Tag Archives: Monty Exter

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 11, 2020

Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) adapted its guidance on equitable services this week to reflect a recent U.S. District Court ruling vacating the U.S. Department of Education’s interim final rule that directs public school districts to spend an unprecedented amount of taxpayer dollars on private school students. The court ruling issued last Friday makes the department’s rule unenforceable nationwide, but Secretary Betsy DeVos still has time to appeal the decision.

TEA also updated several other sections of its COVID-19 Support and Guidance page, including new intern and emergency certification waiver information that continues the suspensions on face-to-face requirements for candidates completing their internships, clinical experiences, field-based experiences, and practicums. Also, be sure to check out the new Project Restore training on resilience that was posted this week.

ATPE State Treasurer Jayne Serna and ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier participated in an educators’ town hall on COVID-19 and teaching this week. The Wednesday night event was hosted by U.S. Congressional District 10 candidate and former teacher Mike Seigel. Serna was the opening speaker for the event, sharing the difficulties educators are facing this school year and highlighting the importance of voting to elect pro-public education candidates. Chevalier provided an overview of COVID-19-related federal funding issues facing educators and students, federal waivers, and the need for congressional oversight of the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Also this week, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter spoke with The Texas TribuneThe Dallas Morning News, and KBMT’s 12 News Now about the current state of teaching, learning gaps, and how spending cuts prompted by COVID-19 could impact students.

As a reminder, ATPE offers educators a gamut of resources:

  • Find answers from our legal team to frequently asked questions on our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page.
  • Earn CPE by watching informative webcasts on topics such as educator rights, leave options, disability accommodations, and school safety through ATPE’s professional learning portal.
  • Explore an interactive pandemic timeline.
  • Take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.
  • ATPE members only: Use Advocacy Central to communicate with elected officials about your concerns.

ELECTION UPDATE: Don’t let the November 3 general election creep up on you. Election Day is less than eight weeks away and early voting starts in one month. This means other deadlines for registering to vote or requesting a ballot-by-mail are even sooner! Remember that if you have moved recently or changed your name, you need to update your voter registration. Here are important dates to add to your calendar:

  • September 19: If your vote-by-mail application is received by this day, you are guaranteed to receive your ballot at least 30 days before Election Day.
  • September 22: National Voter Registration Day
  • October 5: Deadline to register to vote
  • October 13: First day of early voting
  • October 19: Educator Voting Day
  • October 23: Last day that a vote-by-mail application can be received (not postmarked)
  • October 30: Last day of early voting
  • November 3: Election Day! Mail-in ballots also must be received by this date.

If you happen to live in Texas Senate District 30 and are a registered voter, you’ll be eligible to vote early starting Monday, Sept. 14, for the special election to replace Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper). Read more about the race in this previous blog post, and check out profiles of the SD 30 candidates here on Teach the Vote.


FEDERAL UPDATE: In addition to the above-mentioned court ruling against Secretary Betsy DeVos’s effort to send more public money to private schools, there was activity on Capitol Hill this week. U.S. Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to advance a new coronavirus aid package that included a $10 billion private school voucher provision. ATPE released a press statement opposing the voucher language in the Senate bill, which failed during a preliminary vote held in the Senate yesterday. Read more about the legislation and ATPE’s press statement in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week to take up hefty agenda items including the revision of science, physical education, and health curriculum standards (TEKS). The revisions garnered hours of testimony from the public, as did the discussion of eight new charter applications before the board.

ATPE and other organizations urged the board to reject the new charters due to the increased costs the state would incur by granting the applications. SBOE Member Ruben Cortez asked Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, “Is now the time to be playing Shark Tank?” Read this week’s blog posts from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins to learn more about Morath’s defense of the charter applicants, the board’s Thursday split decisions to preliminarily approve just six of the proposed charters, and the ultimate veto of three charter operators during Friday’s full board meeting.


Per usual, the annual Texas Tribune Festival has an impressive education strand of events. This week, Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby moderated a panel of Texas public school teachers, superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The teachers expressed how the pandemic impacted their interactions with students, the superintendents talked about budget and enrollment concerns, and Morath stuck to his usual admiration of data and the need to continue standardized testing. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus incorporated ATPE recommendations regarding COVID-19 and schools into a letter it sent to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath earlier this week. The letter was influenced by a task force of education stakeholders including ATPE. Among other requests, the senators’ letter urges Morath to seek a waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements for 2020-21. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Did you know that high schools are legally required to offer students who will be age 18 by election day the opportunity to register to vote? In Texas, students may register to vote at 17 years 10 months. Students can print, fill out, and mail in an application obtained from VoteTexas.gov or fill out a voter registration application online and have it mailed to them.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has partnered with dosomething.org to create the “Democracy Powered by (You)th” voter registration competition. By doing things like racking up voter registrations, students can win scholarships, school grants, and trophies. Pace High School in Brownsville, TX is currently in third place!



Today we remember the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On that day, some of our members were in the classroom as teachers, while others were still just students themselves. On this Patriot Day, we honor the lives lost that day and the heroic efforts by first responders, service members, and citizens who risked their lives that day and in the aftermath of the tragedy. We will never forget.

From The Texas Tribune: Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.

As students across Texas return to schools for in-person classes, there will be masks, distancing and lunches eaten at desks. Many students will remain at home, joining in on laptops and phones.

Students sit distanced from one another in the lunch room at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

“Things are ever changing. The one thing I’ve appreciated that stayed constant was the interest in students returning has been at 50%,” Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez said of his 7,200-student district east of San Antonio. “I believe that we can safely social distance at that number in our buildings.”

Parent interest in in-person instruction varies greatly across the state. In some hard-hit parts of the state, like Mercedes ISD in South Texas, the vast majority of parents are opting for virtual learning. In Texarkana’s Bowie County, where coronavirus cases have stayed relatively low, most Maud ISD parents have already sent their kids to school in person.

