Tag Archives: health and safety

Food for thought: School nutrition and COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Texas in March, one of our first concerns was how students who normally relied on the school for meals would continue to have access to nutritious food. Public school districts went above and beyond to ensure students continued receiving meals, parking at motels for meal distribution, initiating drive-thrus, and packing different foods that worked better for grab-and-go. These efforts contributed to higher costs for public school nutrition services this spring, which put a financial strain on districts’ ability to continue providing meal service to those who need it the most.

But it isn’t just the higher costs associated with out-of-school meal service that is a concern; it is also the lower numbers of students accessing meals that is straining districts. According to recent reporting by Politico, the National School Lunch Program served 28 percent fewer meals in March 2020 compared to March 2019. North East ISD estimated a $2.6 million shortfall this spring due to increased costs from serving more expensive foods for grab-and-go consumption and decreased revenue from fewer meals served. While census data is used for meal service planning purposes, districts are actually reimbursed for nutrition services based on the number of meals served and whether students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Students who purchase meals at school, or even a la carte food items, help provide extra revenue to districts that enable them to break even in their food operations.

Federal waivers provided in the spring allowed school districts to serve meals at any campus, without students present, and at no cost to all students, regardless of their eligibility for free and reduced-price meals.This flexibility has not been extended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could inhibit districts’ ability to receive enough reimbursement to maintain operations without needing financial support from other district funds (which are also tight at the moment). Furthermore, the expectation for families to fill out and districts to process free or reduced-price meal eligibility paperwork could create an unnecessary burden for families and schools. It is expected that millions of children have become eligible for free and reduced-price meals due to the economic effects of the pandemic. Pending legislation in Congress could address meal service flexibility in schools, as well as general funding, but negotiations are currently stalled due to debates over unemployment benefits.

Schools are part of larger district systems, which are part of state systems and federal systems. These systems work together to ensure that students’ basic needs are met, such as having a nutritious meal to eat, which allows for learning to occur. When school nutrition services are strained, these basic needs can also become strained. Other benefits such as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) have provided essential funds to families, but P-EBT does not guarantee the “square meal” nutrition of the school nutrition programs. In order for schools to continue acting in creative and courageous ways to get meals to students, more will have to be done to ensure financial stability for these programs.

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 House of Delegates adopts resolutions on COVID-19 educational considerations

This week, over 2,000 educators convened for the 2020 ATPE Summit, held virtually for the first time. The ATPE House of Delegates (HOD) met Thursday, July 9, for the association’s annual business meeting. Delegates from every region of Texas convened to elect state officers and adopt policies and official legislative positions of the association on behalf of its 100,000 members.

The HOD adopted two new resolutions pertaining to education and safety concerns of school employees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:

RESOLUTION #1:

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to safeguard the health and safety of students and educators by delaying in-person instruction until Texas has demonstrated a flattened curve in the number of COVID-19 cases; and

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to require local school districts to include educators and parents in the development of plans for the safe re-entry of students and district employees; and

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and our U.S. federal government to allocate emergency funds for substitutes in case of mandatory quarantine requirements for district personnel.

During debate on the resolution, ATPE members cited the fears expressed by teachers who have compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, especially in light of a recent, rapid increase in the number of cases. Delegates also spoke about the difficulty of containing viral spread, especially if teachers are placed in classrooms with students who may not be required to wear masks, and expressed doubt about the ability to carry out contact tracing in schools. With some teachers feeling that they are being asked to make unreasonable sacrifices in order to hasten a reopening of schools that is motivated by economic factors or political pressure, ATPE members are recommending a delay in returning to campuses in order to keep everyone safe. Only one delegate spoke against the resolution noting that ATPE has already been urging the state to take steps to safeguard the health and safety of educators and students.

