Tag Archives: Gov. Greg Abbott

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/.

Governor removes STAAR requirements for grade promotion, but state leaders show no intent to waive testing in 2020-21

On Monday, July 27, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that STAAR scores would not be required factors in determining fifth and eighth grade promotion next year. Additionally, students in fifth and eighth grades will only take their STAAR assessments one time, as re-takes will not be necessary. This is a welcome development for the upcoming school year, providing some relief of both educators’ and parents’ anxiety knowing that student scores will not be accurate indicators of learning due to the pandemic.

The sentiments provided by state leadership in Abbott’s announcement indicate that the state has no intention at this time to fully waive standardized testing, even as calls from stakeholders and state legislators have increased over the past month to suspend this year’s testing cycle. While districts are set to be rated “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-20 school year, Abbott said in his press release, “The traditional A-F rating system will remain in place, albeit with certain adjustments due to COVID-19.” It is unclear what these adjustments will be.

Other states, such as Georgia and South Carolina, have already taken steps toward requesting a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) from federal standardized testing requirements. Based on the statements of Texas state leaders, who want to maintain testing for diagnostic and accountability purposes, Texas does not seem likely to make such a request from the federal government unless the legislature takes action on the matter in the 2021 session. Furthermore, Jim Blew, an assistant secretary at ED, told reporters last week that assessments provide transparency on school performance and that the department’s “instinct” would be to decline testing waivers.

As previously reported here on our blog, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has touted diagnostic benefits of STAAR when asked by other elected officials about seeking another waiver of federal testing requirements. Morath also highlights the fact that TEA has already extended the online assessment windows for STAAR and STAAR Alternate 2, allowing anywhere from two- to six-week testing windows for the 2020-21 school year. These optional extensions only apply to online test administrations and have not yet been announced for the TELPAS tests. TEA has also stood up optional beginning-of-year assessments that use released STAAR questions to test prior year content.

In accordance with a resolution adopted by our 2020 House of Delegates during the recent ATPE Summit, ATPE has been urging state leaders to suspend 2020-21 STAAR and TELPAS testing requirements. Because it may be left up to state legislators to take action on this issue, it is important that they hear from their constituents who care about this issue. Visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central (member login required) to share your voice with your elected officials on testing or any other education issues.

BREAKING: Schools receive updated TEA guidance on closures, reflecting new advice from attorney general

Earlier today, Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton issued a press release sharing a letter he penned to Stephenville Mayor Doug Svien about local authorities’ power (or lack thereof) to restrict schools from reopening for on-campus instruction. Though non-binding, Paxton’s letter cautions that local health authorities cannot issue closure orders or other restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that would conflict with either state law or Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders already in effect. Paxton then argues that orders recently issued by some local health authorities conflict with both.

The AG’s letter notes that a handful of cities and counties — mostly located in urban areas more acutely affected by rising numbers of COVID-19 infections — have recently issued orders to restrict area schools from opening their doors prior to a particular date. Paxton counters with advice that such “blanket quarantine orders” issued as a prophylactic measure are prohibited. Only actual infection on the campus, according to the AG’s reasoning, would warrant the issuance of a local order to close the school to on-campus instruction. “To the extent a local health authority seeks to employ section 81.085 to order closure of a school, the authority would need to demonstrate reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease,” writes Paxton in the letter.

On the heels of the AG’s letter, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document that was issued July 17, 2020, with a newer version today, along with an “Attendance and Enrollment FAQ” document that is similarly revised.

In the latest guidance, TEA explains that because of the AG’s interpretation, “a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction.” This differs from prior TEA guidance which assured schools they would continue to receive funding if they were forced to close by a local order. Now those closure orders would have to meet the additional hurdles outlined by AG Paxton, including a vague requirement of being based on “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.” Notwithstanding the AG’s letter, TEA also clarifies in the newest documents out today that schools may still be funded while operating remotely if they are doing so under other permissible conditions, such as during the allowed four-week transition period that was announced in the earlier TEA guidance.