Local health authorities continue to clash with school districts over whether it’s safe to open, concerned that Labor Day festivities could lead to higher case numbers, as Memorial Day did this spring. Fort Bend County health officials sent Katy ISD a letter in late July urging it not to open classrooms or start extracurricular activities “before late September in the vast majority of cases,” until the “effect of the Labor Day holiday can be determined.”

Katy ISD, which has schools in Fort Bend, Harris and Waller counties, plans to reopen classrooms Tuesday.

When schools were forced by the pandemic to hurriedly switch to virtual learning in the spring, most Texas districts didn’t require teachers to conduct live virtual lessons, but more are attempting that type of instruction this year. That means many teachers will have to simultaneously instruct two groups of students: those in front of them, and those watching from their iPads and laptops.

In Seguin ISD, most of the lessons will also be recorded for students who couldn’t find time to log in and watch live, important in a district with 71% low-income students, Gutierrez said. “You have parents that have multiple jobs. They’re shift workers. To expect that our students are going to go through their entire day at home alongside the face-to-face learners is really unreasonable when they don’t have that support, that structure or that supervision at home. They would be missing out on instruction.”

He acknowledged that those students will be missing out on the benefits of live instruction: having a teacher correct their pronunciation of a challenging word or being able to ask questions about a complex math problem in real time.

Austin ISD starts virtually Tuesday and plans to open classrooms in early October. Eight-year-old Isla Arb will start third grade at Graham Elementary School online Tuesday and will continue virtually to avoid endangering her grandmother, who has cancer, said her mother, Katie Arb. Both Katie Arb and her husband work full time, so they hired another mother to watch Isla and her 4-year-old sibling on weekdays. They’re paying her about $15 per hour, as well as paid sick leave and vacation, replacing some of the pay she had received as a dental hygienist before the pandemic.

“The bulk of her responsibilities are going to be to keep the 4-year-old away from our 8-year-old,” Katie Arb said.

Isla is excited about getting to wear a unicorn onesie to virtual school every day at the messy desk in her bedroom. But she got quiet when she thought about her classmates and teachers returning to campus in October. “I don’t want them to get coronavirus,” she said sadly.

Even students who return to Austin ISD’s campuses will effectively be learning virtually. When she goes back to school in early October, Austin ISD high school theater teacher Rachel Seney will sit in a classroom, with a mask on, leading a virtual class through musical numbers or dramatic exercises. Students spread 6 feet apart will sit in front of her on their laptops, each one completing assignments or watching a different teacher deliver instruction.

Students will spend nearly the entire day, including lunch, in one classroom, a plan intended to reduce the public health risks during a pandemic. If one child or staff member gets infected, it will be easy to trace exactly who they were in contact with — meaning there’s no need to shut down entire campuses or districts.

Seney, who teaches at predominantly white and high-income Anderson High School, said she sees the model as more equitable since all students end up learning virtually in some way. “You’re not teaching equitably if you have some students in front of you and some students online. Now that some schools have started going back and are using that model, I’m already seeing it’s not happening,” she said. “It’s not really effective.”

Her sister Blair Seney will be doing just that at Cypress Falls High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, miles away in Harris County’s suburbs. A special education educator, she helps modify assignments or provide extra time on testing for students with disabilities alongside a primary classroom teacher.

“We’re expected to teach at the same time the kids that are in the classroom who don’t have access to technology and the students at home who are on the computer,” Blair Seney said. She has been a constant agitator for more safety requirements in schools and more flexibility for teachers terrified to return in person. In August, she stood in the back of a school board meeting with a sign that said, “Your attendance is required at my funeral,” while her mother, also a teacher at the school, spoke at the public hearing. That month, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD teachers unsuccessfully sued the district, asking not to be required to report to their campuses for training.

About 42% of students have decided to attend school in person, according to a district survey. Often, Blair Seney pulls students into her office, a tiny storage closet with no ventilation, for one-on-one assistance. “I’m not sure how that’s going to work,” she said. “It is definitely a thought that’s keeping me up at night, trying to figure out how we’re going to make all this work.”

Health precautions vary among districts and schools. Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, everyone over the age of 10 must wear a mask. But guidance from the Texas Education Agency leaves districts largely on their own to design protections against a virus that spreads undetected in as many as 40% of those who have it. In many districts, maintaining 6 feet of distance among students will simply not be possible.

“It’s very scattershot,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “There’s a huge variation in the policies that are being put in place within districts to protect the health and safety of educators, from physical structures to logistics to access to [personal protective equipment]. Absolutely there have been districts that say, ‘Here’s your two gloves and your mask, that’s all you’re getting.’”

In Houston-area Humble ISD, where kids have been back in classrooms since late August, “it has been surprisingly normal,” said Timbers Elementary School fifth grade teacher Stacey Ward. “Question mark?”

The 10- and 11-year-olds who tramp in for Ward’s science and social studies classes have been surprisingly compliant about wearing their masks, though she sometimes has to remind them, with a single word — “mask!” or “nose” — to ensure the fabric covers their noses, too. Every other student sits behind a plexiglass barrier, spaced out as far apart as possible, but with 18 to 20 students per class, it has not been possible to keep 6 feet among them.

Instruction stops five minutes early so kids can wipe down their desks. Ward collects their books at the end of the day. There is no sharing of supplies.

And Ward has made one more adjustment. Typically, when students enter or exit her classroom, they get three options: high-five, hug or handshake.

This year, she’s pivoted: “Now, it’s an elbow, a knee or a foot,” she said in a phone interview after her fourth day of in-person school. Elbow bumps are the runaway favorite.

Afterward, the students know to take a squirt of hand sanitizer. “It’s normal to them now,” she said.

ProPublica’s Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article, “Many Texas students will return to classrooms Tuesday. Little will be normal.” 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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 21, 2020

For many of you, it’s the end of back-to-school week. While this week may not have been normal or ideal, we know the bumpy road ahead will be navigated by the best experts in the land – educators! Read this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made news this week with a long-awaited announcement yesterday that there will be some data collection and reporting on COVID-19 cases in schools. TEA also updated its COVID-19 resource page to include guidance (also long-awaited) on promoting educator well-being. Read ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter’s blog post on these developments for more detail.

