Tag Archives: Gov. Greg Abbott

From The Texas Tribune: Texas families say remote learning isn’t working and they want it fixed

A summer of delay and inconsistency from state political and education leaders left Texas schools little time to prepare for an academic year with millions of students learning from home. Now many of those kids are failing through no fault of their own.

 

Hezekiah Hunter has been learning from home due to the pandemic and has struggled to manage the onslaught of assignments that come with remote learning. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune


Almost midway through the school year, it has become increasingly clear that virtual learning is failing a sizable number of Texas public school students whose parents decided to keep them home as COVID-19 grips the state.

The disturbing number of students posting failing grades while trying to learn in front of computer screens has also brought into sharper focus the failure of state education and political leaders to prepare for an academic year they knew would be like no other.

Over the last month, The Texas Tribune has interviewed more than 30 educators, students, parents and experts across the state about their experiences with remote learning. Parents and students describe a system in which kids are failing, not necessarily because they don’t understand the material, but because the process of teaching them is so broken that it’s difficult to succeed.

Teachers say they are scrambling to retool education, creating new videos and online lessons from scratch and struggling with new demands and limited time. They blame state leaders for squandering valuable months over the summer by delaying key decisions, frequently reversing course and sending conflicting messages to educators on the ground.

Instead of immediately giving local school officials the guidelines and tools needed to prepare, state leaders waffled on policies that school communities needed to make their decisions. They challenged local health officials over who had the authority to keep classrooms closed in areas with high coronavirus infection rates, feeding uncertainty about when and where students would return to classrooms.

By the time the fog cleared, school officials had mere weeks to roll out plans for the fall semester, including training teachers, students and parents on new technology; designing ways to keep track of students falling through the cracks; and upholding some semblance of academic rigor.

The Texas Education Agency indicated it has done the best it could in limited time, working throughout the pandemic to continue providing resources for districts thinking about remote, hybrid and in-person instruction.

Students are now paying the price, and the highest is being exacted from students Texas already struggled to educate. According to a Texas Tribune analysis, school districts with mostly Black, Hispanic and low-income students have higher shares of students learning from home. And state data showed those students were less likely to be engaged in online learning in the spring, when all schools were online.

“There’s just a level of fatigue with this that, given the way that the distance curriculum is being structured, is just wearing on kids and families in a way that’s really untenable, especially in those communities that were already disadvantaged before this,” said Benjamin Cottingham, who has studied the quality of remote learning in California and put out recommendations on how districts can improve.

A squandered summer

Confusion and uncertainty have marked Texas’ response to the pandemic across all fronts.

Constantly changing, confusing top-down guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott this spring eventually led to surges in the number of Texans hospitalized and dead from COVID-19. As the Trump administration aggressively pushed schools to reopen their doors — seeing it as the key to invigorate a slumping economy — Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath decided all Texas schools would be required to open their doors to all students who wanted to return in person, but must also be prepared to teach remotely those who did not want to return.

But the guidelines on how to do both those jobs effectively and safely were delayed for weeks this summer as Abbott reconsidered his hands-off approach to the pandemic. By late June, the TEA had promised it would keep state funds flowing to districts for the students who attended remotely, and it began offering districts a little more flexibility as it became clear the pandemic was getting worse. In July and August, state leaders publicly bickered with local health authorities who wanted to keep classrooms closed during COVID-19 spikes, eventually taking away some of their authority to make those decisions.

As state leaders put out conflicting mandates, school superintendents attempted to prepare for the fall ahead. They repeatedly surveyed families, trying to figure out how to cater to two groups of students, some coming to school in person and others staying home.

Some districts considered having two corps of teachers — one for students in classrooms, the other for virtual learners — thinking the bifurcated approach might improve education for all the kids. But there was no money to essentially double the staffs of each school, and there weren’t enough classrooms to socially distance all those teachers.

After holding listening sessions with superintendents, the TEA offered districts free access to a virtual learning system, which 400 school districts educating millions of students have adopted. The agency also contributed hundreds of millions in federal stimulus money to subsidize bulk orders of computers, Wi-Fi hotspots and iPads. But in some cases, supply chain issues delayed shipping for months. Texas has also provided online course materials schools can use for free — but some courses are still being rolled out midway through the year.

“The better time to have rolled all this out would have been last June, last May,” Morath acknowledged this week at a State Board of Education briefing. “But we are moving as fast as we can, all things considered.”

Delayed starts to the school year allowed districts to spend more time planning, but some struggled to use that time wisely. “We could have used another month or two of planning and training and figuring things out,” said Mark Henry, superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District outside of Houston. “But parents had the opportunity to declare whether they were going to be face-to-face or remote until two weeks before school started. We didn’t know what our numbers were going to be until 10 days before school would start.”

Returning from a chaotic summer, teachers had to create new classes for virtual learning with almost no time to plan, while instructing kids in person and online at the same time. Texas funds districts for remote students if they can show those students engaged with their lessons that day. A simple task like taking attendance now lasts more than twice the usual time, as teachers hunt for evidence that a student reached out or completed an assignment.

Most districts have required teachers to come to the classroom daily, even denying many stay-at-home requests from those with medical conditions. “If we’re fearful of COVID and stressed out by these mandates and inflexibility, our effectiveness is going to be diminished as well,” said Lori Wheeler, who retired from Austin ISD in early November, worried about the health risks of working in person. “We had three weeks to learn a completely different job.”

Thoroughly preparing for an academic year such as this one would have taken at least a year in the best of circumstances, educators and experts said. But the delays at the state level left teachers with mere weeks to plan for the fall. “I think teachers were kind of flying blind in the sense that they were kind of making it up as they went, trying to do their best in terms of how much planning time the teacher has and how effectively they thought they could conduct lessons,” said Christopher Williams, a teacher in Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district and one of the last to bring students back in person. “These online platforms are new to us.”