Many Texas public schools have already announced plans to operate virtually for the first few weeks of their school year while preparing for a return to on-campus instruction. School districts may also request a one-time extension of the state-sanctioned four-week transition period if voted upon by their board of trustees. It is believed that most of the existing local health orders restricting a return to campus would overlap with the four-to-eight-week transition period already authorized by TEA, making it unlikely that a school district would have to risk a loss of funding because of a delay in returning to campus at the beginning of the school year. Once the transition period expires, however, school districts may find themselves in a precarious position if their local health officials’ recommendations conflict with state orders in effect at the time. TEA also points out that school districts have their power to set their own calendars, which some may find a need to revise.

TEA’s new resources shared today also include a “Guidebook for Public Health Operations,” which includes protocols schools may use in responding to an lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 and recommendations for collaborating with local health officials to discuss and conduct planning exercises ahead of the new school year:

“School systems, local health departments and local health authorities should make contact prior to the start of school and conduct a tabletop exercise (detailed at the end of this document) to determine how they will work together. …  As part of the exercise, these parties will determine how to best work together in the instance of a positive case.”

While ATPE is pleased to see the suggestions for collaborative planning to respond to the COVID-19 infections within a local school community that are likely to occur in the near future, it would have been more helpful for schools to have received this guidance from the state earlier in the summer rather than within days or weeks of starting the new school year. The new TEA guidebook also adds a somewhat perfunctory statement that local “planning efforts should also engage parents and teachers,” which ATPE has urged for months now in our recommendations to local and state officials.

We are aware that many school district leaders are grappling with a maze of differing and even contradictory orders and advice on how to begin the new school year. This is especially true for districts located within the boundaries of multiple city or county jurisdictions that may not agree on how to respond to the pandemic. As noted in a statement issued today, ATPE urges the state to provide clearer direction and leadership to help schools decipher these orders and guidelines.

“ATPE recognizes that COVID-19 has created fluid situations that demand frequent updates and revisions to plans. However, with multiple directives and guidance being issued by different branches and levels of government, it is no surprise that school leaders and educators are frustrated. The state should do everything in its power to protect the lives of Texans and support a safe and productive learning environment, not create needless confusion.”

As additional developments occur and guidance from government officials continues to change, ATPE encourages educators to visit our COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for answers to frequently asked questions, which we will continue to update.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 24, 2020

With the start of school just around the corner, it’s been another busy week for ATPE and the education community. Read about this week’s developments below from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: ATPE’s incoming State Vice President Karen Hames and Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell spoke on CNN’s Chris Cuomo Prime Time show Thursday night, July 23, to contribute their perspectives on school reopening. Hames and Mitchell stressed that teachers care about their kids and want to be in school with them, but that educators have concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus in a classroom setting. Hames shared reasons why school choice would not provide any real solutions to parents’ concerns about COVID-19, and Mitchell emphasized the need for additional federal funding and better guidance at the state level to help school districts prepare for reopening amid the pandemic. Watch video of the CNN segment here.

In other news related to COVID-19, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) released a long-awaited announcement this week that delays the schedules of 5A-6A conferences. Additionally, UIL shares that marching band practice in all conferences may not begin until September 7, 2020. Updates to TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance Page this week included a new summary of the agency’s reopening guidance, several new “Strong Start” resources, and new CARES Act and attendance and enrollment information.

Visit the ATPE COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for constantly updated resources and answers to common questions from educators. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding school reopening and other issues.


This week, ATPE submitted formal public comments on the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) interim final rule directing how districts spend their CARES Act federal emergency dollars on equitable services for students in private schools. The interim final rule, effective July 1, 2020, is estimated to cause public school districts to spend over $44 million of their Title I-derived emergency funds on private school students regardless of poverty — more than $38 million more than they would normally spend under the longstanding interpretation of equitable services in federal law. ATPE’s comments urge the department to rescind its inequitable and distorted interpretation of the CARES Act, which goes against congressional intent. Over 5,200 comments have been submitted, but the department is not required to respond to them because of the emergency rulemaking process. Read more about the new federal rule in this recent Teach the Vote blog post. Read ATPE’s public comments here.