RESOLUTION #2:

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and the U.S. Department of Education to waive requirements to administer the 2020-21 STAAR and TELPAS due to the disruption of in-person instruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The author of this resolution on standardized testing argued that students have lost critical learning time as a result of the pandemic and that teachers’ time should be devoted to fostering student learning rather than test preparation. Speakers observed educational quality varied widely as COVID-19 forced a sudden shutdown of schools. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the U.S. Department of Education both waived requirements to administer STAAR exams this spring. The ATPE resolution was amended yesterday to include the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) as well as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR), based on discussion about the importance of both tests and a plea to prevent English language learners who are struggling in an online learning environment from being subjected to unfair testing through the TELPAS.

Read ATPE’s statement about the newly adopted resolutions here. These resolutions will be implemented by the association over the next year and along with the ATPE Legislative Program will guide ATPE’s continuing advocacy work on numerous issues, including the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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/.

Voting in a pandemic: One ATPE lobbyist’s experience

Today is the first day of early voting for the Texas primary runoff elections. Last week, I checked to see if my normal early voting polling location here in Central Texas was still open, since I knew some locations had been forced to close due to the pandemic. It was indeed still open with hours of 8 am to 5 pm, so I made a plan to vote on the first day of early voting, trying to avoid crowds and lines as much as possible.

Preparing to vote this morning was different from my experience in previous elections. I gathered a face mask, hand sanitizer, a stylus, a pencil with eraser, my driver’s license, and my voter registration card. I wanted to have a couple different stylus options for the touch-screen voting machines, just in case. I didn’t end up needing the registration card or the pencil, but they were good to have.

There weren’t any more cars than normal when I arrived at my polling place, and there wasn’t a line or anyone appearing to use curbside voting. This felt typical, especially since I tend to go in the early hours of the first day of early voting. There were new signs posted outside the polling location showing suggestions such as wearing a mask, keeping distance between you and others, bringing a stylus, and using curbside voting if you had COVID-19 symptoms.

The inside of my polling location looked mostly the same, although I think there were fewer voting machines since they were more spaced out. There were also Plexiglas protectors at the check-in area and all poll workers were wearing masks. I provided my driver’s license to the poll worker under a small opening in the glass partition. When I said the wrong street address, I realized I was a little nervous and the poll worker reassured me that everything was very clean and that they had been trained extensively on how to protect themselves and voters.

I highly recommend that you early vote. I was the only voter in the room the entire time and was in-and-out in under five minutes. Early voting for the primary runoffs and the SD 14 special election if you live in the Austin area runs from June 29 to July 10. Election day is July 14. Remember, everyone can participate in the runoffs, even if you didn’t vote in March.

  • If you didn’t vote in the primaries in March, you can vote in either party’s primary for the runoff.
  • If you voted in the Democratic primary in March, you must vote in the Democratic primary runoff.
  • If you voted in the Republican primary in March, you must vote in the Republican primary runoff.
  • If you live in Texas Senate District (SD) 14, you have a special election to vote in as well!

Create your personalized ballot here.

Find your polling locations and hours here.

Learn more about candidates’ views on education issues here on Teach the Vote.

ATPE reacts to preview of TEA’s health guidance for next school year

ATPE issued a statement this afternoon on a draft document that was widely circulated today regarding state officials’ plans for the next school year. The draft of the “SY 20-21 Public Health Guidance” document from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) includes recommendations for school districts as they plan to prevent and respond to COVID-19 in their communities.

The proposed guidance includes certain notice requirements for school districts, including posting a  summary of the district’s plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 before the start of school. It would also require schools to instruct students on the first day of school about hygiene practices to reduce the spread. Most of the recommendations in the draft document, however, are merely suggestions and not mandates. For example, the draft advises that having students, staff, or visitors wear masks on campus and placing student desks six feet apart are things a district should “consider.”

As noted by the Texas Tribune today, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told school superintendents this afternoon that his agency was not yet ready to issue final health and safety guidance today. Educators, school district leaders, and parents have been anxiously awaiting additional direction from TEA after the governor and commissioner made comments last week about plans for students and staff to return to school.