Frustration hits home

The stress and lack of preparation teachers experience trickles down to students and parents. Parents and guardians told the Tribune that teachers have often not made clear to them which class assignments are required and which are just suggestions. Sometimes parents tell their children not to bother completing assigned work at all, worried the stress will overwhelm them and have long-term effects.

Candace Hunter’s daughter Hezekiah, who is 11, used to love school as a straight-A student. Now, she is inundated with mundane assignments from multiple classes, leaving her despondently working into the evening to clear the backlogs. The sixth grader at Austin ISD’s Lamar Fine Arts Academy asks her mom if she can stay out of school.

Hunter, a veteran teacher who now privately trains teachers, said the school has not adjusted its teaching policies to be more flexible. In a normal year, teachers ask students questions throughout a lesson and give them homework to get proof they understand each skill or lesson. Replicating that method on a virtual platform has been disastrous, resulting in dozens of emails and messages that students and parents must sort through each day, she said.

Candace Hunter’s children are home-schooled due to the pandemic and have been struggling to manage the onslaught of assignments that come with remote learning. Hunter and her children are photographed here in Austin on Nov. 17, 2020.

From left: Candace Hunter’s children Hezekiah and John-Mark are home-schooled due to the pandemic and have struggled with remote learning. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

“Why not create a system that will draw people back to you? Like, ‘We thought about who needs this program the most … and each campus has created a program especially for their population that is going to be engaging and robust.’ That’s not happening,” Hunter said.

Eventually, she told her daughter’s teachers, “If this continues, we’re going to start cherry-picking our assignments.”

With more low-income students and students of color learning remotely, existing disparities in education are exacerbated. A Tribune analysis showed that in majority low-income districts, an average of 64% of students are learning from home. That rate climbs to 77% in majority Hispanic school districts and 81% in majority Black districts, according to the data collected in late September by the TEA and Department of State Health Services. By contrast, in majority white school districts, 25% of students are learning from home.

Remote learning is working for some students, but often requires an immense amount of time from guardians and parents. Natasha Beck-King, a history graduate student with coursework of her own, transferred her son to a San Antonio ISD school from a local charter school when it was clear the charter did not have a long-term plan for remote learning.

Beck-King stays up late with her children to verify they have completed their work and feels like parents should spend more time doing the same. “If your kid is failing and they’re not in tutoring, and you’ve communicated with the teacher and the teacher is communicating back with you … that is not on the school,” she said.

Some schools had the resources to prepare earlier. Marysa Enis, a former school psychologist at Austin ISD, said remote learning is going well at her son’s school, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, which used its own money to pay teachers to plan over the summer.

But some families lack the resources for online learning to ever be successful this year, through no fault of their schools. Georgina Pérez, a Democratic member of the Texas State Board of Education, lives in the southeast corner of El Paso County, a border region where broadband access is limited. Her youngest children, fifth grade students at San Elizario ISD, received computers and hotspots from the district, but couldn’t get a signal and eventually gave them back. Now, Pérez drives to the school every Tuesday to pick up paper packets, assignments on material the children learned more than a year ago.

Pérez knows her children may need to repeat the fifth grade next year and believes they will eventually catch up, but she worries about the students in families without as many resources. She blames the situation on state delays, not just to get control of the pandemic, but also to get its most vulnerable communities connected to the internet. “How many years have we studied the needs for broadband infrastructure in Texas?” she said. “Twenty years ago, we already knew what we needed, but we just didn’t do it.”

Carrots and sticks

The TEA has used both carrots and sticks to encourage school districts to follow certain guidance.

Despite significant outcry, Texas plans to administer STAAR standardized tests to students this spring and use those scores to rate schools and districts, which could lead to sanctions for some. Looming accountability ratings have spurred administrators to increase the difficulty of courses and push teachers and students to get back to normal in a year that is anything but.

“If we don’t push our kids, if we water down the curriculum and make it easier, I guess, then they won’t be where they need to be when it comes to accountability testing in the spring,” said Linda Parker, assistant superintendent at Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD in North Texas. “We’re trying to operate in a world that is so different than what we’ve had before.”

And the threat of lost state funding due to drops in enrollment has been a specter for superintendents already spending up to millions to COVID-proof their buildings.

In late July, as state leaders battled local health officials over who was in charge of school reopenings, Texas said it would provide funding for schools that kept their classrooms closed only if they did so for state-approved reasons. Districts took that as a threat that their funding would be yanked if they listened to local health officials who said in-person school wasn’t safe.

Recently, Texas announced it would fund school districts for declining enrollment through the first semester, instead of just the first 12 weeks. The announcement was met with tempered relief from superintendents who are waiting to hear if they will receive that financial reprieve for the entire year. The suspense has left teachers and staff wondering if they will still have their jobs months from now, adding yet another layer of tension.

In response to complaints from parents and educators, the TEA and superintendents tinkered with their requirements for schools. In October, the TEA said schools were required to have qualified staff instructing or supporting students face-to-face in classrooms if they wanted to get funding, which it said clarified existing guidance.

That clarification ruled out a system Austin ISD and others had been using, in which students remained in the same classroom and learned virtually while supervised by a teacher. Austin ISD had to start from scratch and announced that its middle and high schoolers would physically transition between classes and receive face-to-face instruction starting Nov. 2.

Many educators used the well-worn idiom “building the plane as you fly it” to describe the summer and fall. Parker took the saying a step further in describing how schools are responding to shifting state guidance. “It’s actually like, ‘Guess what, pilot? Here’s your plane, but we’re going to change the motor. Now we’re going to change the structure. … Then, as the year starts, we’re going to change your plane. We know you don’t know that much about it, but you’ll be fine.’”