ELECTION UPDATE: Last week saw one of the most unusual elections in recent memory: A runoff postponed due to a global pandemic that proceeded to intensify in Texas as the new election date approached. Early voting was expanded from the usual one week to two weeks in order to reduce the load on polling locations. Some voters also took advantage of alternative methods of casting their ballots to avoid contracting COVID-19 at the polls, although Texas broke ranks with other parts of the country by refusing to expand the ability to vote by mail amid the pandemic. Despite the failure of lawsuits aimed at expanding mail-in ballot options, Texas saw a substantial increase in mail-in voting during this runoff election, which caused official results to be delayed by a few days but did not result in changes to any of the unofficial race outcomes revealed on election night. The July 14 election also exposed troubling voting issues that will have to be corrected before the November election.

With double the time to vote early, this month’s runoffs saw double the turnout over the primary runoff elections in 2018, 6.61% to 3.22%, respectively. After all of the debate over voting by mail, 30% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans who voted early cast their ballots by mail. That’s actually down from 36% of all early voters who cast mail-in ballots in the 2018 runoffs. Democrats had a huge turnout — nearly 956,000 voted in the primary runoffs, but comparable statewide numbers aren’t available for Republican turnout because there wasn’t a statewide GOP runoff like there was on the Democrats’ ballot. Party turnout in primary elections is not always an accurate predictor of turnout in the general election. But based on the turnout for a runoff election in July, in the Texas heat, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, it’s probably safe to assume that overall turnout for the November general election will be enormous. That makes researching candidates and making your voting plan for November more important than ever! See more election results in last week’s recap by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


CONGRESSIONAL UPDATE: The U.S. House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education met Thursday, July 23, for a hearing on the safe reopening of schools. The discussion bounced back and forth between the health risks for children and health risks for teachers and staff, with implications across the board for future funding to get schools on the path to a safe reopening. Get the full rundown on the meeting in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

While a proposal for additional federal emergency aid (dubbed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions or “HEROES” Act) was approved by the U.S. House several weeks ago, the U.S. Senate has now agreed on its own $105 billion aid package for education, which includes $70 billion for K-12 schools. The proposal would tie the K-12 funding to in-person instruction by sending $35 billion to schools that open for in-person instruction and splitting the remaining $35 billion among all schools, regardless of their method of instruction. The $30 billion for colleges will not be tied to in-person instruction, and governors will receive the last $5 billion to spend on either K-12 or higher education. The details of the proposal are expected to be made public on Monday.



After a week-long delay, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released updated guidance for the reopening of public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. The brunt of the new guidance issued last night, July 23, consists of justifying the push to reopen schools for in-person instruction. New items include recommending that schools group students and teachers into isolated cohorts or “pods” meant to limit in-person contact. There is also a checklist intended to assist parents in deciding  whether to send their children to school. A new mask guidance document suggests masks can be worn by anyone older than two years old, though some groups of students may need special adaptations and alternatives. Even as the guidance encourages reopening, it urges caution to those considering to do so in areas of substantial, uncontrolled transmission. Furthermore, the guidance recommends tying operational decisions to local epidemiological conditions. The guidance states as follows:

“Schools should be prepared for COVID-19 cases and exposure to occur in their facilities. Collaborating with local health officials will continue to be important once students are back to school, as they can provide regular updates about the status of COVID-19 in the community and help support and maintain the health and wellbeing of students, teachers, and staff.”

All of the CDC guidance documents, including the latest guidance as well as recommendations dating back to May, can be found here.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today, July 24, to take action on several items implementing the Science of Teaching Reading exam requirements from last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 and to discuss COVID-19 considerations related to certification. Additionally, the board approved a proposal to transition Legacy Master Teacher certificate holders into lifetime certificates, as HB 3 barred the Master Teacher certificate from being issued or renewed. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified before SBEC in support of this proposal, continuing our months-long advocacy for a fix for Master Teachers. Read more about today’s SBEC meeting in this blog post from Chevalier and read the written testimony here.


SCHOOL FINANCE UPDATE: Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar created buzz this week with the release of his certification revenue estimate, which shows that the state faces a $4.6 billion deficit due to both COVID-19 and the largest drop in oil prices in decades. While some revenue sources have helped to soften the blow, including federal coronavirus aid and new revenue from online commerce, the uncertainties ahead will make the state budget lawmakers’ top concern in the upcoming 2021 legislative session. Read more about the revenue esimate and Hegar’s interview with the Texas Tribune this week in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.  

