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From The Texas Tribune: Texas families say remote learning isn’t working and they want it fixed

A summer of delay and inconsistency from state political and education leaders left Texas schools little time to prepare for an academic year with millions of students learning from home. Now many of those kids are failing through no fault of their own.

 

Hezekiah Hunter has been learning from home due to the pandemic and has struggled to manage the onslaught of assignments that come with remote learning. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune


Almost midway through the school year, it has become increasingly clear that virtual learning is failing a sizable number of Texas public school students whose parents decided to keep them home as COVID-19 grips the state.

The disturbing number of students posting failing grades while trying to learn in front of computer screens has also brought into sharper focus the failure of state education and political leaders to prepare for an academic year they knew would be like no other.

Over the last month, The Texas Tribune has interviewed more than 30 educators, students, parents and experts across the state about their experiences with remote learning. Parents and students describe a system in which kids are failing, not necessarily because they don’t understand the material, but because the process of teaching them is so broken that it’s difficult to succeed.

Teachers say they are scrambling to retool education, creating new videos and online lessons from scratch and struggling with new demands and limited time. They blame state leaders for squandering valuable months over the summer by delaying key decisions, frequently reversing course and sending conflicting messages to educators on the ground.

Instead of immediately giving local school officials the guidelines and tools needed to prepare, state leaders waffled on policies that school communities needed to make their decisions. They challenged local health officials over who had the authority to keep classrooms closed in areas with high coronavirus infection rates, feeding uncertainty about when and where students would return to classrooms.

By the time the fog cleared, school officials had mere weeks to roll out plans for the fall semester, including training teachers, students and parents on new technology; designing ways to keep track of students falling through the cracks; and upholding some semblance of academic rigor.

The Texas Education Agency indicated it has done the best it could in limited time, working throughout the pandemic to continue providing resources for districts thinking about remote, hybrid and in-person instruction.

Students are now paying the price, and the highest is being exacted from students Texas already struggled to educate. According to a Texas Tribune analysis, school districts with mostly Black, Hispanic and low-income students have higher shares of students learning from home. And state data showed those students were less likely to be engaged in online learning in the spring, when all schools were online.

“There’s just a level of fatigue with this that, given the way that the distance curriculum is being structured, is just wearing on kids and families in a way that’s really untenable, especially in those communities that were already disadvantaged before this,” said Benjamin Cottingham, who has studied the quality of remote learning in California and put out recommendations on how districts can improve.

A squandered summer

Confusion and uncertainty have marked Texas’ response to the pandemic across all fronts.

Constantly changing, confusing top-down guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott this spring eventually led to surges in the number of Texans hospitalized and dead from COVID-19. As the Trump administration aggressively pushed schools to reopen their doors — seeing it as the key to invigorate a slumping economy — Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath decided all Texas schools would be required to open their doors to all students who wanted to return in person, but must also be prepared to teach remotely those who did not want to return.

But the guidelines on how to do both those jobs effectively and safely were delayed for weeks this summer as Abbott reconsidered his hands-off approach to the pandemic. By late June, the TEA had promised it would keep state funds flowing to districts for the students who attended remotely, and it began offering districts a little more flexibility as it became clear the pandemic was getting worse. In July and August, state leaders publicly bickered with local health authorities who wanted to keep classrooms closed during COVID-19 spikes, eventually taking away some of their authority to make those decisions.

As state leaders put out conflicting mandates, school superintendents attempted to prepare for the fall ahead. They repeatedly surveyed families, trying to figure out how to cater to two groups of students, some coming to school in person and others staying home.

Some districts considered having two corps of teachers — one for students in classrooms, the other for virtual learners — thinking the bifurcated approach might improve education for all the kids. But there was no money to essentially double the staffs of each school, and there weren’t enough classrooms to socially distance all those teachers.

After holding listening sessions with superintendents, the TEA offered districts free access to a virtual learning system, which 400 school districts educating millions of students have adopted. The agency also contributed hundreds of millions in federal stimulus money to subsidize bulk orders of computers, Wi-Fi hotspots and iPads. But in some cases, supply chain issues delayed shipping for months. Texas has also provided online course materials schools can use for free — but some courses are still being rolled out midway through the year.

“The better time to have rolled all this out would have been last June, last May,” Morath acknowledged this week at a State Board of Education briefing. “But we are moving as fast as we can, all things considered.”

Delayed starts to the school year allowed districts to spend more time planning, but some struggled to use that time wisely. “We could have used another month or two of planning and training and figuring things out,” said Mark Henry, superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District outside of Houston. “But parents had the opportunity to declare whether they were going to be face-to-face or remote until two weeks before school started. We didn’t know what our numbers were going to be until 10 days before school would start.”

Returning from a chaotic summer, teachers had to create new classes for virtual learning with almost no time to plan, while instructing kids in person and online at the same time. Texas funds districts for remote students if they can show those students engaged with their lessons that day. A simple task like taking attendance now lasts more than twice the usual time, as teachers hunt for evidence that a student reached out or completed an assignment.

Most districts have required teachers to come to the classroom daily, even denying many stay-at-home requests from those with medical conditions. “If we’re fearful of COVID and stressed out by these mandates and inflexibility, our effectiveness is going to be diminished as well,” said Lori Wheeler, who retired from Austin ISD in early November, worried about the health risks of working in person. “We had three weeks to learn a completely different job.”

Thoroughly preparing for an academic year such as this one would have taken at least a year in the best of circumstances, educators and experts said. But the delays at the state level left teachers with mere weeks to plan for the fall. “I think teachers were kind of flying blind in the sense that they were kind of making it up as they went, trying to do their best in terms of how much planning time the teacher has and how effectively they thought they could conduct lessons,” said Christopher Williams, a teacher in Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district and one of the last to bring students back in person. “These online platforms are new to us.”