“Throw ’em an anvil”

At times, the response to the pandemic has been like a massive game of telephone, with the TEA giving guidance to school superintendents that scrambles by the time it reaches teachers and parents.

This summer, the TEA explained to districts the online programs available to help them manage classroom tasks and monitor student progress. Lily Laux, a deputy commissioner at the TEA, told the Tribune she wanted districts to understand that remote learning would be easier with the higher-end programs, since teachers would be able to easily track whether students were engaging with the lessons. But she said she was not mandating a change.

In an email to staff at the end of June, obtained by the Tribune, Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Doug Killian announced that the district would be pivoting to Canvas, a program used frequently in higher education that teachers describe as challenging to learn. He explained that “guidance from TEA requires a more robust system for instruction, more in-depth online instruction, and necessary tracking of students online for attendance and funding purposes.”

The district did not launch training for the program until Sept. 4, with the goal of phasing it in for students and parents from mid-October to January. District leaders plan to extend that time for teachers who need it, said spokesperson Tamra Spence.

“That’s like throwing someone in the deep end of the pool, and when they don’t drown, throwing ’em an anvil,” said Don Fisher, a former Texas A&M-Kingsville lecturer on student media, who has taught and designed online classes for more than a decade.

Confused and frustrated by the late rollout of the new program, some teachers said it was the result of top-down decision-making that lacked foresight and left them out of the process. “There was no organized, centralized, deliberative initiative from school districts to professionally develop their teachers and increase their proficiency on these … platforms,” said Cuitlahuac Guerra-Mojarro, who teaches engineering in the district. “Had there been foresight and leadership and understanding about what the future is, we would have been more prepared.”

And ultimately students pay the price. Alexis Phan, a sophomore at Pflugerville High School, stares at a screen for at least eight hours a day and feels like her teachers are moving at too fast a pace. Some of her classmates have lost friends to suicide or shootings and are struggling to focus. One week in October, Phan had six tests in electives and core subjects. She is passing all her classes, but her grades are lower than they used to be, and she spent weeks staying up until 1 a.m. doing homework.

Sophomore Alexis Phan does her Algebra 2 homework remotely, from her home in Pflugerville.

Sophomore Alexis Phan does her algebra homework remotely from her home in Pflugerville. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Phan spends most days at home alone, with her father at work every other week and her sister and mother at work. She feels sad and lonely often, “just doing work alone with so much work just piling up constantly.” But she visits her grandparents regularly and worries going back to school in person could bring the virus back to them.

“Honestly, I wish that some teachers could be a bit more understanding with us. They should be a little more understanding that just because we’re in a pandemic or have a three-day weekend that they shouldn’t give us more work than what they would normally do,” she said. “It’s just harder to learn online.”

Awaiting a fix

Medical and education experts say remote learning should continue to be an option for families that don’t feel safe sending students to classrooms.

But instead of trying to improve virtual learning, dozens of districts are already bringing all students back in person. Texas recently changed its guidance and allowed districts to require failing students to return in person or find another district. But with COVID-19 cases rising in many regions, some administrators are being forced to temporarily shut down schools for weeks at a time and rely on their remote-learning programs to keep students up to speed.

From mid-September into October, Gunter ISD, in rural North Texas, had to quarantine 190 students after they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive, according to Superintendent Jill Siler. About 91% of the district’s students are learning in person, and the other 9% use online programs that Gunter ISD purchased, with classroom teachers providing support for younger students.

For now, Gunter ISD will keep remote learning since some students are successful and because an increase in COVID-19 cases would require the district to educate kids remotely. “If we’re still in December and in as much struggle as we are now, that decision [to cut remote learning] in December may look different,” Siler said.

Siler and other school administrators are working to learn from mistakes and improve their virtual learning programs. Hays CISD administrators gave teachers more time to plan lessons and created a help desk for parents or teachers, said Superintendent Eric Wright. They have also considered reducing the number of required assignments after getting feedback that it was “overwhelming.”

The TEA continues to provide updated guidance and offer training for the free virtual learning systems and technology tools. At a legislative hearing last week, Morath told lawmakers that Texas needed to “reengineer the school experience so students reach high academic outcomes” in 2021, including changing how instruction works, addressing disparities among students and investing in teachers.

Cynthia Ruiz, who quit her job as an attendance specialist in Austin ISD in October, said schools should change their expectations of what instruction looks like during a pandemic. They could shorten the school day or school year, free up time for teachers to connect with their students and build in more time for mental health check-ins.

“To try and mimic the school day in the way we’ve always done it was their first mistake,” she said. “One reason why we have low grades is because we’re saying everything is important, and when you’re saying everything is important, nothing is important.”

Mandi Cai and Chris Essig contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Google have been financial supporters 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 originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/20/texas-schools-remote-learning/.

Texas schools may access federal funds to reimburse remote learning costs

Earlier this year Congress passed the CARES Act to provide pandemic relief funds to individuals, as well as K-12 schools. Texas has received more than $1.5 billion of the federal allocation targeting education. There have been attempts this year by some policymakers to divert the federal funds earmarked for public schools to private individuals or entities, but ATPE has consistently maintained that these funds should flow directly to the public schools that need them to address the challenges of COVID-19. This week state officials shared more information about how they are spending the federal dollars.

Texas received $29.2 million through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and $1.28 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, both funded by the CARES Act. In June, Texas notified the federal government that it intended to use its GEER funds to support remote learning through Operation Connectivity, provide virtual interventions for students with dyslexia, and create online instructional materials. Similarly, the state indicated that it would spend its ESSER funds on a summer bridge program to help graduating seniors, mental and behavioral health supports, remote instructional platforms and materials, and assistance for school districts adapting to remote learning environments.