Saying last Thursday, “It will be safe,” regarding schools’ resuming in-person instruction this fall, Commissioner Morath promised additional guidance early this week on the plans for instruction during the 2020-21 school year, as well as “flexibility” for families with health concerns. The draft document circulated today includes assurances that parents will have options for virtual instruction of their children if they choose not to attend classes on campus. The draft does not include any similar guidance on flexibility for staff with health concerns related to COVID-19, instead stating, “Employees of school systems, like employees of any organization, must continue to meet the work expectations set by their employers, subject to any applicable employment contract terms.”

A recent increase in reported cases of COVID-19 infection is one of the reasons state officials are said to be revising the guidance and not ready to release it today. The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in Texas hit a new record high on this Tuesday, adding to the difficulty of decision-makers at the local and state level to implement appropriate precautions. As we await additional information from TEA or the governor that we will promptly share here on Teach the Vote, below is a copy of ATPE’s June 23 public statement about the TEA draft guidance:


ATPE Statement on Texas Education Agency’s Public Health Guidelines
State’s largest educator association: TEA’s draft guidance shows need for more work to provide the support schools need

Earlier today, ATPE reviewed a draft of what Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and TEA are calling the “Strong Start” plan—a framework for school districts to follow as they implement COVID-19 safety protocols to bring students and faculty back to school. The draft comes after the governor’s announcement last week that students and teachers would be back in classrooms this fall.

While the Commissioner has pledged to release the final guidance in the coming days, it’s clear from this draft that much is being left up to individual school districts to determine what works best for their local communities, with few state-level requirements beyond notice to parents and students of a district-adopted plan and protocol following a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19.

Considering this, ATPE strongly urges the state to require stronger actions to ensure the safety of school employees and Texas students. ATPE also asks school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendations of medical experts regarding the impact of the pandemic in their area as they implement their back-to-school safety protocols. 

ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes

“Nothing in this guidance so far offers additional peace of mind for teachers, school district leaders, or parents,” said Shannon Holmes, ATPE Executive Director.  “Elected school boards and superintendents now face a difficult balancing act between preventing COVID-19 outbreaks and ensuring children are in the most productive learning environment possible—a physical classroom with an in-person teacher. They deserve to have support and actionable guidance from the state of Texas.”

According to a just-concluded survey of ATPE’s 2020 membership, more than 65% of ATPE members said their students were less engaged in learning when required to attend school virtually. This fact must be balanced with health and safety concerns, which are top-of-mind to a large portion of Texas educators, according to another recent ATPE survey, this one open to all Texas educators.

The COVID-19 Educator Impact Survey, which focused on educators’ top concerns related to returning to campus during the pandemic, showed that more than 65% of the educators surveyed named the health and safety of students as a top concern. Sixty percent of respondents listed their personal health and safety, and more than 45% reported concern about student learning gaps and learning loss.

ATPE is committed to ensuring the success of Texas educators and public schools, especially during these uncertain times. In early March, ATPE launched a COVID-19 resource and FAQ page at www.atpe.org/coronavirus. The webpage, one of the first COVID-19 resource webpages directed specifically toward Texas educators, lists government resources, breaking news, self-care resources and tips, and a comprehensive FAQ with fact-checked answers to common questions on everything from district requirements, health and employment, and working with students.

In addition, ATPE staff have been engaged in daily communications with ATPE members, elected officials, agency staff, school district leaders, and other stakeholder groups to find solutions to the many challenges created by COVID-19. As an association representing approximately 100,000 educators across Texas, ATPE welcomes any opportunity to share input from our research with TEA as officials finalize their guidance.

“Given the current trends related to COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, it is impossible to predict the public health situation in August 2020,” said Holmes. “What we at ATPE can guarantee is that we will be with our members each step of the way, helping individual members navigate concerns related to policy decisions in their districts and championing the tremendous contributions of educators as essential workers in this crisis.”


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/.