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.”