On Wednesday, November 18, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that $420 million of the CARES Act funds sent to Texas will be made available to school districts for reimbursement of COVID-19 expenses. Specifically, schools may request the funding to offset prior purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots and other technology devices.

The Dallas Morning News reported on the development last night, sharing ATPE’s comment that the announcement is a significant step in the right direction but only the beginning, as districts’ funding needs related to COVID-19 will persist. ATPE has also urged the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to make it easier for schools to access the funds. School leaders have reported many bureaucratic hurdles involved in the process of applying for the reimbursements. Similarly, in response to ATPE’s surveys, educators have expressed frustration over burdensome paperwork and reporting requirements imposed by the state since the pandemic began disrupting the school environment.

The state has already used a smaller portion of CARES Act funds to reimburse some of the expenses incurred by schools during the latter part of the 2019-20 school year, to fund “hold harmless” agreements to prevent schools from losing funding due to enrollment drops, to subsidize broadband access through Operation Connectivity, and to create instructional materials for its TexasHomeLearning.com online platform launched earlier this year. More controversially, Gov. Abbott has allocated approximately $30 million of the CARES Act funding he oversees to a new voucher program for students with disabilities, a move ATPE and other organizations have opposed.

TEA announced Thursday, November 19, that the agency is adding new instructional materials to the latest iteration of Texas Home Learning (THL 3.0) geared toward Pre-Kindergarten students. The THL initiative began as an effort to give families direct access to instructional materials, including summer reading assistance, but has since grown to include the provision of an optional Learning Management System (LMS) for school districts through the acquisition of a statewide license with the education vendor Schoology. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told members of the State Board of Education this week that $64 million of the CARES Act funds have been spent on THL.

It appears that only about one-quarter of the state’s school districts have opted to use the new LMS, and ATPE members’ reviews of the Schoology platform and THL instructional materials have been mixed, at best. Although the allocation of CARES Act funding for THL has been relative small, educators tell us that they would rather see those pandemic relief funds sent directly to school districts to help them hire additional staff and give teachers more time for planning and develop their own innovative curriculum that meets the needs of their students.

ATPE commends legislators for joining the push for STAAR waivers

Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), joined by 67 of his Texas House colleagues, sent a letter to the Texas commissioner of education today calling for the cancellation of this school year’s STAAR tests.

Today’s letter from the bipartisan group of state representatives echoes a similar letter ATPE sent to Gov. Greg Abbott last week and shared with legislative leaders and the commissioner in recent days. Both letters reference the “COVID slide” and the need for educators and policymakers to focus their efforts this year on remediation of students, along with prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff.

“At most, any administration of the STAAR exam during the 2020-2021 school year should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions under the current A-F accountability system,” wrote Rep. Bernal in the November 18 correspondence to Commissioner Mike Morath.

Texas laws and regulations link numerous high-stakes decisions to data derived from STAAR testing, including school accountability ratings, student promotion, and the evaluations and compensation of educators. Lawmakers who signed the letter to Morath expressed appreciation for the state’s decision to waive STAAR-related requirements for the Student Success Initiative this year, which ATPE also noted in our letter as a positive step. However, data from STAAR tests administered this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be unreliable and unfair measures to apply to a host of other decisions, as ATPE has repeatedly warned state officials.

The commissioner and governor have not yet signaled any intent to waive the testing requirements this year as they did in the spring. Morath previously has been quoted as saying, “Teaching without some form of testing is just talking.” As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on our blog, multiple members of the State Board of Education questioned Morath about STAAR testing during a meeting this morning. “Why do we even need the STAAR test this year?!” tweeted member Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) during the SBOE meeting.

ATPE is hopeful that the growing pressure to waive STAAR testing requirements this year, including pleas from elected officials on both sides of the political aisle, will persuade Governor Abbott and Commissioner Morath to provide the needed relief and do their part to request federal waivers of the testing and accountability mandates, as well. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for any new developments.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 23, 2020

Here are this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


The governor has decided to use federal coronavirus relief funds to create a new voucher program for students with disabilities. On Oct. 21, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced the Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) program, which uses CARES Act money to fund accounts for parents of students with special needs to buy education-related goods and services. The $1,500 accounts are strikingly similar to “education savings account” voucher proposals for students with special needs previously rejected by the Texas legislature. Abbott will use $30 million in taxpayer dollars in his Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund for the program.

ATPE swiftly expressed concerns over the SSES program. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said, “ATPE is extremely disappointed the governor has made the unilateral decision to spend our state’s GEER funds in such a manner. Not only does this action ignore the Legislature’s clear opposition to vouchers, but also it denies public schools access to this $30 million allocation. Public schools are better positioned to equitably and efficiently provide for the needs of all students with disabilities.” Read ATPE’s full press statement here and ATPE’s blog post on the development here.


ELECTION UPDATE: There is one more week of early voting in Texas, through Oct. 30. Already, Texans have set a record for voter turnout. Election Day is just 11 days away on Nov. 3. This week the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the Texas GOP in a lawsuit, deciding Harris County can continue using drive-thru voting locations. Read other election news, including polls and candidate fundraising analyses, in this week’s Texas election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

We celebrated Educator Voting Day Monday and enjoyed seeing the many educators who posted their “I Voted” selfies on social media. Let us know why voting is important to you by sharing your own photo or video on social media using #WhyIVoteTXEd and tag @OfficialATPE and @Teach the Vote. Find additional voting tips here, and don’t forget to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard shows an increase in the number of positive cases reported last week for both students and staff. Districts update their submissions as they are informed of positive test results, causing data delays. The updated data show that between the weeks ending in Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, the number of positive cases rose by 31.7% among students and 37.7% among staff. Positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities.