Frustration hits home

The stress and lack of preparation teachers experience trickles down to students and parents. Parents and guardians told the Tribune that teachers have often not made clear to them which class assignments are required and which are just suggestions. Sometimes parents tell their children not to bother completing assigned work at all, worried the stress will overwhelm them and have long-term effects.

Candace Hunter’s daughter Hezekiah, who is 11, used to love school as a straight-A student. Now, she is inundated with mundane assignments from multiple classes, leaving her despondently working into the evening to clear the backlogs. The sixth grader at Austin ISD’s Lamar Fine Arts Academy asks her mom if she can stay out of school.

Hunter, a veteran teacher who now privately trains teachers, said the school has not adjusted its teaching policies to be more flexible. In a normal year, teachers ask students questions throughout a lesson and give them homework to get proof they understand each skill or lesson. Replicating that method on a virtual platform has been disastrous, resulting in dozens of emails and messages that students and parents must sort through each day, she said.

Candace Hunter’s children are home-schooled due to the pandemic and have been struggling to manage the onslaught of assignments that come with remote learning. Hunter and her children are photographed here in Austin on Nov. 17, 2020.

From left: Candace Hunter’s children Hezekiah and John-Mark are home-schooled due to the pandemic and have struggled with remote learning. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

“Why not create a system that will draw people back to you? Like, ‘We thought about who needs this program the most … and each campus has created a program especially for their population that is going to be engaging and robust.’ That’s not happening,” Hunter said.

Eventually, she told her daughter’s teachers, “If this continues, we’re going to start cherry-picking our assignments.”

With more low-income students and students of color learning remotely, existing disparities in education are exacerbated. A Tribune analysis showed that in majority low-income districts, an average of 64% of students are learning from home. That rate climbs to 77% in majority Hispanic school districts and 81% in majority Black districts, according to the data collected in late September by the TEA and Department of State Health Services. By contrast, in majority white school districts, 25% of students are learning from home.

Remote learning is working for some students, but often requires an immense amount of time from guardians and parents. Natasha Beck-King, a history graduate student with coursework of her own, transferred her son to a San Antonio ISD school from a local charter school when it was clear the charter did not have a long-term plan for remote learning.

Beck-King stays up late with her children to verify they have completed their work and feels like parents should spend more time doing the same. “If your kid is failing and they’re not in tutoring, and you’ve communicated with the teacher and the teacher is communicating back with you … that is not on the school,” she said.

Some schools had the resources to prepare earlier. Marysa Enis, a former school psychologist at Austin ISD, said remote learning is going well at her son’s school, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, which used its own money to pay teachers to plan over the summer.

But some families lack the resources for online learning to ever be successful this year, through no fault of their schools. Georgina Pérez, a Democratic member of the Texas State Board of Education, lives in the southeast corner of El Paso County, a border region where broadband access is limited. Her youngest children, fifth grade students at San Elizario ISD, received computers and hotspots from the district, but couldn’t get a signal and eventually gave them back. Now, Pérez drives to the school every Tuesday to pick up paper packets, assignments on material the children learned more than a year ago.

Pérez knows her children may need to repeat the fifth grade next year and believes they will eventually catch up, but she worries about the students in families without as many resources. She blames the situation on state delays, not just to get control of the pandemic, but also to get its most vulnerable communities connected to the internet. “How many years have we studied the needs for broadband infrastructure in Texas?” she said. “Twenty years ago, we already knew what we needed, but we just didn’t do it.”

Carrots and sticks

The TEA has used both carrots and sticks to encourage school districts to follow certain guidance.

Despite significant outcry, Texas plans to administer STAAR standardized tests to students this spring and use those scores to rate schools and districts, which could lead to sanctions for some. Looming accountability ratings have spurred administrators to increase the difficulty of courses and push teachers and students to get back to normal in a year that is anything but.

“If we don’t push our kids, if we water down the curriculum and make it easier, I guess, then they won’t be where they need to be when it comes to accountability testing in the spring,” said Linda Parker, assistant superintendent at Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD in North Texas. “We’re trying to operate in a world that is so different than what we’ve had before.”

And the threat of lost state funding due to drops in enrollment has been a specter for superintendents already spending up to millions to COVID-proof their buildings.

In late July, as state leaders battled local health officials over who was in charge of school reopenings, Texas said it would provide funding for schools that kept their classrooms closed only if they did so for state-approved reasons. Districts took that as a threat that their funding would be yanked if they listened to local health officials who said in-person school wasn’t safe.

Recently, Texas announced it would fund school districts for declining enrollment through the first semester, instead of just the first 12 weeks. The announcement was met with tempered relief from superintendents who are waiting to hear if they will receive that financial reprieve for the entire year. The suspense has left teachers and staff wondering if they will still have their jobs months from now, adding yet another layer of tension.

In response to complaints from parents and educators, the TEA and superintendents tinkered with their requirements for schools. In October, the TEA said schools were required to have qualified staff instructing or supporting students face-to-face in classrooms if they wanted to get funding, which it said clarified existing guidance.

That clarification ruled out a system Austin ISD and others had been using, in which students remained in the same classroom and learned virtually while supervised by a teacher. Austin ISD had to start from scratch and announced that its middle and high schoolers would physically transition between classes and receive face-to-face instruction starting Nov. 2.

Many educators used the well-worn idiom “building the plane as you fly it” to describe the summer and fall. Parker took the saying a step further in describing how schools are responding to shifting state guidance. “It’s actually like, ‘Guess what, pilot? Here’s your plane, but we’re going to change the motor. Now we’re going to change the structure. … Then, as the year starts, we’re going to change your plane. We know you don’t know that much about it, but you’ll be fine.’”

“Throw ’em an anvil”

At times, the response to the pandemic has been like a massive game of telephone, with the TEA giving guidance to school superintendents that scrambles by the time it reaches teachers and parents.

