Two months have passed since Austin’s cancellation of the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival became national news as one of the first major events in the country called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also one of the first developments that made many of us wonder how serious the novel coronavirus was. As school districts embarked on their spring breaks, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) began to send out notices advising deep cleaning of school facilities, heightened hygiene practices, and protocols for students and families who might be traveling on vacation. In an interview with the Texas Tribune on March 6, 2020, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath jokingly advised students not to go around licking doorknobs.
Since this preliminary incubation phase (to borrow a term from the virus world), we’ve witnessed a barrage of press conferences, executive orders closing school facilities through the end of the school year, and a triage-like approach to maintaining educational services. New information surfaces daily amid an ever-developing curve of cases, while educators work speedily to learn and implement effective distance learning methods. To help you navigate everything that has happened, the ATPE lobby team offers a recap of the coronavirus-related education developments so far in this blog post, broken down into these categories:
- State action
- Federal action
- Waivers are everywhere
- Changes to educators’ work
- The Texas budget
- The road ahead
State action in response to the pandemic
On March 13, 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of public disaster in Texas — the same day President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency. At the time, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath erred on the side of local control in letting school districts decide whether or not they wanted to extend their spring breaks or temporarily close down their facilities. Among many worries, school administrators struggled with how they would feed students who relied on school meals.
At a time when over half of Texas school districts had closed and under pressure from both Democratic and Republican legislators, Gov. Abbott agreed on March 16 to cancel this year’s administration of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests. The College Board also cancelled March and May test administrations and has since announced plans to offer the SAT test starting in August. The College Board also is offering online Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
Around the time of these events, TEA launched a new section of its website containing FAQs and guidance aiming to provide some degree of certainty to educators. This site has grown to include links to other web pages that offer meal locations for students and home learning resources. ATPE also launched its own Coronavirus FAQ and Resources web page for educators in early March.
On March 19, Gov. Abbott announced the physical closure of schools, gyms, bars, and restaurants through April 3, which included all Texas public and private K-12 and higher education institutions. This order was extended by another month on March 31, when Abbott issued a more restrictive executive order that closed school buildings across Texas until May 4. The order also followed federal guidelines for “essential workers.” Included within the federal definition of essential workers were “Educators supporting public and private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities for purposes of facilitating distance learning or performing other essential functions.” TEA reminded school officials that continued funding during closure of their campuses would be dependent on students receiving instructional support even when they are unable to physically attend school.
On April 17, the governor extended school facility closures through the end of the academic year and announced preliminary plans for reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing designs for reopening various businesses, Abbott stated that schools would remain physically closed through the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, although teachers could still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). TEA quickly issued its guidance on entering school buildings for more information.
On April 27, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a phased plan to reopen Texas businesses, starting May 1 with limited capacity at malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries. Establishments are currently limited to 25% occupancy, although those in counties with five or fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases are allowed up to 50% occupancy. Abbott stated that after two weeks, if there has not been a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the state will move into its next phase, loosening restrictions and opening hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars. However, Abbott on May 5 announced that wedding venues, salons, barbershops, and pools may reopen on May 8, with gyms being allowed to open with reduced occupancy on May 18. The state has yet to allow bars to reopen.
State regulatory entities such as the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), State Board of Education (SBOE), and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) have moved to online meeting platforms to continue fulfilling their duties. The SBOE met via video-conference in mid-April to take up an abbreviated agenda, which included a discussion of funding concerns related to the pandemic. The TRS Board of Trustees also met in mid-April for a truncated online meeting that included a discussion of delaying office space changes until the real estate market stabilizes. TRS was one of the first state bodies to change its practices at the beginning of the pandemic by restricting in-person visits and moving its staff to a tele-working environment. The SBEC board met May 1 to discuss a variety of issues, including the impact of COVID-19 on current and future educators.
Elections have also been affected by the pandemic. Most local elections, including a number of school board races around the state, originally slated for May 2, 2020, were postponed to November. The runoff elections for the Texas primaries have also been postponed from May to July 14, 2020.