As parts of the state deal with alarmingly high case counts and hospitalization rates due to COVID-19, some school districts are asking state officials for additional flexibility on when they must resume in-person instruction. ATPE has recommended and continues to emphasize the importance of using objective health-related criteria to guide local decisions on reopening school facilities rather than a one-size-fits-all approach or arbitrary timelines. Weighing the input of school employees and parents of students is also essential in the decision-making process.

As reported this week by the Texas Tribune, some Texas teachers been asked to return to school even though they had a previously approved accommodation. Find information related to this situation and more on ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQs and Resources. Here are additional ATPE resources:

  • Learn how to manage pandemic anxiety in this ATPE-hosted webinar by therapist Kathryn Gates.
  • Get answers to legal questions about COVID-19 and earn CPE by watching ATPE’s webcasts on our professional learning portal.
  • Use ATPE’s Advocacy Central website, exclusively for our members, to share your coronavirus-related concerns with state officials, including the governor and commissioner of education.
  • Check out our Parent-Teacher Toolkit, featuring a video on helping kids thrive in today’s world.
  • See the pandemic and ATPE’s response evolve through our interactive timeline.

When the coronavirus forced schools to close their doors this spring, state and federal officials wisely called off plans for the administration of standardized tests and school accountability ratings tied to test results. ATPE has been lobbying for a waiver of testing and accountability requirements for the 2020-21 school year. The ATPE House of Delegates adopted a resolution in July calling for STAAR and TELPAS testing to be suspended due to educational disruptions caused by COVID-19. This week, school board members in the Austin-area Eanes ISD passed a resolution of their own calling for Gov. Abbott and TEA to suspend the STAAR this year. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke to CBS Austin Thursday about the difficulty of administering standardized tests in a non-standardized environment. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also spoke today to KXAN News about the growing calls for a testing waiver.


 

Abbott, TEA launch voucher program for students with disabilities

On Oct. 21, Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced a new funding program for students with disabilities that is strikingly similar to previous voucher-like privatization proposals, including “education savings accounts” or ESAs, that have been consistently rejected by Texas lawmakers. The program will enable parents of students with special needs to apply for $1,500 grants for supplemental educational services.

  • The Supplemental Special Education Services program will be funded with $30 million in federal coronavirus relief funding appropriated by Congress through the CARES Act earlier this year.
  • The funds are part of a $307 million federal grant via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund, over which Gov. Greg Abbott has authority with little to no state legislative oversight required.
  • ATPE is criticizing the voucher plan, arguing the COVID-19 relief funds should instead flow more equitably to school districts that already have an obligation under federal law to provide for educational needs, including paying for supplemental services, of students with disabilities.

The new Supplemental Special Education Services (SSES) program is funded by a $30 million allocation from Abbott’s $307 million GEER (Governor’s Emergency Education Relief) fund, which was authorized by Congress through the CARES Act, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), and is funded with taxpayer dollars. GEER funds can be used on emergency support for K-12 and higher education, as well as support for any other education-related entity in the state the governor deems essential for carrying out emergency educational services to students.

As we reported here on Teach the Vote in April, the federal GEER funds were designed to be “highly flexible,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been a vocal proponent of federally funded vouchers. The streamlined, 15-page application for the GEER funds was essentially an “agree-sign-submit” format with a short questionnaire on how the state intended to use the funds. No public comment period or state legislative oversight was required. In the certification and agreement that Abbott’s office sent to the Education Department earlier this year, there is no mention of using the GEER funds for vouchers. The state plan instead refers to the most notable GEER fund K-12 expenditures, the Texas Home Learning and Operation Connectivity initiatives.

According to a TEA FAQ document on the new program, the SSES will offer $1,500 in an online account for each eligible student through which “goods and services” can be ordered using the money. Eligible students must have been enrolled in public school since the COVID-19 school closures and have a low-incidence disability. The allowable goods and services include private tutoring, educationally related services and therapies from a licensed or accredited provider, textbooks, curriculum, or other instructional materials, and computer hardware, software, or other technological devices that are used for educational needs. TEA will approve vendors for the online voucher account. Approximately 20,000 students could be served through the $30 million allocation at $1,500 each, though the agency says 59,000 students in Texas are eligible. On its website today, TEA noted that details on how the accounts will work are “coming soon.”

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) already provides school districts with federal funds to fulfill students’ educational needs under the requirement of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). There is no doubt that the pandemic has disrupted education, especially for students with disabilities. However, it is essential that districts receive adequate resources, such as money for extra staffing and personal protective equipment, to fulfill their responsibility under IDEA for all students with disabilities to provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Historically, Texas does not have the best track record for meeting its obligation to adequately fund the state’s special education needs; state officials were forced to implement a corrective action plan after 2016 investigations revealed an arbitrary cap on special education program enrollment had resulted in many students being denied the help they needed and were entitled to by law. However, lawmakers, education stakeholders, and the voting public have expressed little appetite for privatization initiatives, even when ostensibly aimed at helping students with special needs.

In 2017, the Texas Legislature, and principally the House of Representatives, rejected Senate Bill 3 (85R), a bill pushed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that would have funded an extremely similar voucher proposal aimed at students with disabilities. The bill would have sent public taxpayer dollars to private entities that provide services to students with disabilities, which are not subject to the protections and accountability required by federal education law. In fact, it would have required participating students to surrender their federal protections under the IDEA.

ATPE members have long opposed using taxpayer dollars to fund private school vouchers, including ESA programs in which there is little oversight of how the money is ultimately spent. ATPE is extremely disappointed the governor has made the unilateral decision to spend our state’s GEER funds in such a manner, not only circumventing the Legislature’s clear opposition to vouchers but also denying the use of this $30 million allocation by public schools that need additional COVID-19 relief and are in a better position to equitably and efficiently provide for the needs of all students with disabilities.