This summer, the TEA explained to districts the online programs available to help them manage classroom tasks and monitor student progress. Lily Laux, a deputy commissioner at the TEA, told the Tribune she wanted districts to understand that remote learning would be easier with the higher-end programs, since teachers would be able to easily track whether students were engaging with the lessons. But she said she was not mandating a change.

In an email to staff at the end of June, obtained by the Tribune, Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Doug Killian announced that the district would be pivoting to Canvas, a program used frequently in higher education that teachers describe as challenging to learn. He explained that “guidance from TEA requires a more robust system for instruction, more in-depth online instruction, and necessary tracking of students online for attendance and funding purposes.”

The district did not launch training for the program until Sept. 4, with the goal of phasing it in for students and parents from mid-October to January. District leaders plan to extend that time for teachers who need it, said spokesperson Tamra Spence.

“That’s like throwing someone in the deep end of the pool, and when they don’t drown, throwing ’em an anvil,” said Don Fisher, a former Texas A&M-Kingsville lecturer on student media, who has taught and designed online classes for more than a decade.

Confused and frustrated by the late rollout of the new program, some teachers said it was the result of top-down decision-making that lacked foresight and left them out of the process. “There was no organized, centralized, deliberative initiative from school districts to professionally develop their teachers and increase their proficiency on these … platforms,” said Cuitlahuac Guerra-Mojarro, who teaches engineering in the district. “Had there been foresight and leadership and understanding about what the future is, we would have been more prepared.”

And ultimately students pay the price. Alexis Phan, a sophomore at Pflugerville High School, stares at a screen for at least eight hours a day and feels like her teachers are moving at too fast a pace. Some of her classmates have lost friends to suicide or shootings and are struggling to focus. One week in October, Phan had six tests in electives and core subjects. She is passing all her classes, but her grades are lower than they used to be, and she spent weeks staying up until 1 a.m. doing homework.

Sophomore Alexis Phan does her Algebra 2 homework remotely, from her home in Pflugerville.

Sophomore Alexis Phan does her algebra homework remotely from her home in Pflugerville. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Phan spends most days at home alone, with her father at work every other week and her sister and mother at work. She feels sad and lonely often, “just doing work alone with so much work just piling up constantly.” But she visits her grandparents regularly and worries going back to school in person could bring the virus back to them.

“Honestly, I wish that some teachers could be a bit more understanding with us. They should be a little more understanding that just because we’re in a pandemic or have a three-day weekend that they shouldn’t give us more work than what they would normally do,” she said. “It’s just harder to learn online.”

Awaiting a fix

Medical and education experts say remote learning should continue to be an option for families that don’t feel safe sending students to classrooms.

But instead of trying to improve virtual learning, dozens of districts are already bringing all students back in person. Texas recently changed its guidance and allowed districts to require failing students to return in person or find another district. But with COVID-19 cases rising in many regions, some administrators are being forced to temporarily shut down schools for weeks at a time and rely on their remote-learning programs to keep students up to speed.

From mid-September into October, Gunter ISD, in rural North Texas, had to quarantine 190 students after they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive, according to Superintendent Jill Siler. About 91% of the district’s students are learning in person, and the other 9% use online programs that Gunter ISD purchased, with classroom teachers providing support for younger students.

For now, Gunter ISD will keep remote learning since some students are successful and because an increase in COVID-19 cases would require the district to educate kids remotely. “If we’re still in December and in as much struggle as we are now, that decision [to cut remote learning] in December may look different,” Siler said.

Siler and other school administrators are working to learn from mistakes and improve their virtual learning programs. Hays CISD administrators gave teachers more time to plan lessons and created a help desk for parents or teachers, said Superintendent Eric Wright. They have also considered reducing the number of required assignments after getting feedback that it was “overwhelming.”

The TEA continues to provide updated guidance and offer training for the free virtual learning systems and technology tools. At a legislative hearing last week, Morath told lawmakers that Texas needed to “reengineer the school experience so students reach high academic outcomes” in 2021, including changing how instruction works, addressing disparities among students and investing in teachers.

Cynthia Ruiz, who quit her job as an attendance specialist in Austin ISD in October, said schools should change their expectations of what instruction looks like during a pandemic. They could shorten the school day or school year, free up time for teachers to connect with their students and build in more time for mental health check-ins.

“To try and mimic the school day in the way we’ve always done it was their first mistake,” she said. “One reason why we have low grades is because we’re saying everything is important, and when you’re saying everything is important, nothing is important.”

Mandi Cai and Chris Essig contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Google have been financial supporters 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 originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/20/texas-schools-remote-learning/.

Texas schools may access federal funds to reimburse remote learning costs

Earlier this year Congress passed the CARES Act to provide pandemic relief funds to individuals, as well as K-12 schools. Texas has received more than $1.5 billion of the federal allocation targeting education. There have been attempts this year by some policymakers to divert the federal funds earmarked for public schools to private individuals or entities, but ATPE has consistently maintained that these funds should flow directly to the public schools that need them to address the challenges of COVID-19. This week state officials shared more information about how they are spending the federal dollars.

Texas received $29.2 million through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and $1.28 billion through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, both funded by the CARES Act. In June, Texas notified the federal government that it intended to use its GEER funds to support remote learning through Operation Connectivity, provide virtual interventions for students with dyslexia, and create online instructional materials. Similarly, the state indicated that it would spend its ESSER funds on a summer bridge program to help graduating seniors, mental and behavioral health supports, remote instructional platforms and materials, and assistance for school districts adapting to remote learning environments.

On Wednesday, November 18, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that $420 million of the CARES Act funds sent to Texas will be made available to school districts for reimbursement of COVID-19 expenses. Specifically, schools may request the funding to offset prior purchases of Wi-Fi hotspots and other technology devices.