In other school finance news, Just Fund It, a non-partisan group of parents, students, and community members across Texas advocating for increased public school funding, has begun a petition aimed at urging Gov. Abbott to ensure stable and predictable school funding. Specifically, the petition asks the governor to extend the 12-week “hold harmless” period for calculating funding based on attendance as recently announced by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for the coming school year. The group presents a compelling argument for extending the hold harmless to cover the entire 2020-21 school year.

ATPE expects more from state efforts to protect educators

Earlier this week, the Texas Education Agency released final public health guidelines for the return to in-person schooling in the fall. The guidelines were similar to the agency’s previously released “draft” public health guidance, with a few exceptions. ATPE’s statement on the guidance (see below) reflects our overall disappointment in the lack of clarity and specificity provided to educators who are concerned for their health and safety when returning to school.

TEA’s guidance prioritizes getting kids back in an in-person school setting without equal care for the educators who will stand alongside them in the classroom. Most educators would probably agree that students are experiencing setbacks due to the pandemic and that for some children, being away from the school environment means a lack of safety and stability amid a reported rise in child abuse. These are some of the reasons that would favor returning students to their campuses as soon as feasible, but it is equally important that educators and other school employees are able to work in a healthy and safe environment; otherwise the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning may suffer.

The TEA guidance document follows the same framework as what was in the agency’s initial health and safety guidelines draft and recommends designating an individual or group responsible for dealing with COVID-19 issues. ATPE’s Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines pressed the state to require districts to develop a more robust planning committee and COVID-19 policy approval process that includes educator and community input. Instead, the agency has opted to require districts to create a plan that is only posted for parent and public review one week in advance of the the school year and is not subject to school board approval, leaving it mostly to the discretion of superintendents.

One of the main differences in the new guidance document is that districts are granted flexibility in the form of a three-week back-to-school transition. During this time period, districts can require some students to engage in virtual or distance learning, if they have the internet and devices. Another big change in the new guidance versus the draft document is that, consistent with the governor’s recent mask order, schools must comply with face covering requirements. Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order includes exceptions, such as for those under age 10, those who have disabilities that prevent them from wearing masks, and other circumstances.

TEA has strengthened some of the language in the document to require districts to practice certain health and safety protocols, while continuing merely to suggest other practices. For example, educators and staff must self-screen, visitors must be screened, and parents must ensure that they are not sending their child to school with COVID-19 symptoms. Additionally, the new guidance says school systems must provide daily on-campus instruction for students who follow TEA’s public health guidance and whose parents want them to attend school in person.

Similar to the previous guidance, schools are encouraged to provide hand sanitizer, watch students wash their hands twice a day, and consider separating desks by six feet where possible, among many other health and hygiene suggestions. The guidance also suggests that schools reduce large assemblies and in-person staff meetings where possible.

Overall, the TEA guidance falls far short of what educators expect in terms of assurances that they will be safe when returning to work with students. ATPE will continue to work with education stakeholders and state leaders to gain better specificity for educators, as outlined in our recommendations, and to press for educators’ voices to be included in the decision-making process at all levels. Educators, and especially those who are cautious to return to school due to their age, pregnancy or nursing, health conditions, or the presence of vulnerable individuals in their household, deserve peace of mind and a seat at the table as we approach the fall.

Visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resource page for more information related to returning to school, including answers to such questions as whether your district can require you to get tested for COVID-19 or what might happen if you disagree with your district’s plan to reopen.


ATPE Statement on TEA’s Final Public Health Guidance
State’s largest educator association frustrated by TEA plan: “Too many questions are left unanswered by TEA’s guidelines.”

ATPE has reviewed the Texas Education Agency’s “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document posted on the agency’s website this afternoon.

Part of TEA’s “Strong Start” plan, the nine-page document lists minimal requirements and recommendations for school districts to consider as they prepare to start the new school year. While the final guidance contains a few more requirements than a draft leaked in mid-June, the responsibility for ensuring student and educator safety has been placed squarely on school administrators. Included in the new document are references to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order calling for masks to be worn in public, which will also apply to schools for as long as the statewide order remains in effect.