In addition to opposing further efforts to funnel public education dollars to private individuals or entities with little oversight, ATPE urges lawmakers to continue their efforts to improve the state’s school finance system in a manner that will ensure districts have access to the resources they need for serving all students in an equitable and responsible manner. Funding for school districts on behalf of their students should match the actual student needs rather than being based on arbitrary and rigid formulas that can be limiting and frustrating for families.

Read ATPE’s press statement about the SSES announcement here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 16, 2020

Here are this week’s education news highlights, brought to you by ATPE Governmental Relations:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: In conjunction with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), Governor Greg Abbott announced this week that eight school systems would be included in a COVID-19 rapid testing pilot. Participating schools will receive rapid antigen tests that can produce results in 15 minutes. The tests will be administered to students, teachers, and staff who choose to participate. The state hopes eventually to expand rapid testing in schools to mitigate the spread of the virus as more students return for in-person learning. Read more about the program in this reporting from the Texas Tribune.

This week’s updates to the Texas Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard show that, compared to last week’s reported numbers, positive cases rose by 2.6% among students and 6.8% among staff. As districts are notified of positive test results, they may update their numbers, and the dashboard’s values for the prior week (ending Oct. 4) have increased beyond what was previously reported. The updated data show last week’s positive cases rose by 11.8% among students and 15.5% among staff. (The increases reported last week were significantly less than this, at 2.3% among students and 7.8% among staff.) As a reminder, positive test results are only included for students and staff who participate in on-campus instruction and activities.

ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page includes newly updated information about educators returning to school. Here are additional ATPE resources:

  • Get answers to legal questions about COVID-19 and earn CPE by watching ATPE’s webcasts on our professional learning portal.
  • Use our Parent-Teacher Toolkit, featuring our latest video on helping kids thrive in today’s world.
  • See the pandemic and ATPE’s response evolve through our interactive timeline.
  • ATPE members can send messages to their government officials through Advocacy Central.

ELECTION UPDATE: The first week of early voting is almost over, and record numbers of Texans have already cast their votes. Early voting lasts until Oct. 30! If you haven’t voted yet, check out ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s post on her early voting experience, which includes tips for a smooth trip to the polls.

ATPE Exec. Dir. Shannon Holmes sports his “I voted early” sticker

Court decisions continue to impact ballot drop off locations and the use of drive-thru and curbside voting. The Senate District 30 special election runoff between Shelley Luther and Rep. Drew Springer has been set for Dec. 19. For more election-related news, see this week’s election roundup post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

You may have noticed on ATPE’s Twitter and Facebook that ATPE members and staff are posting videos on why they vote. Share your own video on social media using #WhyIVoteTXEd and tag @OfficialATPE and @Teach the Vote! Find additional general election voting dates and reminders here, and don’t forget to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote.


As mentioned in this article by the Dallas Morning News, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter was invited to testify on teacher workforce issues during a Senate Education Committee interim hearing this week. Exter advocated for streamlined professional development and reduced paperwork burdens on districts and educators. The committee also heard invited testimony from adult education providers and education preparation programs. Read more about the hearing in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins and see ATPE’s written testimony here.


The 2020 Census count ended this week after an October 13 Supreme Court order shortened the deadline from October 31 to October 15. The deadline has fluctuated multiple times as the Trump administration played tug-of-war with the courts. Some argue the administration wanted to cut the deadline to ensure time to manipulate the census data to exclude unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. Read more about the development in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


TEA sent out a notice this week to Education Service Centers and district testing coordinators describing a new method for calculating the STAAR progress measure for the 2020-2021 school year. The modified measure would reach back in to 2018-19 student testing data, skipping over 2019-20 since no tests were given due to the pandemic. Questions remain as to whether the STAAR testing is appropriate at this time and how a modified progress measure might be used in the accountability system for 2020-21. Read more in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 25, 2020

Here is this week’s recap of the latest education news from your ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Schools around Texas continue to tackle difficult decisions on reopening and whether to offer virtual or in-person instruction. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) slightly modified its COVID-19 guidance this week on attendance and enrollment, aiming to address some recent questions about school reopenings and remote learning options. Many school boards are deciding whether to request waivers from the state that would enable their districts to operate in a remote environment longer than the initial four-week transition approved by TEA for all districts.

The new TEA guidance indicates that the agency will consider granting additional flexibility based on metrics announced recently in Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan for business reopening. Specifically, TEA will “take into consideration” whether a school district lies within one of the hospital regions where COVID-19 patients make up more than 15% of all hospitalizations. While we appreciate state officials’ recognizing the importance of considering objective health-related data on COVID-19, as ATPE has recommended, new guidance remains vague and leaves the ultimate discretion to unelected state leaders. Read more about the updated guidance and how school districts are approaching the return to campus in this post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

Last week, ATPE launched an anonymous member-only survey through our Advocacy Central section of the ATPE website that asks two questions about how educators feel their health and safety is being ensured. Join hundreds of other survey responders and share your responses by Sunday, September 27. Here are additional coronavirus resources from ATPE:


FEDERAL UPDATE: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reiterated her support for school choice and in-person schooling this week during a U.S. Department of Education webinar on school reopening. The panel presentation featured private, public, and charter school administrators who shared best practices on how they have reopened their schools this fall. Some of the strategies may be unattainable for the majority of public schools who need increased funding for pandemic-related increased costs. Read more about the presentation in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


A few upcoming events are scheduled that are geared toward educators who are retired or considering retiring in the near future. First, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) has opened registration for its 2020 TRS-Care virtual information sessions. These webinars are intended to help retired public education employees, or those considering retirement, learn more about the TRS-Care Standard and TRS-Care Medicare Advantage plans for 2021. They will also introduce the new providers that will administer TRS health plans starting Jan. 1, 2021. You can register for these webinars at trs.texas.gov/trs-care-events.