The Dallas Morning News reported on the development last night, sharing ATPE’s comment that the announcement is a significant step in the right direction but only the beginning, as districts’ funding needs related to COVID-19 will persist. ATPE has also urged the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to make it easier for schools to access the funds. School leaders have reported many bureaucratic hurdles involved in the process of applying for the reimbursements. Similarly, in response to ATPE’s surveys, educators have expressed frustration over burdensome paperwork and reporting requirements imposed by the state since the pandemic began disrupting the school environment.

The state has already used a smaller portion of CARES Act funds to reimburse some of the expenses incurred by schools during the latter part of the 2019-20 school year, to fund “hold harmless” agreements to prevent schools from losing funding due to enrollment drops, to subsidize broadband access through Operation Connectivity, and to create instructional materials for its TexasHomeLearning.com online platform launched earlier this year. More controversially, Gov. Abbott has allocated approximately $30 million of the CARES Act funding he oversees to a new voucher program for students with disabilities, a move ATPE and other organizations have opposed.

TEA announced Thursday, November 19, that the agency is adding new instructional materials to the latest iteration of Texas Home Learning (THL 3.0) geared toward Pre-Kindergarten students. The THL initiative began as an effort to give families direct access to instructional materials, including summer reading assistance, but has since grown to include the provision of an optional Learning Management System (LMS) for school districts through the acquisition of a statewide license with the education vendor Schoology. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told members of the State Board of Education this week that $64 million of the CARES Act funds have been spent on THL.

It appears that only about one-quarter of the state’s school districts have opted to use the new LMS, and ATPE members’ reviews of the Schoology platform and THL instructional materials have been mixed, at best. Although the allocation of CARES Act funding for THL has been relative small, educators tell us that they would rather see those pandemic relief funds sent directly to school districts to help them hire additional staff and give teachers more time for planning and develop their own innovative curriculum that meets the needs of their students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

With fuzzy guidance from the state, school districts grapple with remote learning and timelines for resuming in-person instruction

Plans for resuming in-person instruction remain in flux across the state as many districts near the end of their allowed four-week transition period to move from virtual to in-person learning.

The latest Texas Education Agency (TEA) update to its statewide “Attendance and Enrollment” guidance reflects that some school districts may feel a need to request more than eight weeks of flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. “Any additional transition window will require board approval after preliminary TEA plan feedback has been received,” notes the TEA document released September 24, adding the agency will expect any district seeking additional transition time to be steadily increasing the number of students on campus during that period. But, despite assurances that the agency will take health-related metrics such as hospitalization data into consideration when reviewing such requests, the state’s decision-making remains discretionary and impossible to predict—leaving school districts grappling with how to proceed. ATPE believes this isn’t fair to administrators, teachers, parents, and certainly not students.

Since early summer, ATPE has urged the governor, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, and other state officials to use objective, health-related data as the basis for school reopening decisions that are made at the local level. While we are glad to see the state’s recognition of some data on COVID-19 infections as a valuable consideration, ATPE believes it is unfair to leave school districts guessing as to whether the state ultimately will grant them additional flexibility if they believe it is unsafe for students to return to campus.

As we have reported, Gov. Abbott announced last week an easing of restrictions on restaurants and certain other businesses, but the changes were not applicable to three areas of the state that remain “danger zones”: Victoria, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley. Gov. Abbott said further reopening decisions would be based upon COVID-19 hospitalization data in the area, noting that the hospitalization numbers remained too high in those three areas, which include 13 Texas counties.

Rio Grande Valley school district leaders have been pleading with the commissioner and elected officials for additional flexibility on resuming in-person instruction. Today’s updated guidance notes that when reviewing district requests for extension of the transition period, TEA will consider “whether school systems are located in whole or in part in areas” identified as hot spots under the criteria referenced by the governor.

ATPE issued a press statement today in response to the new information from TEA. ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell stated in the release, “ATPE is pleased that state officials are finally listening to our recommendations on the importance of basing reopening decisions on objective, health-related data. However, TEA’s promise merely to ‘take into consideration’ such data offers little comfort for schools being pressured to reopen their facilities before it may be safe to do so under local health recommendations.”

School district approaches to reopening vary widely. COVID-19 has not affected every community to the same degree, and differing political views about the pandemic have put pressure on school boards. Not surprisingly, many districts have revised their initial plans and may still be considering further changes. Several districts are announcing plans to terminate virtual instruction, while others are looking for ways to extend it. The shifting landscape and fluctuating directives from school district leaders have been frustrating for educators and parents alike, resulting in emotional debates on social media and in school board meetings. Also frustrating is the red tape surrounding the decision-making process: Districts seeking to stretch out their return timeline must first secure initial board approval, then submit a request to TEA for “preliminary feedback,” and then ask for another board vote.

A few examples from across the state:

  • Fort Worth ISD began its school year with four weeks of remote instruction set to expire October 5. Last week, the FWISD board voted 5-4 against a motion that would have extended the district’s remote learning plan an additional four weeks. But this week, the board held another meeting and voted 5-4 in favor of adding two more weeks to the transition period. The change came after educators and parents testified at the 10-hour meeting, with some circulating petitions and organizing rallies on both sides of the issue. ATPE submitted testimony urging FWISD to base its decision on local public health data, paying close attention to the recommendations of Tarrant County Public Health.
  • Hardin ISD posted a notice on its website this week stating, “Due to less than acceptable virtual participation and student results, please be advised that Hardin ISD will cease virtual learning on Friday, October 2, 2020.”
  • Louise ISD sent a letter to parents September 22 stating, “The effort required of our teachers and administrators will no longer be divided by the requirements of offering remote learning beginning Tuesday, September 29, 2020 … I am not mandating that your family chooses to return to school. Yet, I am suggesting that you make a decision that continues to provide the appropriate needs of your children.” Superintendent Garth Oliver lists “suitable” options for parents to consider: returning to school in-person, transferring to a district that offers remote learning, or withdrawing from the public school system to either home-school or enroll in private school.
  • Brownsville ISD’s superintendent has urged stakeholders to lobby TEA for more flexibility. The Brownsville Herald reported September 19 that Superintendent Rene Gutierrez asked the state to allow BISD “to continue at 100% distance learning so that we can ensure everyone’s safety,” but the district plans to begin hosting students on campus September 28 because of state limitations on the timeline for operating remotely.