ATPE is frustrated that TEA has not heeded our call to provide more explicit guidance, nor is TEA requiring the involvement of educators and parents in developing COVID-19 protocols.

On July 2, ATPE released its own set of recommendations for state policies and district-level guidelines related to COVID-19. We urge school district leaders to follow ATPE’s recommendations as they work to fill in the gaps. Our recommendations would require each district to develop a COVID-19 advisory committee including non-administrative-level staff, parents, and community medical experts.

“Too many questions are left unanswered in TEA’s guidelines,” said Shannon Holmes, ATPE Executive Director. “We urge school district leaders to step in and fill this leadership vacuum to keep Texas children and educators safe, particularly as pockets of our state face rising COVID-19 outbreaks. All Texas students, parents, and educators deserve to be safe and have a firm understanding of the steps being taken to provide a safe learning environment.”

Read ATPE’s Recommendations for District-Level Guidelines.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 3, 2020

This week, we celebrated the anniversary of the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified July 1, 1971. Since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, now is the perfect time to celebrate with all the young people in your life as you make plans to early vote in the primary runoffs. Here is our wrap-up of this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team. We wish you a safe and relaxing Independence Day weekend!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott made headlines with an executive order requiring that Texans wear masks in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases. There are a few exceptions to the mask order, including for children under 10 years old, those with a medical condition that prevents wearing a mask, and in some specified circumstances such as driving. Violating the order is punishable by fine, but jail time for violations is prohibited. See the full executive order with a list of exceptions and exempted counties here. Abbott also reduced the limits of most allowed gatherings from 100 to 10 people. Both changes take effect at 12:01 p.m. Friday, July 3, 2020.

According to an article by the Texas Tribune republished here on our blog, Gov. Abbott gave an interview on Thursday afternoon in which he speculated about restarting schools this fall. ““If COVID is so serious, it may mean that students are having to learn from home through a distance learning program,” the governor is reported as saying, despite giving earlier assurances that it would be safe for schools to reopen soon. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to provide school districts with health and safety guidance needed to begin the new school year. The agency posted a public health document last week only briefly before quickly pulling it down and calling it a working draft.

ATPE has shared its own Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines to the state and districts, urging them to address the safety concerns of school staff, students, and parents well ahead of a return to in-person classes, especially with the current spike in Texas coronavirus cases. Our recommendations urge TEA to release COVID-19 reopening guidelines and require that prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year, each school district disseminate a local policy describing health and safety measures it will take to mitigate and respond to the threat of COVID-19. ATPE believes TEA should require districts to involve non-administrative, campus-level staff and parents as they develop such policies. Districts should promptly notify employees and parents of their policy, and they must also be ready to adjust their policy should pandemic conditions change. We also provided a list of other considerations for districts to consider as they develop their policy, which include accommodating varying levels of risk factors among their student and staff populations, minimizing person-to-person contact, planning for special populations, adjusting staff  leave policies as necessary, and addressing child care needs of their staff, especially since many districts are now contemplating staggered student schedules or mandatory remote instructional days.

Please visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for news and answers to educators’ commonly asked questions amid the rapid developments during this pandemic. Many of the categories of resources on the TEA Coronavirus Support Page were also updated this week, including an Operation Connectivity Survey, English learner guidance, waivers, finance, and grants (information on synchronous and asynchronous instruction), crisis code reporting results, July 4 public health resources, and child nutrition. Gov. Abbott also extended the P-EBT application deadline to July 31.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election started this Monday. Polls are closed today for the holiday, but early voting will continue through July 10. Election day is July 14, but we highly recommend you early vote in order to avoid crowds and lines. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier voted early and documented her experience here on our blog with tips to prepare for a safe trip to the polls.

The education-focused nonprofit organization Raise Your Hand Texas is holding two virtual forums for runoff candidates next week (see below). If you’re not attending the ATPE Summit next week, find more information and submit questions for the candidate forums here.