Federal action in response to the pandemic
On March 13, President Trump declared a national state of emergency. Five days later, he signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which was the second coronavirus-related aid bill passed by Congress. (The first coronavirus bill signed by the president was a supplemental appropriations package that sent $8.3 billion to federal agencies to promote their work in combating the developing coronavirus crisis in America.) The higher profile FFCRA included, among other provisions, expanded paid sick/family leave and authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to waive federal provisions regarding the National School Lunch Program, allowing schools to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. Read ATPE’s information about the FFCRA here.
On March 27, Congress passed and the president signed a third coronavirus aid package. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act contains $13.5 billion in funding for K-12 education, plus additional amounts for child nutrition and child care. The bill also included temporary deferment on payments and interest for federal student loans and a cash assistance program, which has begun to deliver one-time direct payments to qualifying individuals and families. Read ATPE’s information about the CARES Act relief for individuals here.
The CARES Act also authorized the U.S. Secretary of Education to provide flexibility to states 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 blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The additional $13.5 billion in dedicated education funding under the CARES Act has yet to be distributed.
On April 27, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced that it will use some of the funding approved by Congress through the CARES Act for competitive grants to states that may use the money for private school vouchers. The $180 million “Rethink K-12 Education Models” or “REM” grant would be available for implementation of voucher programs, statewide virtual learning, or other models of remote learning. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a vocal proponent of vouchers, had previously said her department would urge Congress to approve a form of voucher termed a “microgrant,” but many lawmakers were surprised by her decision to preemptively use the CARES Act funding, intended to provide coronavirus relief, in this manner. Read more about the voucher proposal in this blog post from the ATPE lobby team. Working with our federal lobby team in Washington, D.C., ATPE continues to address this issue with Texas’ Congressional delegation.
A fourth coronavirus aid package was approved by Congress and signed by the president on April 24. Known as the “Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act,” this $484 billion dollar package is focused on loans for small businesses, with other much smaller pots of money for hospitals and increased virus testing. More federal legislation is anticipated in the coming months, which ATPE hopes will include additional funding related to public education.
Waivers are everywhere
At both the state and federal level, waivers have been the preferred method of responding to the challenges facing education during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Waivers are quick, easy, and in some cases can provide automatic relief from mandates that may make an already tough situation tougher. For instance, thanks to a waiver granted to Texas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parents can pick up meals from ISDs for their children without the children being present. Gov. Abbott also issued several waivers related to educator preparation that will assist candidates in moving forward with their careers while testing centers are closed. More long-term fixes such as funding take longer to roll out, and remedies that require state legislation will have to wait until Texas’ next legislative session in 2021, absent a special session being called by the governor.
TEA has compiled a list of all state and federal waivers. Some waivers don’t require any action by school districts or individuals, as they apply automatically. Others require documentation. For instance, in order to avoid being penalized financially for missed school days, districts must attest that they are providing off-campus instruction to the best of their ability and submit supporting documentation. Additionally, districts must proactively request to waive educator, principal, and administrator appraisals. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for statewide action to suspend appraisals this year for all districts. (See ATPE’s press release here.)
Among the most popular statewide waivers is the assessment and accountability waiver, provided first by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and subsequently (in a streamlined fashion) as part of the CARES Act. Texas received approval from ED that freed our state from student assessment and accountability requirements under federal law. As a result, all districts will officially receive a rating of “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-20 school year, and the list of schools previously identified for improvement will essentially freeze in place.
The federal government is also offering a spending flexibility waiver that allows states to move money around as they anticipate new expenditures and potential shortfalls. For instance, under this waiver, school districts could carry over as much Title I money from this school year to the next as necessary, spend more Title IV money on technology infrastructure, spend federal funds over a longer period of time, and take advantage of a broader definition of professional development that allows funds to be used on remote instruction training. On April 10, Texas received approval from ED for these waivers and two other waivers that will allow districts to spend federal funds more readily.
Secretary DeVos announced on April 27 that ED would not seek additional waiver authority from Congress for the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Additionally, the Department is not requesting further waiver authority from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but it is requesting various waivers under other federal education statutes such as the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the IDEA, and the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act that mostly pertain to flexibility in using federal funds. The CARES Act required DeVos to notify Congress 30 days after its passage on any additional requests for waiver authority.
Changes to educators’ work
COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. ATPE’s lobbyists previously reported on uncertainty around educator preparation and certification procedures during the pandemic since certification tests were suspended through April 30, 2020. TEA has posted information about certification testing and announced 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 SBEC and potential legislation during the next legislative session.