Commissioner Morath clarified on a call with superintendents today that no school district is required to offer remote instruction, but any parent who wants their child to continue attending school virtually must be allowed to transfer to a school district that offers it.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among on-campus students and staff is being reported by each school district and shared via an online dashboard. There is a lag in the reporting time, however, and the numbers reflect only test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among individuals who have been on the campus. TEA posted this updated FAQ document about the COVID-19 data reporting today.

Teachers, superintendents, and commissioner speak at Tribune Festival

The Texas Tribune is holding its annual Texas Tribune Festival this month. Rather than an in-person event jam-packed with speakers over a few days, this year’s festival is taking place virtually throughout the entire month of September. The event still features a prominent strand of panels and interviews related to education. A session held this morning, “Public Education in the Time of COVID,” featured two teachers, two superintendents, and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. Here’s what the panelists had to say.

No more high-fives or cozy reading corners. Texas public school teachers Paige Stanford (Waco ISD) and Ale Checka (Forth Worth ISD) are optimistic about the school year and simultaneously saddened by the lack of physical interaction they anticipate having with their students. Both teachers highlighted how the pandemic has changed their community, from inspiring more empathy to creating traumatic situations. In Stanford’s school district, she said, “the streets went empty,” when Waco ISD principal Phillip Perry passed away from COVID-19, but Stanford added that students are now excited to help others by wiping down their desks after class. A shift in attitudes has impacted teachers, too. Checka said she, “will never forget or forgive the way that state leadership has tried everything possible for us to not be able to follow local public health guidelines.”

Superintendents Dr. LaTonya Goffney (Aldine ISD) and Dr. Michael Hinojosa (Dallas ISD) were each in different stages of reopening their districts for instruction, but both expressed that assessment will be key in determining how to support students and fill in learning gaps from the spring. Since Aldine ISD has already started instruction, Goffney was able to confirm that enrollment in the district has declined by about 3,500 students (out of 67,200), with more than 50% of the decline occurring in pre-Kindergarten. This comment trends with other anecdotes gathered by ATPE, which suggest parents are choosing to keep their children out of optional grades such as pre-K and Kindergarten. Goffney said her district is trying to identify students who are not showing up to school, but many students are impacted by policy changes outside of the school’s purview, such as the rental assistance program in the Houston area.

Both superintendents on today’s panel said their districts spent millions of unanticipated dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies, sanitizer, plexiglass, face shields, masks, misters, food, and devices to keep students safe and learning. Aldine ISD spent $10 million while Dallas ISD spent $31 million. Many of these costs will be reimbursed at 75% through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, while others will be handled through the state’s Operation Connectivity program. In the long-term, Hinojosa said he is concerned about being able to maintain many of the programs his district offers.

It would have been nice for Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to respond directly to some of the comments made by the teachers and superintendents, as would have been possible in a regular in-person panel. However, the answers he provided to moderator and Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby did shed some light on important policy topics, such as accountability.

It is no secret that Morath loves data, as it undergirds all of his discussions. Much like they did in the spring, Texas school districts will use existing data reporting systems to track where students are receiving instruction. The commissioner said we are about two or three weeks away from being able to look at this data, but Morath noted that it seems the majority of students are in remote instructional settings. This is despite the fact that the “overwhelming majority” of districts, according to Morath, are offering in-person instruction.

With regard to standardized testing and accountability, Morath expressed his view that most people want more data during a pandemic, not less. The commissioner said assessing expectations of students is still important for ensuring they are meeting milestones for success later in life. Morath believes the STAAR tests are an accurate gauge for mastery, which then provide educators with information on who needs extra support so that we can help students reach their potential. These comments reflect the commissioner’s views of assessment as a diagnostic tool, which Morath spoke about during an SBOE meeting earlier this year.

The commissioner stressed that the state tests use data on student growth over the course of the year and that parents still deserve to know that information about their school. ATPE and many others have questioned whether any growth measures will be accurate this year, given the loss of learning in the spring during COVID-19 school closures, rapid transitions to remote learning, and the loss of contact with 11% of students. Nevertheless, Morath didn’t indicate any easing up on district and campus accountability ratings using the test scores, saying the data will help to identify best practices of those who do well during the pandemic. Unscientifically identifying some things that work during one year of an exceptional time might satisfy the curiosity of some, but at what expense to schools and districts that experience negative accountability interventions and sanctions due to a pandemic?

Morath closed out his remarks by expressing satisfaction with the amount of money that had been allocated to districts to mitigate COVID-19 costs and pay for closing the digital divide. He also expressed hope that public health data expected to be posted toward the end of September will help the state identify if there is viral spread in schools.

The Texas Tribune Festival continues through Sept. 30, and it includes numerous free events that are available to stream right now. As usual, the festival features specially priced educator and student tickets, which provide full access at a fraction of the cost. Nearly all of the festival events, including this morning’s education panel, are available for replay on demand for ticket holders who may have missed previous events.

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.

ATPE survey, TEA data show pandemic-related decline in student engagement

This spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic sent our educational system into triage mode, Texas educators were asked by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to document “student engagement” using crisis codes in the state’s Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS). The data collected by the agency was released yesterday, but take it with a big grain of salt. The term “engagement” might be a misnomer based on TEA’s definitions, and ATPE’s own survey of Texas educators indicates we have a lot of work to do on re-engaging students.

