Tag Archives: in-person instruction

From The Texas Tribune: Texas schools tell teachers with medical risks to return to classrooms

Several school districts are trying to accommodate teachers with health conditions who want to work from home, but many are being called back in as more students return to classrooms.

Joy Tucker outside her home in Deer Park. Credit: The Texas Tribune

Texas schools tell teachers with medical risks they must return to classrooms during the pandemic

After several miscarriages over the last few years, Joy Tucker is finally pregnant with her third child at the age of 37.

A school counselor at the Houston-based Windmill Lakes campus at the International Leadership of Texas charter school, Tucker talked to her doctor about the risks she and her child would face if she were to contract COVID-19 from students or other employees. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that pregnant people may be at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness, or even preterm birth. At her doctor’s recommendation, Tucker turned in a note asking her school if she could work remotely.

School leaders denied that request, saying she would have to return to work in person in September. If not, Tucker would have to use the rest of her paid leave to remain home, leaving her no time to recover after the baby’s birth. Her options quickly dwindling and her baby due in January, Tucker lawyered up and filed a grievance with the school district.

“I want nothing more than to go back to work and be with my kids,” said Tucker, who chose to use paid leave instead of returning in September. “If I have to choose between mine and my baby’s life, or going to work in a situation where we could get sick or we could die, there’s no choice to make — I have to stay home.”

Caitlin Madison, a spokesperson for the charter school, declined to comment on Tucker’s case but said, “since this school year started, the ILTexas policy has been that if we have students on campus, then we need to have our employees on campus as well.” About 28% of students in the district have chosen to return to campus.

“The only work-from-home exception for campus staff has been if they are sick with COVID or were potentially exposed to COVID and require a 14-day quarantine,” she added.

International Leadership of Texas is one of a number of Texas schools denying some teachers’ requests to work from home, as they balance staffing against often-fluctuating student enrollment. Federal disability law allows employees to ask their bosses for reasonable accommodations, such as temporary schedule changes, shift changes or working remotely, if an illness puts them at higher risk for COVID-19.

School districts must grant those requests unless they would pose an “undue hardship,” including costing too much or impeding their ability to run the school. With Texas largely requiring school districts to bring back all students who want to return, administrators like those at International Leadership of Texas argue they cannot run their school campuses properly if too many teachers stay at home. More than 2 million of 5.5 million Texas students were attending school in person as of late September, according to a state estimate, an increase from 1 million earlier this fall.

Experts say that school districts should layer safety requirements such as masks, social distancing and sanitizing to keep COVID-19 from spreading. In other countries, transmission in schools has been extremely low. But few of those countries had the same level of uncontrolled community spread as Texas, which has failed to contain the virus in many regions and is seeing regional surges in cases. State data on transmission in public schools shows almost 6,500 teachers reported positive COVID-19 cases, but the data is limited and full of gaps.

Given the unclear picture of COVID-19’s spread in Texas schools, teachers say school administrators are unfairly expecting them to put their lives in danger, in some cases requiring all staff to return to campuses even when most students have chosen virtual learning. Texas teachers have little leverage, given the state’s strict labor laws: Any teachers who strike could be stripped of their jobs, teaching certificates and pension benefits.

“You don’t need to be in an office to do your job,” said Tony Conners, who is representing Tucker and has exclusively represented teachers for more than 30 years. “Since spring break, when COVID-19 hit, everyone was working from home and [school districts] were taking the money from the government and they were telling the communities and parents that they were being well served.”

Conners said he’s heard from more teachers than ever before wanting counsel on how to get accommodations to stay home. The toughest cases, he said, are in charter schools and suburban districts. By law the process is individualized, requiring school leaders to talk with employees about how to meet their needs.

But districts do not have to hire new staff or create new positions to accommodate someone under the law, said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. “If more than half of students are coming back, you have to create social distancing in the physical environment, which may mean you need smaller class sizes and therefore you need all hands on deck,” she said. “A lot of districts responded to that by saying, ‘We don’t have remote-only positions.’”

Even districts currently providing teachers with accommodations cannot guarantee them for the entire year, since many are allowing parents to decide each marking period whether to enroll their students in virtual or in-person education.