This week, ATPE hosted its second free legal webcast on COVID-19 issues facing school employees. In the presentation ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp gives an overview of available accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, paid and unpaid leave options, and more. Find the latest webcast here. To watch our first legal webinar on educators’ rights and COVID-19, click here.

As always, we encourage you to check out ATPE’s comprehensive COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page for recent answers to common questions from educators and links to other helpful information. Also read ATPE’s tips on getting ready for the new school year here on the main ATPE blog. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding concerns about school reopening and other issues. Finally, we invite both educators and parents to take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.


ELECTION UPDATE: U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced this week that policy changes to the U.S. Postal Service will not be implemented before the November election. The Democratic National Convention also took place this week, resulting in the final nomination of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the November presidential ticket. The Republican National Convention takes place next week. Read more about these developments in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Public comment is now open on proposed State Board for Educator Certification rules that will provide a fix for Master Teacher certificate holders who are facing the expiration of their certificate, potentially putting their teaching assignments in jeopardy. The proposed rules would eliminate the expiration date on non-renewable “Legacy Master Teacher” certificates. Read more about the issue and ATPE’s months-long advocacy efforts on behalf of master teachers in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The Texas House Public Education Committee posted five formal requests for information this week. Several House committees are issuing the public requests for information in lieu of holding in-person hearings on their interim charges. Anyone can submit information, due by September 30. Get more detail on the requests in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


On Tuesday, our country observed the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, securing women’s right to vote. Read more about the history of the amendment and the role teachers played in its passage in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 14, 2020

Whether you started school or not this week, nearly everyone is switching into back-to-school mode. Unwind and stay up-to-date with this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


Gov. Abbott speaks in El Paso, August 13, 2020. (Source)

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Saturday, August 8, Gov. Greg Abbott renewed the COVID-19 disaster declaration for the state of Texas. The declaration continues many of the special provisions, funding mechanisms, and waivers that have helped Texans get through the pandemic. Abbott traveled to Beaumont, Victoria, Lubbock, and El Paso this week to speak about COVID-19. He stressed remaining vigilant in best practices to avoid contracting COVID-19, said that bars were hot-spots and the state would need to meet certain metrics before they could reopen, and added that the state is investigating its high test positivity rate. With regard to schools, Abbott reiterated that it is up to school districts to provide remote, in-person, or hybrid models under the flexibilities (and limitations) offered by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

ATPE sent a letter to all Texas superintendents this week that included recommendations for how to respond to COVID-19, based on the communications ATPE has received from its membership. These recommendations include implementing a process to consider and make accommodations for staff health concerns; granting requested contract releases or refraining from filing complaints with the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) if a staff member resigns due to health concerns that cannot be accommodated; and providing paid leave for staff members who are ordered to quarantine.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins was featured in an article by the Texas Signal this week on the confusion that has surrounded a safe school reopening. With an order to open schools but details left up to local decision-makers, educators have gotten lost in the mix of constantly changing messages and guidelines. Wiggins said, “It is a tough situation for people who have dedicated their lives to serving children. In some cases, parents will have a choice for their kids to receive remote instruction, but educators don’t get that choice. Confusion doesn’t inspire confidence.”

The ATPE COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page has frequently-updated answers to common questions from educators. Also be sure to check out ATPE’s recent legal webinar on COVID-19 with explanations of many issues facing educators during the pandemic. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding concerns about school reopening and other issues.


ELECTION UPDATE: State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) was ceremonially sworn into office this week after formally taking the oath two weeks ago. Eckhardt will serve out the remainder of the term left vacant by former Sen. Kirk Watson through 2022. Meanwhile, a potential shakeup is brewing in Senate District (SD) 30 in North Texas. State Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) is expected to be promoted to the U.S. Congress, creating a vacancy for his Texas Senate seat that is drawing interest from many candidates, including some members of the Texas House of Representatives. This sets up a unique dilemma surrounding the mathematical majority in the chamber and the election of a new House Speaker in January.

In national news this week, Joe Biden selected his former presidential rival and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate. Harris is the first African-American woman and person of Asian-American descent in U.S. history to appear on a major political party’s presidential ticket, and was among the first in the Democratic presidential primary to call for a raise for teachers.

Finally, the U.S. Census is underway and will have a significant impact on how much power Texas holds in Congress. Read more about what’s at stake, as well as the rest of this week’s election news, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


ATPE Vice President Karen Hames participated in a virtual forum hosted by CBS Austin.

ATPE members have been speaking up for their students and fellow colleagues all over Texas this week! ATPE State Vice President and veteran middle school teacher Karen Hames was featured in a statewide virtual forum hosted by CBS Austin this week. During the Wednesday evening broadcast, Hames detailed how her school is approaching in-service days and the school year. She provided advice to parents as they begin school in a completely different environment, saying that a parent’s encouragement during virtual learning is “incalculable.”

ATPE member Myra Rodriguez-Berrones took part in a Q&A panel hosted by Sen. Zaffirini.

Zapata ISD Special Services Teacher and ATPE Member Myra Rodriguez-Berrones also participated in “Back to School? Your Questions Answered,” a Q&A panel hosted by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) on Wednesday. Berrones has spent 20 years serving children with special needs and the hard of hearing in Zapata ISD, and shared her thoughts on serving children with special needs in the COVID environment. Berrones also shared tips for engaging children at home, as well as increasing participation for parents of English learners. The panel included representatives from the Texas Education Agency, as well as speakers representing administrators, counselors, and school nurses. You can watch the full Q&A session here.


The Texas Senate Finance Committee released its interim report to the 87th legislature last week. The report comes at a time when committees in both chambers of the Texas legislature have not been able to meet for interim hearings due to COVID-19 concerns and closures. Having just received guidance not too long ago on how to conduct interim business amid the pandemic, many Texas House committees have now posted “formal requests for information” on their websites to gain information without holding a formal public hearing in person. Read more about the Senate Finance Committee report and the House requests for information in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Communication is key in every relationship. That’s why ATPE has partnered with several other education organizations to develop a public online toolkit with tips and suggestions that parents and educators can use during the challenges of virtual instruction. Use ATPE’s open submission form to submit tips from either a parent or educator perspective for classroom engagement, parent and student communication, and more!