Student engagement as we familiarly know it typically refers to factors such as attendance, participation in lessons, timely completion of assignments, and students’ attitudes toward learning. For reporting purposes during the crisis, TEA defined an engaged student as one who was responsive and completing assignments, which is rather vague. For example, secondary students in multiple classes were considered engaged if they were completing assignments in any core content area. Therefore, an “engaged” middle school student could have completed some assignments in an ELA course but in no other courses. An “unengaged” student was defined as responsive but not completing assignments, regardless of the underlying reason for the student’s lack of engagement. An “uncontactable” student was defined as not responsive at all.

As defined, the TEA crisis codes seemed to measure whether students were present as opposed to their true engagement. Additionally, these definitions leave out students who may not regularly complete assignments as part of their schooling, such as those who receive special education services.

The student engagement data newly released by TEA, which is still being updated by districts through July 16, showed that 88.72% of students were “engaged.” The agency reported that approximately 11% of students either were not engaged for some time or their school districts lost or had no contact with them. For context, this amounts to approximately 609,000 Texas students who severely lacked the emotional, academic, and social stability traditionally afforded by schools and educators this spring. That’s a disturbing number, even under TEA’s rudimentary definitions of engagement, but input we’ve solicited from ATPE members suggests a much larger number of students became less engaged once schools were forced to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The recent ATPE Membership Survey conducted June 5-19, 2020, included a question on student engagement that we believe provides much more insight about how students were participating and learning during remote instruction this spring. When asked how engaged their students were during remote instruction, just over 65% of ATPE members surveyed said their students were “slightly less engaged” or “much less engaged” on average as compared to their level of engagement during previous in-person instruction. This information was provided by 3,250 survey respondents.

ATPE 2020 Membership Survey results on student engagement during the pandemic-related school shutdown

The misnomer of “engagement” as loosely defined by TEA is even more problematic when applied to the agency’s disaggregated PEIMS data, which are presented in such a way that suggests students of color, low-income students, and students in younger grades were not as “fully engaged” in school this spring as other students. Whether or not these subpopulations of students were engaged is more accurately framed, we believe, by the barriers students may have faced both in accessing school materials and having the necessary instructional support at home. (Having a stable home setting and parents or caregivers who are present make a difference.) Through TEA’s “Strong Start” resources, districts are being encouraged to collect some survey data from families and educators related to barriers as they plan for the upcoming school year.

Where do we go from here? Evidence is mounting that the “COVID slide” will be steep and likely even steeper for students of color, low-income students, and younger students who may not be developmentally ready for remote instruction. With an upcoming school year that will include an even greater emphasis on remote instruction and no plans as of yet from TEA to halt state testing and accountability mandates, it is more important than ever to gather information on the barriers students face and make concrete plans to address them. TEA has said the state intends to use federal emergency dollars to improve connectivity and access to digital devices for students, but these will be of little use if a child has inadequate instructional support at home or no place to call home at all.

Including teacher voices to gather their experiences with students during remote learning and their take on how to improve access to education during a crisis is crucial. ATPE has urged the state and school districts to solicit feedback from educators, including classroom teachers, as they develop plans for the next school year.

An ATPE member told a story of sitting with their student (virtually) to talk through their parents’ loss of income, their fears about the pandemic, and adjusted assignment expectations since the student was now working at a job, too. This is not necessarily “completing an assignment,” but it is engagement and it is at the core of the work that educators do. If you can’t engage a student and have a meaningful relationship, their basic needs will not be met (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?), and they will never get to a place of learning .

Read this reporting by the Texas Tribune to learn more about the “COVID slide” and the engagement data recently released by TEA.

Commissioner discusses COVID-19 issues at the June SBOE meeting

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is holding its June meeting this week. On Monday, the board heard over 12 hours of testimony from more than 250 people on the review of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for physical education and health TEKS. The board’s discussion of these TEKS was pushed to Tuesday’s meeting.

On Tuesday, the board began with an appearance by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, whose comments were primarily related to education issues stemming from the current coronavirus pandemic. Because Texas lacks end-of-year student learning data, Morath pointed to an outside study on the blended learning tool “Zearn,” which showed disparate outcomes in learning between students with different wealth measures. Morath did note that data will likely be released today on Texas public school student engagement, which was gathered by teachers in the spring. Morath stressed that we cannot allow the public health crisis to become an educational crisis and discussed transitioning from crisis-mode instructional support to instruction, in order to minimize learning loss.

As we previously reported here on Teach the Vote, Morath explained that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has used its waiver authority to set up two new school finance mechanisms, which will allow districts to receive funding for either a synchronous or asynchronous remote instructional model next school year. In a later answer to a question by board member Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-Converse), Morath explained that attendance (tied to schools’ ability to receive funding) in the asynchronous method of remote learning will be specifically determined through a district’s definition of progress and engagement, which must abide by an already established framework defined by TEA. Morath stressed that it is essential to get as many children back in school as possible and as quickly as possible, but the commissioner said he understands that it may not be safe for some children to return to school.

Morath stated that the risk of COVID-19 infection, transmission, and complications in children is much lower than for adults and expressed confidence that districts can implement enough strategies and protocols so that parents feel safe sending their kids to school. This appeared to leave some board members wondering, “What about the teachers?”

Board member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) later asked the commissioner to address how the agency is prepared to protect educators and deal with infected school employees who have to miss school or quarantine. Morath pointed to the agency’s provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shields, plus guidance the agency has provided to districts suggesting screening protocols and considerations for higher levels of distancing. Similarly, member Aicha Davis (D-Dallas) later asked Morath if there was going to be any state support for teachers who are pregnant or have asthma, to which Morath responded that it will be left up to school districts to address this issue, and TEA has provided them guidance regarding staff who fall into a high-risk category. Morath suggested that there would not be any additional state financial support for districts in dealing with this issue of accommodating staff around such COVID-19 concerns.