Next week the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) plans to host two virtual townhalls on teacher retirement issues. The first townhall will feature incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) on September 29 at 4 pm. The second townhall will feature Cornyn’s challenger, retired U.S. Air Force combat veteran M.J. Hegar on October 3 at 2:15 pm. Find more details on the two events here.


The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are sharing with the public data on the prevalence of the coronavirus in Texas public schools. The online dashboard shows Texas public schools have reported 6,295 COVID-19 cases on their campuses. According to the data, 3,445 students have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 1,101,065 on campus. The agency reported 1,212 new positive cases during the week ending September 20, up from 1,046 new cases the previous week. The agency reported 2,850 school staff members tested positive. Of those, 660 were new cases during the week ending September 20, down from 859 new cases reported the previous week. The agency has not maintained a count of how many staff are present on campus at the moment.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from this data. Relatively few students are on campus at the moment, and social distancing measures will become more difficult to maintain as more students return to classrooms. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes weighed in on the numbers in this article by the Houston Chronicle.

Jimmy Lee

RELATED: As schools deal with COVID-19 occurrences on campus and their employees’ fears of catching the virus, some districts are worried about finding enough substitute teachers. ATPE State President Jimmy Lee was interviewed this week in a story on CBS Austin about the concern. Lee shared his own experience working as a sub and highlighted challenges faced by rural districts . Watch the full story here.


A federal judge ruled Thursday, Sept. 24, that President Donald Trump cannot stop the U.S. Census count next week, ordering it instead to continue through October 31. This is the deadline U.S. Census Bureau originally requested before the Trump administration decided to shorten that window. You can read more about the court decision in this article by the Texas Tribune.

The census is constitutionally required every 10 years in order to apportion seats in the U.S. Congress. Many important decisions, including how federal funding is distributed, depend on how communities respond to the census. The census also determines how much power each state wields in Congress, and Texas is on track to add representatives if everyone responds on time. Read more about the census in this recent blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


ELECTION UPDATE: Today is the last day of early voting in Texas Senate District (SD) 30, where a special election is scheduled for next Tuesday, Sept. 29. This election is to finish the term of outgoing state Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), who is running for U.S. Congress.

Earlier this week we recognized National Voter Registration Day. October 5 is the deadline to register to vote in time for the November 3 election if you are not already registered. Click here to find out if you are registered and your information is correct, especially if you have moved. Early voting for every position from president on down begins October 13 and lasts for three weeks through October 30. Find more voting dates and reminders here.

Voting is the only way to ensure people who support public education are the ones making the decisions about public education. For more on who makes those decisions, check out this post by our partners in the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Also, click here to learn about candidate forums being sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas starting next week.

With fuzzy guidance from the state, school districts grapple with remote learning and timelines for resuming in-person instruction

Plans for resuming in-person instruction remain in flux across the state as many districts near the end of their allowed four-week transition period to move from virtual to in-person learning.

The latest Texas Education Agency (TEA) update to its statewide “Attendance and Enrollment” guidance reflects that some school districts may feel a need to request more than eight weeks of flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. “Any additional transition window will require board approval after preliminary TEA plan feedback has been received,” notes the TEA document released September 24, adding the agency will expect any district seeking additional transition time to be steadily increasing the number of students on campus during that period. But, despite assurances that the agency will take health-related metrics such as hospitalization data into consideration when reviewing such requests, the state’s decision-making remains discretionary and impossible to predict—leaving school districts grappling with how to proceed. ATPE believes this isn’t fair to administrators, teachers, parents, and certainly not students.

Since early summer, ATPE has urged the governor, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, and other state officials to use objective, health-related data as the basis for school reopening decisions that are made at the local level. While we are glad to see the state’s recognition of some data on COVID-19 infections as a valuable consideration, ATPE believes it is unfair to leave school districts guessing as to whether the state ultimately will grant them additional flexibility if they believe it is unsafe for students to return to campus.

As we have reported, Gov. Abbott announced last week an easing of restrictions on restaurants and certain other businesses, but the changes were not applicable to three areas of the state that remain “danger zones”: Victoria, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley. Gov. Abbott said further reopening decisions would be based upon COVID-19 hospitalization data in the area, noting that the hospitalization numbers remained too high in those three areas, which include 13 Texas counties.

Rio Grande Valley school district leaders have been pleading with the commissioner and elected officials for additional flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. Today’s updated guidance notes that when reviewing district requests for extension of the transition period, TEA will consider “whether school systems are located in whole or in part in areas” identified as hot spots under the criteria referenced by the governor.

ATPE issued a press statement today in response to the new information from TEA. ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell stated in the release, “ATPE is pleased that state officials are finally listening to our recommendations on the importance of basing reopening decisions on objective, health-related data. However, TEA’s promise merely to ‘take into consideration’ such data offers little comfort for schools being pressured to reopen their facilities before it may be safe to do so under local health recommendations.”

School district approaches to reopening vary widely. COVID-19 has not affected every community to the same degree, and differing political views about the pandemic have put pressure on school boards. Not surprisingly, many districts have revised their initial plans and may still be considering further changes. Several districts are announcing plans to terminate virtual instruction, while others are looking for ways to extend it. The shifting landscape and fluctuating directives from school district leaders have been frustrating for educators and parents alike, resulting in emotional debates on social media and in school board meetings. Also frustrating is the red tape surrounding the decision-making process: Districts seeking to stretch out their return timeline must first secure initial board approval, then submit a request to TEA for “preliminary feedback,” and then ask for another board vote.