The Texas Education Agency updated nearly all of its COVID-19 resources this week, just as some school districts across the state opened for in-person and remote instruction. The agency answered new questions regarding full-day pre-K requirements and funding, the optional and extended transition periods in the beginning of the year, and attendance and enrollment. TEA also created a new “Education Rights and Responsibilities” document for families that outlines what options for instruction and reminds parents of attendance requirements. Districts were notified this week of free training provided by OnRamps for those who are teaching in distance or hybrid learning environments. Additionally, as in the spring, districts will be required to report “crisis codes” for students based on whether the student is receiving in-person, remote synchronous, or remote asynchronous instruction. Lastly, the agency’s resources on educator preparation remind  certification candidates that, under the Governor’s disaster declaration, TEA can reduce face-to-face requirements by 20%. Similarly, the agency is advising educator preparation programs to process probationary certificates for candidates who cannot meet testing requirements (under the Governor’s waiver) as quickly as possible.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 7, 2020

Sales Tax Free Weekend in Texas starts today and ends Sunday, August 9. Enjoy shopping online, by mail, or in-person (be safe!) as you gear up for the school year with some new clothing and supplies. Before you make your shopping list, check out this week’s wrap-up from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


Abbott holds press conference on August 4, 2020. (Source)

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: With congressional negotiations over additional COVID-19 relief legislation at the federal level apparently stalled this week, schools around the country are starting the new school year with lingering concerns about the availability of resources. Here in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott made a few media appearances this week, mostly reinforcing state actions pertaining to the start of the new school year. On Monday, Abbott told KXAN that teachers should not be concerned with the safety of the school setting, claiming teachers have ther option to teach virtually for “months on end.” As ATPE has been reporting on state guidance issued and revised over the past month, school districts are limited to a maximum of eight weeks of primarily remote learning without risking state funding. Districts are adopting varied remote learning models and are not necessarily offering all teachers the option to teach remotely. ATPE Board Member Christie Smith was featured in KXAN’s story, saying that even though she is eligible for retirement, she is staying in her position to maintain health benefits and job security.

At a Tuesday press conference, Gov. Abbott stressed that local school officials are best equipped to make decisions about when and how to return to school, and he ensured PPE will be provided to districts at no cost. While Abbott stated that Texas has distributed more than 59.4 million masks, 24,000 thermometers, 568,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, and 511,000 face shields to Texas schools, many argue that this allocation will not meet the needs of students and staff for an extended period of time. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has also said previously that schools should purchase additional PPE beyond what the state is providing. On Thursday, Gov. Abbott held another press conference to discuss considerations for flu season, mainly noting that COVID-19 preparations, precautions, and heightened hygiene and mask wearing practices should make this the tamest flu season yet. Abbott maintained that although COVID-19 vaccines will not be available this fall, flu vaccines are available and “treatments” for COVID-19 are increasingly available.

ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter participated in a town hall on school reopening this week with Dr. Eliz Markowitz. Exter emphasized the need for creativity and collaboration among district leaders, parents, and educators, as well as the need for consistent and clear state leadership. Other panelists included SBOE member and physician Dr. Matt Robinson and renowned education author Dr. Diane Ravitch.

The ATPE COVID-19 FAQs and Resources page has frequently-updated answers to common questions from educators. Also be sure to check out ATPE’s recent legal webinaron COVID-19 with  explanations of many issues facing educators during the pandemic. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding concerns about school reopening and other issues.


ELECTION UPDATE: Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt formally took office as state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) last Friday, filling the seat in Senate District (SD) 14 left open by former state Sen. Kirk Watson. Eckhardt finished the July special election with the most votes, but just under the 50% threshold needed to win the election outright. She was headed to a runoff with state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), until Rep. Rodriguez bowed out of the race. Sen. Eckhardt will fill out the remainder of Watson’s term, which is set to expire in 2022.

John Lewis 📷 Library of Congress

As the nation mourned the passing of civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), we were reminded of what the congressman had to say about the power of voting to bring about positive change. “My dear friends,” he told a Charlotte, North Carolina, audience in 2012, “Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”

It’s never too early to start preparing for the next election, which falls on November 3. Gov. Abbott extended early voting by an additional week, which means the polls now open on October 13 and early voting runs through October 30. That means voting begins in just two months!

Our friends at the Texas Educators Vote coalition have put together a handy checklist to make sure you’re ready. October 5 is the deadline to register in time to vote if you haven’t already, so step one is checking to see if your registration is up to date. If you are eligible and plan to vote by mail, apply as soon as possible and return your completed ballot at the earliest possible opportunity. This will help avoid delays in the mail service like we saw during the runoff elections. Finally, don’t forget to head over to the candidates section here at Teach the Vote and research who’s running in your area. And make sure your friends do the same!


David Pore

FEDERAL UPDATE: ATPE Immediate State Past-President Tonja Gray and new State President Jimmy Lee finished a round of virtual meetings with the Texas congressional delegation last week. Along with the ATPE Governmental Relations team and our federal lobbyist, David Pore, Gray and Lee met with several members of the Texas delegation to talk about current issues of concern to educators. Read more about the meetings in this blog post written by Pore.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) recently posted the adopted Commissioner’s rules for the Local Optional Teacher Designation System under the Teacher Incentive Allotment, which was created by last year’s House Bill 3. The rules incorporated several suggestions made by ATPE during the public comment phase of the rule-making process back in May. These changes include a reference to the statutory definition of educator within the rules, a clarification of the eligible role codes for teachers to earn or receive designations, the requirement of an implementation plan in response to annual surveys about the designation system, and other clarifying language on teacher eligibility and the approval process for district plans.