During his presentation, the commissioner commented on the financial situation facing Texas public schools. He stated that while negative downturns in the economy will impact tax revenue, Texas has not announced cuts to public education funding and does not plan to cut funding in the coming years. Morath explained that the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund created as part of the federal CARES Act will be used to execute the “hold harmless” provision for Average Daily Attendance (ADA) that the agency recently announced. This means that cuts to funding in the coming year will not be necessary, according to the commissioner. In addition to the ESSER funds, half a billion dollars will be allocated through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), also part of the CARES Act, which will fund 75% of schools’ coronavirus-related expenses incurred during the 2019-20 school year. Morath said the state also plans to provide PPE to every school district, fund access to broadband and digital devices through Operation Connectivity, and offer the free, optional Texas Home Learning platform and resources for districts that do not already have a learning management system (LMS) in place. The commissioner added that 24% of Texas students needed paper learning resources this spring, which is likely why connectivity and access to devices are a large focus of how the state plans to spend its emergency funds provided by Congress.

When board member Davis asked the commissioner how racial equity would be addressed in his agency’s efforts, Morath referenced the increases in funding that resulted from the legislature’s passage of House Bill 3, Operation Connectivity, and the Texas Home Learning network. Similar to his previous positions, the commissioner suggested that each district is responsible for closing the gaps and that TEA can only provide robust resources within the limits of the agency’s own funding. Member Barbara Cargill (R-Conroe) asked Morath how the Texas Home Learning network was being vetted and what was being done to ensure that it will not become the next CSCOPE. Morath responded that the new home learning resources were meant to be extremely transparent and available to the public, but the commissioner added that he would like those resources eventually to be vetted by the SBOE .

Before taking questions, Morath also commented on the reading academy requirements included in House Bill 3, stating that all requirements are still on schedule. Reading academies will be offered mostly in a blended learning form. Providers may begin offering cohorts in July. More information on reading academies can be found here.

Board member Tom Maynard (R-Florence) asked about TEA’s future plans for administering the STAAR test. Morath answered with a long-winded explanation of why assessments are important for measuring learning for diagnostic purposes and emphasizing the correlation between STAAR test scores and future outcomes for students. To provide districts some flexibility, the commissioner stated that the agency has extended the testing window for the coming school year and that there will likely be future adjustments to the A-F accountability system to compensate for not being able to calculate growth. In response to a question by board member Georgina Pérez (D-El Paso), Morath said he isn’t sure if Texas will be requesting another testing waiver from the federal government in the upcoming academic year.

Lastly, Pérez asked the commissioner to comment on charter school expansion requests and if TEA could improve its process for notifying SBOE members of charter school expansion amendment requests. (ATPE was among a coalition of education groups that asked the commissioner to impose a moratorium on granting charter school expansion requests during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to save the state money.) Morath replied that expansion requests are being processed as normal. With regard to notice requirement, Morath did not have an answer.

The SBOE will continue to meet through Thursday of this week. Find the full agenda here.

For all information and guidance that TEA has provided to districts during the pandemic, visit the TEA COVID-19 Support page. Be sure also to check out ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources for frequently updated information for educators about issues related to COVID-19.

TEA shares remote learning guidance for fall 2020

Despite announcements last week that schools wound be able to safely open in the fall, Texas policy makers have been quietly saying for months that as many as 20% (or maybe even more) of Texas’ 5.4 million students may not return to their neighborhood school when it reopens for the 2020-21 school year due to continued concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic. With this in mind, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been working on a funding framework that encompasses distance learning options within existing law, as opposed to simply waiving requirements as the state did out of necessity at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The agency’s Remote Instruction Guidance and accompanying 2020-21 Attendance and Enrollment FAQ released yesterday, June 23, include two remote learning options for school districts, along with funding assurances and methods for gathering attendance. These changes will only be in effect for the 2020-21 school year and are only possible under TEA’s waiver authority.

Several aspects of the provided options are promising, while others are concerning. The agency’s focus on tying student-to-teacher contact to funding will help ensure that students interact with schools and teachers on a daily basis. On the other hand, the agency does not provide guidelines for ensuring student-to-student interaction, which could hinder important social and emotional development. TEA does take a step in the right direction by refraining from simply expanding full-time virtual programs, as some legislators have recommended, under the Texas Virtual School Network, which has not proven to be an effective learning model for students in the past.

There remain some gaps in TEA’s guidance with regard to funding and resources. As many have said throughout this pandemic, districts are being asked to build a plane while flying it, and without any new resources to boot. TEA’s proposed “hold harmless” approach to calculating Average Daily Attendance (ADA) for the first 12 weeks of the new school year will help districts that experience a significant enrollment drop, but many believe this accommodation should be extended to cover the entire fall semester or the full year. School attendance may not stabilize until well after a vaccine has been widely distributed, which Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers Tuesday could be at the end of 2020 or early in 2021.

Here is a summary of the remote learning options outlined by TEA in its most recent guidance:

Synchronous Instruction

In the remote synchronous learning model, students “sit” in virtual classes with their teachers and teachers take attendance much like they would in the physical school setting. This method generates funding based on a minimum number of daily minutes, which do not have to be consecutive. A defining feature is that PK-2 students are not eligible for funding through this model, as many agree that this type of real-time virtual classroom environment is not developmentally appropriate for young students who may have difficulty sitting in front of a computer screen for long periods of time. In order to offer this remote synchronous instruction method, districts must submit an attestation, complete a checklist of preparation items, and post the attestation on their website.

Asynchronous Instruction

In the asynchronous model, students will be expected to complete instruction and school work  independently, with intermittent teacher interaction. According to TEA, even the youngest grades can participate in this self-paced method, and attendance will be determined based on student “engagement.” Engagement will be specifically defined by each district, but TEA notes that it can be shown through progress in the Learning Management System (LMS), student/teacher interactions in the LMS, or turning in an assignment. Engagement must happen any day a student is marked present, which would then generate full-day funding.

The asynchronous model requires more work on the district’s end than the synchronous model. Districts will have to apply to TEA and submit a plan that details expectations for scheduling, curriculum, student progress, and educator support. For this reason, the agency is providing an attendance grace period or “hold harmless” through the end of the third six-week period while districts go through the approval process.

