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.