School nutrition has been one of the many challenges incurred by the public education system since the COVID-19 pandemic began and schools were forced to close their doors. In the spring of 2020, school districts continued to pay nutritional services staff while taking on higher costs associated with food delivery and menu changes to make more hygienic and simple grab-and-go options for families. At the same time, and even with waivers in place, fewer students accessed school meals. This double-whammy created a financial strain for districts, which run a nearly net-zero food operation. Without more waivers or funding, districts could be looking at a tough year for food service in 2020-21, which isn’t good news for students who rely on the school for this basic necessity. Read more about nutrition and COVID-19 in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


The U.S. Census Bureau announced this week that field data collection will end one month early, on September 30 rather than October 31. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham insisted that the remaining weeks of field work, which are crucial to an accurate count of hard-to-count communities, will be handled with diligence in order to provide apportionment counts by the statutory deadline of December 31, 2020. Texas currently ranks #39 in the nation with a self-response rate of 58%. Without a complete count, Texas risks an imbalanced and inaccurate congressional representation, non-representative redistricting, and funding cuts to programs that benefit all Texans, such as roads and public education. Encourage everyone you know to complete their census questionnaire and have their own network complete the census, too. It is easier than ever and can be completed online. Read more about this recent development in this census reporting by the Texas Tribune.


The closure of the Texas State Capitol on account of the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered the ability of state legislative committees to conduct their interim work. On July 16, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen notified House committees of their options for carrying out interim committee business during COVID-19. One of the options is to post “formal requests for information” on the House website so that committees can gather written information from the public and post it publicly in lieu of holding an in-person hearing. Several House committees posted formal requests for information this week, including the House Higher Education Committee, House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee, and House Appropriations Article III subcommittee.

The Texas Senate has not yet provided notice on planned committee proceedings options during the pandemic. However, the Senate Finance Committee has gone ahead and released its interim report this Friday afternoon. In addition to general finance discussions, the report includes some recommendations for investment strategies of state funds such as the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension fund and the Permanent School Fund. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote on Monday for a more detailed look at the interim committee report released today.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 31, 2020

State officials released information this week that sends mixed messages to educators and school leaders, yet again. Read more about this and other developments in this week’s wrap-up from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: School districts around the state continue to discuss and revise plans for starting the new school year amid funding and enrollment uncertainty and with guidance from elected officials that has raised more questions than answers. As we have been reporting here on our blog, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) initially urged school districts to start the 2020-21 school year earlier to allow for extended breaks during the year. With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, TEA walked back that position in early July, suggesting a delayed reopening and offering districts a three-week transition period to move from virtual to on-campus instruction. On July 17, as several of the state’s largest cities were adopting orders that would attempt to delay a return to campus until COVID-19 cases subsided, TEA extended the allowable virtual transition period to four to eight weeks (with school board approval) and also said districts would continue to be funded if they were forced to operate virtually under closure orders from local officials. But this week saw yet another round of guidance from TEA and statements by other elected officials calling into question the validity of such local orders.

A new, non-binding legal opinion voiced by Texas Attorney General (AG) Ken Paxton and updated public health and attendance guidance from TEA on Tuesday only added to the confusion school district leaders, their staffs, and the parents of students are trying to sort through. The AG’s letter to a Texas mayor attempts to nullify local health authorities’ previously assumed ability to issue school closure orders in a preventative fashion. TEA updated its attendance and enrollment guidance the same day to reflect Paxton’s interpretation, warning that schools districts that offer only remote instruction based on local health authority orders (outside of the approved transition window in which instruction can be fully virtual) may risk losing their funding. Read more about Tuesday’s developments in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, and read ATPE’s press statement here.

On Friday, a joint press release from Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, Speaker Bonnen, Chairman Taylor, and Chairman Huberty defended TEA’s updated guidance, saying the agency has provided flexibility through various means and that it is up to local school boards to decide when and how to open schools. ATPE responded to the press release in a statement complaining about the unclear and often contradictory directives and stating, “ATPE reiterates that uniform, science-based metrics guiding reopening or closure decisions based on health and safety are needed right now—not shifting perspectives, platitudes, or power struggles.”

Knowing the frustrations that this back-and-forth causes for educators, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter told News 4 San Antonio this week it would be helpful to have consistent guidance from TEA. While the news about teachers and students returning to campus often takes the spotlight, support staff across Texas are also concerned, as the Texas Tribune reported this week. Cafeteria, custodial, and transportation staff face unique challenges this fall as they tend to be paid hourly, and their jobs, by their nature, cannot be performed remotely. In a recent CNN interview, ATPE’s Mitchell cited the need to add bus routes in order to reduce passenger loads as an example of steps school districts are finding it difficult to implement without additional financial resources from the state and federal government. Unfortunately, the ever-changing regulations communicated by state leadership make creating a safe plan, and sticking to it, difficult. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins sat down with Fox 7 Austin this week to talk about the issue, saying we are past due for local control guided by educators, parents, and public health officials.


This week Gov. Greg Abbott announced he has eliminated the requirement that STAAR test scores be used for fifth and eighth grade promotion decisions, a step in the right direction towards reducing the impact of testing in the 2020-21 school year. Additionally, according to TEA correspondence, only one test administration in fifth and eighth grade will occur this year. The change places educational decisions back in the hands of expert educators, who can easily determine without STAAR if a student is ready for the next grade. Yet more flexibility is needed. In an interview with NBC DFW this week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier expressed that eliminating the STAAR tests in their entirety for the 2020-21 school year would save valuable time and resources that will be needed for remediation and helping those students who need it the most. Read more about this development in this blog post by Chevalier.


ATPE held a legal webinar on COVID-19 this week that included educators’ questions answered by ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp. In case you missed the live webinar, you may view the recorded version to hear Tapp’s easy-to-understand explanations of the many issues facing educators during the pandemic.

