.

The agency does state in its new guidance that a district seeking an extension of the transition period must consult teachers, staff, and parents, which is something ATPE has advocated for a long time at both the local and state level. We are pleased to see this nod to the importance of involving school staff and parents in decisions about safely reopening schools, but we urge the state and school districts to solicit the feedback of these critical stakeholders immediately. Educators and parents must be involved in the reopening process from the beginning; they should be meaningfully involved and consulted before the school year begins and as changes become necessary. Clear communication is also essential.

One of the more troubling aspects of the state’s new guidance issued today is the continuing requirement that schools must offer in-person instruction to any student who needs and requests it on any day of the school year, even during the initial transition period. The guidance states, “On-campus instruction must be offered for all students who want to attend on campus in order to be eligible to receive funding for remote instruction.” There are exceptions for a few limited circumstances, such as a district’s being subject to a government closure order or campuses that are part of the Texas Virtual School Network. But it is clear that the state’s directive will require a minimal number of staff to be on campus from the beginning, even during the transition period since there will be students who are unable to participate in virtual instruction and must be allowed an on-campus option. This could easily allow for an unsafe number of students – and the higher-risk adult teachers and other staff whose presence is required to serve those students’ needs – physically on the campus.

We believe TEA is relying on assumptions that the risk of COVID-19 infection and spread among children is low, even though much remains unknown about this new virus, but underestimating the risk to the numerous adults who will be forced to interact with each other and those students in order to provide on-campus instruction as required by the state. Many ATPE members have told us they are considering retirement or leaving the profession due to fears they will be forced back to campus too early and face an unreasonably high risk of exposure to COVID-19, compromising their own health or that of their families. Those adults at higher risk than children, according to the state’s approach, deserve more assurances that their return to campus will be reasonably safe. For this reason, ATPE insists the state must take stronger, more decisive action to protect Texans’ lives.

“If Texas is not willing to provide objective metrics to guide local reopening decisions, as ATPE has recommended to them, then school districts and local health authorities must be empowered to make their own reopening decisions without the threat of losing funding,” said ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes. “Otherwise, we are simply playing politics with the lives of all Texans—our more than 5.4 million students, approximately 750,000 public school employees, and their families at home.”

ATPE has proposed its own plan and recommendations for the safe reopening of schools, which can be found here. ATPE will continue to advocate for educators and urge state and local leaders to include school employees and parents in the decision-making process for when and how to return to school.

ATPE releases plan with new recommendations for reopening schools

The Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) released new recommendations Tuesday including a statewide plan to facilitate a safer start to the 2020-21 school year. ATPE submitted the plan to state officials with oversight of the public education system, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

The ATPE proposal urges the state to postpone in-person instruction until objective measures show local COVID-19 cases have declined to levels judged by public health officials to be safe for reopening. The plan focuses on three overarching principles informed by input we have received from ATPE members in recent months:

  1. Safety should be a foremost concern driving decisions on reopening schools.
  2. State and local school officials must involve educators and parents meaningfully in the development of COVID-19 policies.
  3. Flexibility is needed.

The decision on reopening schools for in-person instruction should ultimately be based on conditions indicating the impact of the virus in each school district, and ATPE is urging the state to adopt a framework comprising such conditions. Educators and parents must be involved in the development of plans to address COVID-19 in the 2020-21 school year, which is why ATPE has been recommending that each district assemble a local COVID-19 advisory committee that includes non-administrative campus-level staff, as well as parents and local health experts. Districts should also have the flexibility to offer a variety of remote and hybrid instructional models based on local needs and conditions. ATPE has also been meeting frequently with state and federal officials, reminding them that school districts also need additional financial support from the state and federal government to address the enormous challenges created by this pandemic.

As school districts mull plans for reopening their campuses, ATPE believes districts should be empowered to fine-tune those plans in consultation with their local COVID-19 advisory committee and only upon meeting objective criteria established by the state. ATPE has recommended to state officials, for illustrative purposes only, the following criteria that could be measured at the local level and used as a threshold for reopening schools:

  1. The local COVID-19 positivity rate, defined as the percentage of positive cases to viral tests conducted over seven days, is below a minimum threshold established by the state as informed by state health officials;
  2. Newly identified COVID-19 cases are on a downward trajectory (or near-zero incidence) over a 14-day period; and
  3. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are on a downward trajectory (or near-zero incidence) over a 14-day period.

The recommendations submitted by ATPE on Tuesday include a call to waive the administration of the STAAR and TELPAS for the 2020-21 school year. This was one of two resolutions related to COVID-19 that the ATPE House of Delegates wrote and adopted last week during the 2020 ATPE Summit. Both resolutions were referenced in ATPE’s updated recommendations shared today.

  • Read ATPE’s full plan and updated recommendations on school reopening here.
  • Read ATPE’s July 14 letter from Executive Director Shannon Holmes to state leaders here.
  • View ATPE’s July 14 press release about our new recommendations here.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mandates face masks in most counties

Abbott previously resisted calls for such an order and at one point banned local governments from requiring masks. First-time violators will be issued a warning, though repeat offenders could be fined up to $250.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest order requires Texans living in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. Photo credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/Pool/American-Statesman

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate Thursday as Texas scrambles to get its coronavirus surge under control.