TEA’s educator support page features guidance for individuals pursuing educator certification, including details on a waiver from Gov. Abbott that allows certain educator certification candidates to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. If they haven’t already, these candidates will have to complete the fingerprinting process, which — while safer for students — will also create some hiccups as many fingerprinting locations are closed or offering limited appointments. Certification candidates will also have to pay the probationary certificate fee now, plus the standard certificate fee later on when they pass the required examinations. Additionally, candidates must meet all requirements for initial certification, which are outlined in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) Chapter 230, Subchapter B, General Requirements (230.11), with the exception of passing the certification exam. These requirements include having a bachelor’s degree and submitting to a criminal history review. Out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension.
On April 2, ATPE sent a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for a statewide suspension of educator appraisals for the 2019-20 school year in light of the closure of school facilities and resulting disruptions to normal classroom instructional practices. Citing the inability to conduct classroom observations, fears of adverse employment actions, and the high stakes attached to teacher evaluations, ATPE urged the commissioner to issue a statewide moratorium rather than allowing evaluations to be conducted in an inconsistent manner at each district’s discretion.
Commissioner Morath wrote a response to our letter on April 23, which was not transmitted to ATPE until May 7. In his reply, Morath declined to issue a statewide order, noting that TEA has offered schools districts opportunities to apply for waivers of certain requirements pertaining to evaluations. TEA posted guidance documents in late April advising that school districts may apply for waivers of educator evaluation requirements found in Sections 21.351, 21.352, 21.354 and 21.3541 of the Texas Education Code, plus related commissioner’s rules in Title 19, Chapter 150 of the Texas Administrative Code, if the districts find that they are unable to complete aspects of the appraisal process.”The decision to pursue waivers of appraisal requirements is strictly a local decision,” the commissioner wrote in his letter to ATPE.
School districts around the state have taken varying approaches to the issue of evaluating their staff during this crisis, and ATPE maintains that educator appraisals conducted in an incomplete or truncated manner are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions.
The Texas budget
On April 7, 2020, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sat down (virtually) with Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey, to confirm that Texas is in a recession. Hegar said that Texas will be able to meet current budget obligations through August 31, 2021, despite the recession.
On May 1, Hegar announced that state sales tax revenue totaled $2.58 billion in April, which is 9.3 percent less than the $2.8 billion brought in by the state in April 2019, the steepest decline since January 2010. In the summer, Hegar will release an updated revenue estimate that will likely be several billion dollars less. Because the state pumped billions into education during the last legislative session, educators worry that the continued funding commitment might be hard to maintain.
In light of these budget concerns, ATPE joined 17 other organizations calling on Commissioner Morath to place a moratorium on charter school expansion during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because charters cannot levy taxes, the state picks up the tab in order to fully fund every charter school while reducing the amount of funding available to local school districts. ATPE believes the expansion of charter enrollment during a pandemic with extremely uncertain financial outcomes would be fiscally irresponsible. In fact, the 94 charter expansion amendments currently on file with TEA could cost the state an additional $90 million per year if approved, money that may be sorely needed to shore up budgets of existing public schools across the state.
The road ahead
What lies ahead for Texas education is murky. Many graduation ceremonies this spring will be virtual, socially distanced, and involve a lot of honking car processionals. We still don’t know what a return to school in the fall will look like, or even if there will be a physical return at all should the virus rebound. Will students start back to school earlier in the summer? Will social distancing guidelines still be in place? Will schools implement extended school days or staggered instruction?
With each new piece of guidance or set of rules and policies that agencies and bodies such as TEA, SBEC, SBOE, and TRS develop, we get a little bit more clarity. Rest assured, the ATPE lobby team is involved in this process to make sure the voices of public educators are heard. As developments occur, check ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources and watch for updates here on Teach the Vote and via our @TeachtheVote Twitter account.
One thing we know for sure is that educators are resilient and abundantly caring individuals, which is why each Friday we are featuring a positive educator story in our “Week in Review” blog post. here on Teach the Vote. Thank you to all educators who are still brightening their students’ days, all while taking care of their own needs and the needs of their families. #TeachersCan
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