“If we can provide some of those accommodations without creating a hardship on a campus where they wouldn’t be able to serve their students safely, then I wanted to be able to proudly say that we had valued both students and staff,” said Austin Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde.

About 700 of 5,000 total Austin ISD teachers have received permission to work virtually at least through December. But as more students return in person, “we will be challenged to keep all of those accommodations for a long time …… There is of course fine print that says, if it becomes necessary to rescind the approval for school student needs, then we would have to do so,” she said.

Some teachers have already had that rug pulled out from under them. In August, Gina Morreale, an Eanes ISD middle school history teacher, was approved to work remotely after turning in a note from her doctor explaining her chronic bronchitis and susceptibility to pneumonia. She even got an email from administrators asking her not to come on campus to do her work sponsoring the cheerleading team. Lean on the cheer moms, she was told.

A month later, Eanes administrators decided to bring back all students who wanted to come in person, instead of phasing them in slowly. Unfortunately for Morreale, that meant also bringing all staff back to campus.

“This can’t apply to me,” she remembers thinking. “Maybe this applies to someone who is in a walking boot — someone that wasn’t high risk.” She started to think through her options — Could she quit and move in with her parents? Did she need to look for a new job?

She asked her doctor for another letter with more detail, and said she is still working with district leaders, hoping they can agree on an accommodation.

Eanes ISD was forced to call its staff back to ensure there were enough personnel, said spokesperson Claudia McWhorter. The human resources department is working with concerned educators on a case-by-case basis. “Even when we were at 25% capacity, our campuses were short-staffed; some campuses have been forced to have an all-hands approach and even have principals serving as teachers in classrooms,” McWhorter said in an email. “Simply put: with more students returning, we need staff in the buildings.”

For now, Morreale has been able to work remotely, but she’s not sure how long the district will allow it.

“I hope I can until it is safe for me,” she said.

Administrators that deny teachers’ requests to stay at home are offering other options. Baskin said the school board association is training human resources directors to get creative in thinking about accommodations that could help teachers with health risks safely work from school buildings. That might mean offering a more remote office away from students and teachers or extra safety equipment.

Six years after finishing multiple rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer, Pasadena ISD high school English teacher Elizabeth Alanis asked if she could work from home. Her white blood cell count, which determines the health of her immune system, still yo-yos every several months.

To her horror, after a conversation with school leaders, she received a letter denying her request to stay home long term. The district instead offered to minimize her direct contact with students, provide her with plexiglass dividers and protective equipment, set up student desk shields or move her classroom to an external portable building so she didn’t have to pass many people in the halls.

“Your job duties and responsibilities require your physical presence on campus as of September 8, 2020,” they wrote in a letter Alanis provided to The Texas Tribune. “Consequently, the District does not believe allowing you to telework after the short-term program has ended and after students have returned to campus, is a reasonable accommodation based on your job duties and responsibilities as a classroom teacher.”

According to the district, she is one of 59 teachers who have formally requested to work from home through the federal disability accommodations process, of about 3,700 teachers total. None of them were allowed to work from home past Sept. 8, when students returned to campus. “Pasadena ISD must provide students attending in-person instruction with a safe, supervised school/campus environment, and that effort is supported by all of our staff being physically present,” said Arturo Del Barrio, spokesperson for Pasadena ISD. The percentage of students on campus is gradually increasing, from about 40% in September to almost half by mid-October.

Alanis used her personal leave days to remain at home until mid-October, but decided to return Tuesday, unable to afford unpaid leave for months. “I’ve spoken to my oncologist on this matter and he knows it’s a tough place to be in. My white blood cell count is still low, so that just means I’ll have to take extra precautions,” she said. “I am going to invest in a medical grade mask and I am going to also invest in an air purifier with a UV light.”

Sitting out of classes for even part of a semester is heartbreaking for Alanis, who has been a teacher for 16 years, most of them in Pasadena ISD. “There’s not much they can take from me at this point. They’ve already kind of taken who I am,” she said, her voice over the phone showing she was close to tears. “I’ve had such huge ties to my students, to my community. And oh my God, I love those kids.”


Texas schools tell teachers with medical risks they must return to classrooms during the pandemic” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/20/texas-schools-teachers-coronavirus-pandemic/.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATPE 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.