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


FEDERAL UPDATE: Republicans in the U.S. Senate revealed their new proposal for coronavirus aid and relief this week, which includes an updated education proposal directing two-thirds of $70 billion in K-12 funds to schools that physically reopen for in-person instruction. The remaining one-third would be split among all public schools. The legislative package also includes a separate bill that aims to instate U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s longstanding wish for $5 billion in dollar-for-dollar tax credits for a private school voucher system. The GOP proposal comes months after House Democrats passed theirs. Read more about Congress’s progress in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The U.S. Department of Education this week announced winners for the “Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant” this week, which includes a nearly $20 million award for Texas. The grants were awarded based on priorities, the first of which was for states that opted to create “microgrant” voucher programs. Texas did not opt for microgrants and instead will use the federal money for its statewide learning management system and framework, announced to districts this week to include a free two-year subscription to Schoology.


ELECTION UPDATE:  President Donald Trump made headlines yesterday when he put out a tweet that suggested postponing the November 3 election. Many experts were quick to point out that the president does not have the legal authority to postpone the election; only Congress has that power. The suggestion drew unanimous criticism even among the president’s Republican supporters, who confirmed that there is no chance of the presidential election being postponed for the first time in American history. It’s also worth noting that mail-in voting is, in fact, a form of absentee voting; and while the primary elections revealed significant processing problems presented by record numbers of people taking advantage of the option to vote by mail, allegations of widespread voting fraud have not been proven.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) announced this week that early voting for the Nov. 3 election will be extended by an additional week. Early voting will now run from October 13 through October 30, 2020. That leaves three full weeks for early voting, which is intended to relieve crowding at polling locations. Gov. Abbott similarly extended the early voting period for the July runoff elections.

In the Senate District 14 special election, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) announced this week that he is withdrawing from the runoff against former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who finished first in the special election held this month. Rodriguez will retain his Texas House seat. Eckhardt will now fill out the remainder of former state Sen. Kirk Watson’s (D-Austin) term, which ends in 2022. Watson retired from the Texas Senate earlier this year.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held a special meeting Friday, July 31, to discuss rules relating to educator certification candidates facing challenges during the pandemic. The rules proposed for adoption will allow candidates to complete their educator preparation program (EPP) requirements for the 2020-21 school year in a virtual setting and will allow face-to-face observation requirements to be carried out in a synchronous virtual setting. After hearing testimony from EPP representatives during the past couple of months, the board voted to amend its proposal to include asychronous observations in addition to those carried out synchronously. Read more about the meeting in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 10, 2020

ATPE closed out its first virtual Summit today, which featured several discussions about COVID-19 and school safety. Read more about what happened this week from our Governmental Relations team:


The ATPE House of Delegates (HOD) approved new COVID-19 resolutions Thursday. The resolutions urge the state and federal government to delay in-person instruction this fall, suspend STAAR and TELPAS testing, require districts to include educator input in COVID-19 planning, and allocate funding for substitute teachers in light of quarantine requirements for educators. The HOD is composed of ATPE members and meets annually to vote on the organization’s policies, direction, and leadership. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said, “All along, ATPE has said that 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, and this vote by our members strongly reaffirms our stance.” Read more in this Teach the Vote blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and on the ATPE blog.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its latest public health guidance this week pertaining to the return to school that has unfortunately left many educators with even less certainty about their safety than when draft guidelines were released a couple weeks ago. While the new guidelines recognize Gov. Abbott’s mask order, provide three weeks of district flexibility at the start of the year, and provide some strengthened districts requirements, they do not require the involvement of educators and parents in developing COVID-19 protocols .

ATPE issued a statement on the release of the guidance emphasizing the rights of students, parents, and educators to understand the steps being take to ensure safety. We will continue to advocate for strengthened health and safety guidelines, as outlined in our comprehensive recommendations. In an interview this week with News 4 in San Antonio, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter suggested a potential solution to the return to school could be to pair students who have chosen a virtual learning option with teachers who are least comfortable returning to school. Read more about the final guidance in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and listen to Exter’s comments on the guidance with KURV710 radio.

Many educators are starting to learn more about their districts’ plans for a return to school. Visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for the latest news and answers to educators’ commonly asked questions during the pandemic.


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election ends today. Election day is Tuesday, July 14, but we highly recommend you early vote today in order to avoid crowds and lines if you can.

To date, turnout has been 3.25% in the Democratic runoffs and 2.13% in the Republican runoffs for a combined 5.38% turnout statewide. This number is incredibly small, yet still higher than in previous years. Voters had an extra week to vote early during this runoff election after Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period in order to spread out crowds at polling locations where COVID-19 may be spread.

The latest campaign finance reports paint a picture of some very deep pockets getting involved in runoff races. Meanwhile, candidates continue to participate in virtual public forums and face off in online debates. Get the full scoop on this week’s election news in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The recent uptick in Texas officials from both parties calling for a suspension of STAAR testing in the 2020-21 school year is a testament to the link between increasing voter engagement, politics, and the education profession. It’s become clear that the power of educator votes is recognized. Find a list of polling places here, and be sure to check out recent polling closures in Travis and Bexar counties. Review candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote and then create a personalized ballot here. Stay safe, Texas voters!


FEDERAL UPDATE: The education community buzzed over the past several days as federal officials tried to light a fire under states to reopen schools this fall. Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump tweeted that he disagreed with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines to reopen schools, saying they were impractical and expensive. New CDC guidance is expected next week. Throughout the week, the president tweeted that schools must open in the fall, even suggesting that the federal government may cut off funding to schools that don’t reopen. On Tuesday, the White House hosted a summit on “Safely Reopening America’s Schools” that emphasized the American Academy of Pediatrics’ push for an in-person return to school this fall, much as TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has done.

Though U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Tuesday corroborated on Fox News the president’s sentiment to withhold funding, she has since appeared to change her messaging. On Thursday, DeVos conveyed to Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the federal government is not suggesting withholding funds, but instead wants to allow “families to take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” echoing her previous support for private school vouchers as a solution to the fears around schooling during the pandemic.

In a Wednesday Coronavirus Task Force briefing held at the Department of Education, Vice President Mike Pence said the White House will be, “looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and an encouragement to get kids back to school.” Congressional work on a spending bill that includes education is still pending, but is expected to advance this month.


In addition to the final public health guidance released by TEA this week, the agency updated its resources on the Coronavirus Support Page and sent out new correspondence regarding principal training on remote instruction and optional beginning-of-year (BOY) assessments.