The order requires Texans living in counties more than 20 coronavirus cases to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth while in a business or other building open to the public, as well as outdoor public spaces, whenever social distancing is not possible. But it provides several exceptions, including for children who are younger than 10 years old, people who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, people who are eating or drinking, and people who are exercising outdoors.

The mask order goes into effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday. It immediately applies to all Texas counties, but counties with 20 or fewer active cases can be exempted — if they opt out. County judges must submit an application to be exempted to the Texas Division of Emergency Management. TDEM will list the counties that have opted out on its website.

Later Thursday, in an interview with Univision in Dallas, Abbott also signaled he might be rethinking plans to open the state’s public schools for in-person classes this fall, after state officials said last month that it would be safe.

“If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program, something like the use of Zoom or FaceTime or other strategies where a teacher in real time will have the means to speak with a student, a student will be able to speak with other students, and it will replicate the class setting as much as possible,” he said.

State officials have delayed the release of public health guidelines for in-person instruction as cases have continued to rise. But a draft version last month showed they were planning to leave safety regulations up to individual school districts instead of issuing mandates.

The mask order represents a remarkable turnaround for Abbott, who has long resisted a statewide requirement, even as the coronavirus situation has gotten worse than ever over the past couple of weeks in Texas. When he began allowing Texas businesses to reopen this spring, Abbott prohibited local governments from punishing people who do not wear masks. As cases began to rise earlier this month, he clarified that cities and counties could order businesses to mandate that customers wear masks.

In recent days, Abbott had held firm against going further than that, saying he did not want to impose a statewide requirement that may burden parts of the state that are not as badly affected by the outbreak.

Along with the mask order, Abbott on Thursday also banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve. He had previously set the threshold at over 100 people. The new prohibition also goes into effect Friday afternoon.

Abbott’s latest moves come ahead of Fourth of July weekend, which has raised concerns about larger-than-usual crowds gathering while the state grapples with the virus spike.

Abbott also released a video message Thursday, saying the latest coronavirus numbers in the state “reveal a very stark reality.”

“COVID-19 is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it’s getting worse. Now, more than ever, action by everyone is needed until treatments are available for COVID-19.”

In the video, Abbott reiterated his resistance to returning the state to the roughly monthlong stay-at-home order he issued in April. He said Texans “must do more to slow the spread without locking Texas back down.” He also said his latest announcement is “not a stay-at-home order” but “just recognizes reality: If you don’t go out, you are less likely to encounter someone who has COVID-19.”

“We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast there is little margin for error,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s announcement came a day after the number of new daily cases in Texas, as well as hospitalizations, reached new highs again. There were 8,076 new cases Wednesday, over 1,000 cases more than the record set the previous day.

Hospitalizations hit 6,904, setting a new record for the third straight day. The state says 12,894 beds are still available, as well as 1,322 ICU beds.

Abbott has been particularly worried about the positivity rate, or the share of tests that come back positive. That rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, has jumped above its previous high of about 14% in recent days, ticking down to 13.58% on Tuesday. That is still above the 10% threshold that Abbott has long said would be cause for alarm amid the reopening process.

First-time offenders of Abbott’s order will receive a written or oral warning. Those who violate the order a second time will receive a fine of up to $250. Every subsequent violation is also punishable by a fine of up to $250. The order specifies that no one can get jail time for a violation.

After listing several exceptions to the mask requirement, Abbott’s order specifies that at least one group of people is not exempted from the order: “any person attending a protest or demonstration” with over 10 people who cannot socially distance. Like other states, Texas has seen massive protests since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

Democrats and local officials had been demanding that Abbott institute such a requirement, and the state party said his new order was “far too little, far too late.”

“This is unacceptable,” party spokesman Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Governor Abbott continues to lead from behind rather than implementing preventive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

When asked at a Thursday afternoon press conference about Abbott’s new order, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg simply said, “It’s about time.”

“We will count this one as a good step that the governor is taking,” Nirenberg added.

Nirenberg was speaking alongside Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and the leaders of the region’s main hospitals when news of the order broke. Wolff was the first local official to order businesses to require their customers to wear masks.

“Now with the order by the governor, that’s going to help take a lot of pressure off the businesses,” he said.

But Abbott’s mask requirement is likely to further anger a small but vocal group of fellow Republicans in the Texas Legislature who have grown increasingly frustrated with his executive actions. Health experts say masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but some conservatives have railed against mask mandates, saying they impose on people’s freedoms.

One intraparty Abbott antagonist, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, vented after Abbott’s announcement Thursday that the governor “FAILED TO MENTION” the mask mandate during a conference call with legislators.

“What a piece of crap!” Stickland tweeted. “The man thinks he is KING!”

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tweeted that lawmakers “need a special session now so legislators can pass laws, not Abbott.”

This is Abbott’s latest set of moves aimed at trying to get the virus surge under control in Texas. Six days ago, he ordered bars closed and reduced the permitted restaurant occupancy to 50%, among other things.

Juan Pablo Garnham and Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/02/texas-mask-order-greg-abbott-coronavirus/.

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/.

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.

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.