A few examples from across the state:

  • Fort Worth ISD began its school year with four weeks of remote instruction set to expire October 5. Last week, the FWISD board voted 5-4 against a motion that would have extended the district’s remote learning plan an additional four weeks. But this week, the board held another meeting and voted 5-4 in favor of adding two more weeks to the transition period. The change came after educators and parents testified at the 10-hour meeting, with some circulating petitions and organizing rallies on both sides of the issue. ATPE submitted testimony urging FWISD to base its decision on local public health data, paying close attention to the recommendations of Tarrant County Public Health.
  • Hardin ISD posted a notice on its website this week stating, “Due to less than acceptable virtual participation and student results, please be advised that Hardin ISD will cease virtual learning on Friday, October 2, 2020.”
  • Louise ISD sent a letter to parents September 22 stating, “The effort required of our teachers and administrators will no longer be divided by the requirements of offering remote learning beginning Tuesday, September 29, 2020 … I am not mandating that your family chooses to return to school. Yet, I am suggesting that you make a decision that continues to provide the appropriate needs of your children.” Superintendent Garth Oliver lists “suitable” options for parents to consider: returning to school in-person, transferring to a district that offers remote learning, or withdrawing from the public school system to either home-school or enroll in private school.
  • Brownsville ISD’s superintendent has urged stakeholders to lobby TEA for more flexibility. The Brownsville Herald reported September 19 that Superintendent Rene Gutierrez asked the state to allow BISD “to continue at 100% distance learning so that we can ensure everyone’s safety,” but the district plans to begin hosting students on campus September 28 because of state limitations on the timeline for operating remotely.

Commissioner Morath clarified on a call with superintendents today that no school district is required to offer remote instruction, but any parent who wants their child to continue attending school virtually must be allowed to transfer to a school district that offers it.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among on-campus students and staff is being reported by each school district and shared via an online dashboard. There is a lag in the reporting time, however, and the numbers reflect only test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among individuals who have been on the campus. TEA posted this updated FAQ document about the COVID-19 data reporting today.

Betsy DeVos tells states not to expect student testing waivers

Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sent a letter to the top school official in every state today regarding federal requirements for student testing in the 2020-21 school year. States requested and the secretary granted a waiver of testing mandates for 2019-20 when the novel coronavirus forced schools to abruptly shut down during the spring. However, DeVos makes it clear in her Sept. 3 letter that the Trump administration has no intention of waiving the testing requirements again this year.

Below is an excerpt from the letter in which DeVos claims there is broad support for testing and urges the states to demonstrate their “resolve” in these challenging times by continuing to administer the assessments to students:

“Several of your colleagues recently inquired about the possibility of waivers to relieve states of the requirement to administer standardized tests during School Year (SY) 2020-2021. You will recall that, within a very short time, waivers were granted to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education this past spring following the declaration of a national emergency. That was the right call, given the limited information available about the virus at the time and the need to stop its spread, as well as the practical realities limiting the administration of assessments. However, it is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year, consistent with the requirements of the law and following the guidance of local health officials. As a result, you should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”

A growing number of elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum, parent groups, and education associations including ATPE have called for student testing requirements to be waived in 2020-21. As we have previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Texas Governor Greg Abbott removed a few of the high stakes attached to STAAR test results this year but has not shown interest in a broader waiver of testing requirements, despite the fact that many schools have had to delay the start of the new school year. The ATPE House of Delegates also passed a resolution this summer calling for a waiver of STAAR and TELPAS requirements this year due to the ongoing negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education system.

While there has been widespread bipartisan support for cutting back on student testing, the general election coming up in November will play a large role in determining whether high-stakes tests are actually administered this year and used for such purposes as school accountability grades and determining teachers’ evaluations and compensation. Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for updates.

From The Texas Tribune: Gov. Greg Abbott stresses local school officials “know best” whether schools should reopen

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
Aug. 4, 2020

Abbott said the state will provide schools with personal protective equipment to prepare for the new school year.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a strike force in charge of laying steps to re-open the Texas economy at a press conference in the capitol on April 17, 2020. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./POOL via The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott stressed Tuesday that only local school boards, not local governments, have the power to decide how to open schools this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The bottom line is the people who know best … about that are the local school officials,” Abbott said during a news conference in San Antonio, echoing a message he’s now been relaying amid questions about the process.

Texas educators and parents have been confused about who has the power to keep school buildings closed. They have also been frustrated by conflicting messages from state and local leaders.

Abbott also said in preparation for the new school year, the state has already distributed to schools more than 59 million masks, more than 24,000 thermometers, more than 565,00 gallons of hand sanitizer and more than 500,000 face shields. He described the state’s personal protective equipment levels as bountiful even as the state faces an “an even greater strain” on the supply due to the coming school reopenings and flu season.

Abbott and other state leaders have backed a legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton that prohibits local health authorities from issuing blanket school closures for all schools in their jurisdiction before the academic year begins. Local school boards can currently decide to keep schools closed to in-person learning for up to eight weeks, with the possibility to apply for waivers to remain shuttered beyond that timeframe.

Under the state’s guidance, local health officials can only intervene if there is an outbreak once students return to campus, at which point they can temporarily shut down a school.

Abbott stressed Tuesday that the policy does not mean that local health authorities are cut out of the reopening process, saying local school boards are free to consult with the health experts.

“Nothing is stopping them from doing that, and they can fully adopt whatever strategy the local public health authority says,” Abbott said.

“Extremely important: Local school officials have access to information provided to them by local public health authorities, and local school districts can base their decisions about when and how to open their schools on the advice of those local public health authorities.”

The state’s guidance has overruled orders from local health authorities to keep schools closed to in-person learning for certain periods. For example, Metro Health in Bexar County had ordered schools to remain virtual until Sept. 7.

Aliyya Swaby contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/04/texas-greg-abbott-coronavirus-press-conference/.