TEA has released new instructional continuity information on additional school days and a district planning guidebook for fall and various academic resources (on-campus course recommendations, graduation guidance, Texas virtual school FAQ). The optional BOY assessments for the 2020-2021 school year use released STAAR questions to measure understanding of TEKS from the previous school year and will not be used for accountability purposes, according to TEA. The agency also released several flyers and resources to help with district outreach to increase the number of families participating in the P-EBT program.

TEA also updated several resources on waivers, finance, and grants this week, including a revised attendance and enrollment FAQ stating that districts, “must offer sufficient on-campus instruction in every grade so that every parent has an on-campus attendance option every day for their student.” Therefore, no district can be 100% virtual and must offer in-person options five days a week. TEA also posted a revised equitable services FAQ, following the U.S. Department of Education’s officially published interim rule last week, along with revised documents on federal funding and waivers.

 


What can you do to spread the word about the 2020 U.S. Census? In this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier, read about key considerations for educators and community stakeholders when planning census outreach. Chevalier provides helpful tools and resources for messaging, recognizing hard-to-count communities, and knowing all of the facts as you get out the count. Happy census-ing!

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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 26, 2020

The education community saw a whirlwind of news this week as multiple pieces of guidance were released from the Texas Education Agency regarding the return to school in the fall, including a draft public health document that was posted online and promptly taken down. In this week’s wrap-up, the ATPE Governmental Relations team will fill you in on the latest happenings.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: It was gone in the blink of an eye. On Tuesday of this week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) posted a draft public health guidance document, seemingly by mistake. By the time it was taken down, the guidance had been widely circulated in the education community, and many were not happy with the lack of attention it paid to the worsening coronavirus numbers in Texas. Featured in a story by ABC affiliate KLTV-7 in East Texas, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter said, “…while we would like for the state to give teachers and districts guidance in an expedient fashion, we’re glad that the draft put up yesterday is not the final product.”

As reported by the Texas Tribune, the guidance largely focused on suggesting health and safety practices to districts rather than mandating them, reflecting Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s statement last week that it “will be safe” to return to in-person classes in the fall. Morath has since appeared to walk back that sentiment as the state’s coronavirus numbers have worsened, and the agency has said it is still soliciting feedback and developing the final guidelines. Unfortunately, this week’s developments provide little solace to educators feeling anxiety about returning to school since Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement last week that in-person classes will resume this fall.

ATPE continues to meet with legislators, other stakeholder groups, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal level to share our members’ feedback about the return to school. We released a statement on TEA’s draft health guidance document this week, in which we strongly urge 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. In the statement, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes says, “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.” Read more about ATPE’s response in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

Gov. Abbott gives a COVID-19 update on June 22, 2020

At the gubernatorial level, Gov. Abbott took several actions this week in response to a growing positivity rate for the coronavirus. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported here on Teach the Vote, Abbott strongly encouraged (but did not mandate) wearing masks in his press conference on Monday. By Thursday, the governor had decided to halt the state’s reopening plans, calling for cancellation of elective surgeries and by Friday, closing bars and reducing restaurant capacity to 50%.

Be sure to check the ATPE Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page, which offers answers to common educator questions related to returning to school in the fall, health and safety concerns, laws governing sick leave, and more. ATPE is continuing to update this page on a daily basis as new developments occur.


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you ready to vote? Get your hand sanitizer, stylus (a pencil with an eraser works), and mask ready! Early voting for the primary runoffs and the Texas Senate District 14 special election begins this coming Monday, June 29, and continues through July 10. Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes reiterated this week that voters should aim to vote early to avoid election day crowds, utilize curbside voting if possible, and follow  minimum safety guidelines released by her office in May. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

ATPE reminds voters that a decrease in election poll workers has reduced the availability of polling sites in some areas. Click here to find early voting sites near you, and check your county’s election website for wait times during voting hours. The League of Women Voters vote411.org site has a personalized sample ballot generator and more! Lastly, check out candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. Thank you for your commitment to voting, and stay safe!


This week TEA (intentionally) posted guidance on remote learning and attendance/enrollment for the 2020-21 school year, which gave districts a better idea of how they may operate this fall and how they will be funded. The agency gave districts two main options for remote learning that are differentiated by whether or not a student receives real-time, teacher-lead instruction. Additionally, the models have different ways of documenting student engagement for purposes of taking attendance. The agency plans to hold districts harmless for attendance for the first two six weeks, but this may not be enough to provide stability to districts in such an uncertain situation. Read more on the remote learning guidance in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

TEA also updated several other coronavirus resources this week, including personal protective equipment (PPE) updates, updates to general support (family mental health flyers and new child care emergency rules), “Strong Start” planning and survey tools, several updates to waivers, finance, and grants (new answers to equitable services FAQ, remote learning, attendance, missed school days, and more), and school nutrition (new letter to families on the P-EBT application).


Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education will release a final interim rule on how public school districts must spend their federal emergency dollars under the CARES Act for equitable services provided to private schools. The rule, which is unofficially published for now, gives districts more flexibility than what was originally indicated by the department; but the new rule still misses the mark in its obvious intent to expand private school access to public school resources, using the department’s strained interpretation of the CARES act. Read more about what the new rule entails in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


Texas 2020 Census response rates by county as of June 25, 2020

The decennial U.S. Census is crucial to ensuring adequate funding and programming for roads, infrastructure, our public schools, and so much more. The current national response rate for the 2020 Census shows that 61.7% of households have responded to their census. At 56.3%, Texas doesn’t have the lowest response rate in the country, but we still have a long way to go.