  • Texas Senate District 19 (San Antonio to Big Bend area) – Tuesday, July 7 at 1:00 p.m. (CDT)
  • Texas House District 26 (Houston/Sugar Land area) – Thursday, July 9, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (CDT)

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating many challenges for our public education system that will be long-lasting and require a commitment of support from our elected officials. Voting is the best way to influence laws and policies in Texas that will affect your profession, your schools, and your students. Find a list of polling places where you can vote here. Generate a personalized sample ballot here. Review candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. Stay safe, Texas voters!


FEDERAL UPDATE: On Wednesday, July 1, the U.S. Department of Education officially published a final interim rule that states how public school districts must spend their CARES Act federal emergency funds for equitable services offered to private schools. The rule became effective immediately upon being published, but it is open for public comment through July 31, 2020. TEA held an update training session on Thursday in light of the changes; expect to find the training recording on TEA’s Grant Compliance and Administration YouTube playlist here. The new rule gives districts two options – spend CARES Act funds only on Title I schools and follow the longstanding interpretation of equitable services under federal law, or spend CARES Act funds on all schools and be held to the questionable interpretation of the equitable services law advanced by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s post on the rule from last week for more information.

DeVos also announced final rules that impact the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program, which provides up to $4,000 a year to college students who are taking certain courses in preparation to teach, so long as they continually certify that they meet certain requirements when they become teachers, such as teaching in a low-income school. If recipients do not continue to meet the requirements, the grant is converted to a loan. As reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2015, many TEACH Grant recipients had their grants converted to loans due to confusion over the requirements. The new rules change the department’s practices to expand how recipients can fulfill their service obligation, simplify the employment certification requirements, and allow recipients whose grants have been converted to loans to request a reconversion, among other provisions. Read a fact sheet on the rules here.


This week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter set the record straight on erroneous claims that teachers can temporarily retire due to the pandemic. The “temporary retirement” myth was mentioned in a news story following a conference call national teacher union affiliates held with Texas reporters last week. The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) has made it clear that there is no such option for “temporary” retirement, explaining that any teacher who retires and then returns to employment will be held to a fixed annuity amount as of their retirement date. There are a number of restrictions on early retirement that educators should consider. Read retirement facts in this blog post by Exter.


New data show student engagement declined when the pandemic forced schools to close this spring. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released crisis code reporting data this week, which includes crisis code reporting on student “engagement” and indicates that more than 600,000 students (about 11% of the student population) had inconsistent or no contact with their teachers or administrators. ATPE’s 2020 Membership Survey provided even more concerning data related to engagement, as just over 65% of our survey respondents reported that their students were less engaged during virtual learning. Moving forward, TEA and school districts will need to prioritize data collection and planning that works towards eliminating barriers students faced when attempting remote learning this spring, which goes far beyond access to Internet and devices. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to address several agenda items, including revision of physical education and health TEKS, which garnered over 12 hours of virtual testimony on Monday. Votes on proposed revisions to the curriculum standards will not occur until a future meeting of the board.

On Tuesday morning, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath appeared before the board during its virtual meeting and fielded questions from SBOE members on topics such as testing and how teachers would be protected against COVID-19 risks when schools reopen. The commissioner said no decision has been made yet as to whether Texas will seek a federal waiver of testing and accountability requirements like it did during the spring when schools were forced to close. Read a summary of Morath’s comments to the board in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

The SBOE committees’ work on Wednesday was largely uneventful, although the Committee on Instruction did amend an agenda item to keep computer science as a required high school course. On Thursday, the full board had a lengthy discussion about increasing the capacity of the charter school bond guarantee program by 20%. Upon a motion by Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville), the board voted 5-9 in favor of maintaining the increase. The board moved forward with ease on their other agenda items.


An accurate count for Texas in the 2020 U.S. Census is essential for adequate funding of public schools and other services that will be sorely needed in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The Census Bureau has launched a self-response rates map, showing Texas currently ranks 40th and is tied with Arkansas. Rankings by county and city are also available, creating the perfect opportunity for some friendly competition! Congratulations to Mountain City, Texas and Fort Bend County for the highest census completion rates in Texas!

Find a Census response rate competition toolkit here, and keep spreading the word on social media and in other communications with family, friends, and the community about the importance of filling out the census questionnaire.

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/.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cassandra Pollock and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

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