The Texas Virtual School Network (a not-so-new method)

TEA also reminds districts in its guidance that the Texas Virtual School Network (VSN) is available. Funding for this method is based on course completion, and districts can choose to enroll students in up to three VSN courses. As we have previously reported here on our blog, some state lawmakers have been advocating an expansion of the VSN. However, ATPE supports the limitations in statute that prevent the expansion of virtual schooling, as data have repeatedly shown that student performance in Texas virtual schools falls well below that of students in brick-and-mortar settings.

Funding with “Grace”

TEA will implement an ADA grace period or “hold harmless” provision for the first two six-week periods of the school year so that if a district experiences more than a 1% loss in enrollment compared to the first two six-week periods of the 2019-20 school year, those weeks won’t be counted in the overall ADA calculations that determine funding. As mentioned above, an additional grace period for the third six-week period will be applied for districts adopting the asynchronous model. This grace period does not apply to charter schools opening in 2020-21, as they do not have comparative ADA data from a previous year of operation. Additionally, district ADA numbers will be capped at the attendance rate of the 2018-19 school year, with some exceptions.

Rights to On-Campus Instruction

TEA’s plans reflect Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s desire to make instruction in the 2020-21 school year similar to what instruction looked like before COVID-19, while keeping district offerings subject to parent wishes. In other words, whether parents request remote or on-campus instruction for their child, the district must meet the request. TEA’s guidance confirms limitations on schools converting to a virtual format. The agency’s FAQ document advises that schools will only be allowed to close for up to five days at a time if someone at the school is found to have been infected. The 90/10 attendance rule for students and truancy laws will remain in effect, and the agency does not plan to offer attendance waivers, instead directing districts to alter their calendars to build in flexibility.

ATPE is actively monitoring and analyzing all of TEA’s guidance, including the latest recommendations on remote instruction and urges educators to share their voices with district leaders and campus administrators as plans for remote learning are made locally. Educators can find more information on COVID-19 by visiting ATPE’s frequently-updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.

NOTE: TEA has been frequently updating its guidance on the website. We advise educators to check for the latest versions on TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance Page.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 19, 2020

Today is Juneteenth, the day that notice of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves finally reached Texas (two and a half years later). Celebrations like Juneteenth help educate future generation about our shared past and are a perfect way to continue conversations and action about the current issues facing our nation. For what happened in education this week, read the update below from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Yesterday, Gov. Greg Abbott made a surprise announcement during a call to lawmakers that he intends for Texas schools to reopen for in-person classes in the fall, with flexibility offered for those who have health concerns. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) confirmed the plan in a brief statement, promising that more information will be forthcoming next week.

As reported by the Texas Tribune, TEA has said that the state will not require districts to mandate that students wear masks or be tested for COVID-19 symptoms. However, TEA has also said that the state plans to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to districts. Overall, the ambiguity in both the governor’s and TEA’s messaging and the delay in providing additional guidance to school districts have spurred confusion and anxiety among educators, who fear for the health and safety of students in addition to their own personal safety, as shown by a recent ATPE survey.

In response to the state officials’ remarks yesterday, ATPE released a statement that highlights our commitment to fighting for safe learning environments and our members’ respect for local control, allowing decision-making by locally elected school boards with the input of their local educators and community. We know that school districts around the state are working to make informed decisions about when and how to start the new school year, including deciding on necessary safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even without state-level orders on wearing masks, for example, some districts have already indicated that they will require their students and staff to wear masks when school resumes. Other safety measures being implemented by some districts include temperature checks, limiting classroom occupancy, staggering the days that students and staff are on the campus, and providing for distance learning options. To make these difficult decisions at the local level, school districts need additional support and comprehensive guidance from the state, and ATPE is urging TEA to provide this information as soon as possible.

In the meantime, ATPE has updated our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page to address new questions about the developments this week. We will provide updated information as soon as TEA shares additional guidance to school districts next week.


Here’s more on the recent ATPE survey of educators about COVID-19. More than 4,200 educators and other school employees answered our poll on how COVID-19 has impacted education. No surprises here, educators responding to the survey cited student health and safety as their top concern, even more so than their own health and safety. Read this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a full rundown.


The U.S. Department of Education has shared information about Texas’ plans for using federal COVID-19 relief funds for education. The newly posted certification and agreement documents are part of the state’s applications for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds included in the CARES Act.

According to the application, the K-12 portion of the $29.2 million in Texas GEER funds will be used as follows:

  • to support remote learning for all students, including ensuring connectivity (Operation Connectivity);
  • to create a comprehensive set of online instructional materials, which we presume will be hosted on the existing TexasHomeLearning.com website operated by the Texas Education Agency (TEA); and
  • to provide a virtual dyslexia intervention service.

Of the $1.28 billion in ESSER funds going to Texas, TEA plans to reserve 9.5%, the maximum amount allowed under the law, to use for discretionary projects, which are mostly focused on supporting remote and online learning. The agency plans to implement the following:

  • an online summer bridge program to assist graduating seniors;
  • a support and monitoring program for districts that are adapting to remote learning settings;
  • a “turnkey” remote instructional support and content delivery service (likely what TexasHomeLearning.com will become);
  • a program in which select districts redesign their models for online learning;
  • mental and behavioral supports; and
  • a remote dyslexia instruction platform.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) updated its coronavirus-related web resources this week. TEA’s closure support and guidance page includes updates on allotments for personal protective equipment. The general support page features new FAQs for school boards and charter schools. The Texas Home Learning resources have been updated on the instructional continuity page, which also includes new information about changing school start dates. New federal funding and CARES Act reimbursement information is on the waivers, finance, and grants page. Lastly, the agency has posted new information on its assessment page related to the optional extended online testing windows for the 2020-21 school year.

Check out ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for the latest information on COVID-19 issues facing educators.