The update/leave process is now underway, so you might see census workers in your neighborhood visiting households that have not responded yet. Find upcoming events, training, tool kits, and other resources at Texas Counts. Here are two things you can do to help Texas shine on the 2020 Census:

  1. Text or call your family (even those great aunts) and friends and ask them if they have filled out the census. Walk them through the process if not. We have until October 31 to self-respond!
  2. Pop a census reminder in student materials and family communications or staple to school lunch bags on a regular basis and make sure parents count even their youngest babies on the census.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 5, 2020

It’s been a difficult week of unrest around the country, falling on the heels of what was already a stressful spring semester for students and educators. As Texas enters phase three of reopening, many districts are contemplating the 2020-21 school calendar and a safe return to school that will meet the needs of staff and students. See our headlines below and read a recap of education developments this week from the ATPE Governmental Relations team. And don’t forget to register to vote by June 15 for the July 14 elections. Your vote is your voice!


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced “phase three” of the reopening of Texas. In phase three, all businesses may operate at 50% capacity, with limited exceptions, and restaurants can seat bigger parties and expand their occupancy limits. Large outdoor events, such as Fourth of July celebrations, were made permissible but determinations on such events will be up to local officials. No changes for schools were announced in phase three. Find full details here.

Visit ATPE’s continually-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for the latest information on COVID-19 issues. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its coronavirus-related web resources this week as well, including updates on special education (continuity of learning), academics (Texas College Bridge and graduation), crisis code reporting guidance, reading diagnostics instruments guidance, and funding (CARES Act updates and FEMA guidance regarding a hurricane amid COVID-19).


ELECTION UPDATE: On Thursday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a permanent stay against a lower federal court’s ruling that ballot by mail could be expanded to all Texans. Further appeals are possible. This development follows last week’s Texas Supreme Court ruling that lack of immunity to the coronavirus does not constitute a disability that would make one eligible to vote by mail, but also explaining that it is up to voters to decide whether to claim a disability and local election officials need not verify such claims. Read more in yesterday’s blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.

The deadline to register to vote in the July 14 runoff election (and a Texas Senate District 14 special election happening the same day) is only 10 days from now on Monday, June 15. Make sure you’re registered and learn what’s on your ballot here. View candidate profiles, including their education survey responses and voting records, on Teach the Vote here. If you feel you meet the eligibility criteria to vote by mail, your application to receive a mail-in ballot  must be received by your local election administration (not postmarked) no later than July 2. Find additional information about voter registration from the League of Women Voters here, plus get election reminders and other resources from Texas Educators Vote coalition here,


As parents consider their children’s return to school this fall, they might wonder about virtual schooling options. However, a recent peer-reviewed study showed students who switched from brick-and-mortar schools to virtual charter schools experienced substantial learning loss compared to their traditional public school peers, even controlling for other demographic, teacher, and classroom factors. Perhaps it is virtual class sizes of 100 students or the profit-oriented nature of many virtual schools that leads to less learning. Educators would likely agree it is the lack of face-to-face, authentic interaction and relationship-building, which are essential to teaching and learning. Learn more about the study in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


School calendars and the return to school facilities remain hot topics this week. As we previously reported on Teach the Vote, school districts were allowed to reopen their facilities on June 1 for summer school. Some districts, such as Houston ISD and others, will only offer virtual summer school options as they cite challenges to implementing the health and safety protocols outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and the TEA. Texas Public Radio reported this week that at least two school districts in San Antonio will open for limited summer school programming with both in-person and virtual options. District plans include having students eat lunch at their desks, keeping students six feet apart, taking temperatures daily, and limiting group sizes.

ATPE GR Director Jennifer Mitchell

School districts are also fervently deciding on their 2020-21 school calendars and related budgeting matters. In an opinion piece published June 1 by the Dallas Morning News, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell wrote about the challenges surrounding school calendar decisions in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to health and safety considerations, many other factors need to be taken into consideration. As the Texas Education Agency (TEA) urges schools to consider longer, more flexible calendars, the extra costs of building in additional instructional days cannot be ignored at a time when many are worried about the impact of the pandemic on the next state budget. Calendar changes also impact businesses and working parents, too. “Few parents have the luxury of taking six weeks of additional leave from their jobs if students are sent home from school for extended breaks,” says Mitchell. ATPE has urged TEA to provide comprehensive guidance to help school boards navigate these decisions, and as noted in Mitchell’s op-ed, we also urge the community to support the school districts and educators who are taking on these challenges.

School start dates are a particular concern for many educators now that summer is here. Austin ISD still expects to start the school year August 18, the same date previously approved by its board earlier this year, but several other districts are heeding TEA’s advice to move up the start of the next school year. Alief ISD‘s 2020-21 calendar, posted this week as an example on the TEA website, includes an earlier start date in August, two extra instructional days, and extra week-long flexible breaks in October and February that could be used for instruction if needed. It is important for educators to pay close attention to calendar deliberations in their districts, especially since the school start date directly affects the deadline for educators to resign without penalty.

Educators can find resources and answers to frequently asked questions about returning to school on ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page. As calendar decisions are being contemplated, we also encourage educators to take advantage of any opportunities to share their voices at school board meetings or whenever staff or community input is sought by the district.


ATPE joined 20 other organizations writing a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath urging support for prioritizing students’ mental health and social-emotional needs, especially as those needs have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic. As stress and reports of family violence and trauma have increased across the state, the letter calls for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to use available resources to infuse mental and social-emotional health strategies and practices into the state’s education priorities for the benefit of students and school staff alike. The letter was spearheaded by Texans Care for Children, a non-profit focusing on the well-being of Texas families and children.


U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady

With more educators thinking about retiring from the profession in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many are concerned about their Social Security benefits. Spearheaded by our Washington-based lobbyist David Pore, ATPE continues to urge Congress to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) that reduces many educators’ Social Security benefits. One of those leading a bipartisan effort to replace the WEP with a more equitable solution is U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-The Woodlands, Texas), former chairman and now ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means. Texas Retired Teacher Association (TRTA) Executive Director, Tim Lee, sat down with Rep. Brady this week for a Facebook Live conversion about the congressman’s efforts to reform the WEP. As noted by Lee (on the video at 13:15), ATPE has worked with TRTA and Rep. Brady for many years on pursuing WEP relief both for educators already retired and those who will retire in the future.

To learn more about the WEP and how it might affect you, read this Teach the Vote blog post or the Social Security information on the main ATPE website.