Tag Archives: safety

From The Texas Tribune: “Between 0 and 100%”: Texas schools weigh the odds of students returning this fall

It’s way too early to know how COVID-19 cases will trend over the next few months, but school leaders are trying to draw up preliminary plans for bringing students back to classrooms.

A student walks down the hallway at Cactus Elementary School. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“Between 0 and 100%”: Texas schools weigh the odds of students returning this fall” 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.

Texas schools might start bringing students back to classrooms on staggered schedules in the fall. Or they might have some students show up at school while others continue their coursework online.

Or they might stay completely virtual until 2021.

While it’s much too early to pin down all the permutations of how and where COVID-19 might remain a health risk come August, Texas superintendents are starting to game out how public education will look in the fall.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott closed all schools in late March, school districts have cobbled together combinations of online learning and old-school written worksheets handed out to students without reliable internet. The evolving, makeshift system has raised concerns about students without computers being left out and overwhelmed parents struggling with their new roles as home school teachers.

Some superintendents worry that students will fall ever further behind the longer school buildings are closed. And they know they must improve remote teaching in case the return date ends up being even further off than projected.

They’re watching the number of cases rise and fall in their regions as the state slowly begins allowing some businesses to reopen and some public health experts warn against sudden moves. They’re stocking up on Chromebooks and hard-to-find Wi-Fi hotspots.

And they’re cautiously rolling out information to staff and parents as they weigh the health risks of bringing kids back too early.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has been holding biweekly phone calls with superintendents across the state to discuss plans, but no official decisions have been made.

“The bigger question is: How can you plan to be nimble so that if the situation changes quickly, you can adjust to the change either way, either toward bringing kids into buildings, or perhaps once you bring kids into building, having to put them back into distance learning environments?” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio.

“If you ask me today, what’s the percentage chance we come back in August? I have no idea. Somewhere between 0 and 100%.”

About half the students in the 100,000-student school district are economically disadvantaged, and 12% are receiving special education services. Woods and his staff are considering bringing back those students least likely to be served virtually in the fall while keeping the other half in distance learning as a way to reduce exposure.

But that method of splitting students up is less possible for districts like small Hearne ISD, outside of College Station, where 96% of students are economically disadvantaged, meaning pretty much all are hurting while school buildings are closed.

Superintendent Adrain Johnson is stocking up on Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to prepare to start virtual schooling more smoothly in August than it began in March. And he’s asking the regional education service center to train teachers to better educate students across a screen.

Most teachers and even some students in Hearne ISD commute into town from elsewhere in the Brazos Valley, making the decision to return to school even more complex.

If the local health authorities permit schools to open their buildings, Johnson is considering spreading individual classes out across multiple classrooms and using technology to broadcast lessons.

“We just don’t know, so it’s hard to plan definitively,” he said.

Even details for graduation and summer school are up in the air for some districts, though the end of the school year is quickly approaching.

Worried about staff and students burning out, Johnson said Hearne ISD is probably going to take June off and return for summer school after July 4 to “hit it hard with any kid that we know needs help, either those kids struggling before this ever happened or the ones that have struggled since.”

Free meal distribution, however, will not be paused, he said.

Sunnyvale ISD, in suburban Dallas, is planning to reopen Aug. 19, but Superintendent Doug Williams knows COVID-19 cases might resurge in the summer. His administrative team is considering staggering students in the morning and afternoon, or even on different days of the week, so that all students can get direct contact with their teachers.

“I don’t know if you can continue in an online format and have the same rigor, the same depth of instruction that we believe is necessary,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/04/texas-schools-reopening-coronavirus/.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 24, 2020

Educators won’t see their classrooms filled with students anytime soon, so “emergency remote learning” and teacher parades will have to suffice in the meantime. Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: As we reported on our blog last week, Gov. Greg Abbott is slowly rolling out plans for a gradual reopening of Texas businesses, with more information expected to come from the governor on April 27. Abbott has ordered schools to remain physically closed through the end of the school year, while allowing educators to access school buildings to carry out their duties. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has shared guidance on entering school buildings, which states that teachers should self-screen, maintain social distancing, and wear a face covering, among other things.

TEA has also added to its website a COVID-19 Support page for Texas educators. This resource page has a more limited scope than TEA’s main coronavirus resource section, focusing on topics of interest to educators, such as certification and evaluation.

The educator support page features new guidance this week for individuals pursuing educator certification, including details on a waiver from Gov. Abbott that allows certain educator certification candidates to apply for a one-year probationary certificate. These candidates will have to complete the fingerprinting process, which – while safer for students – will also cause some hiccups as many fingerprinting locations are closed or have limited appointments. TEA announced last week that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Next Friday, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is set to discuss other COVID-19-related educator issues, stay tuned to Teach the Vote and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for coverage. Find the May 1 SBEC agenda here.

As we previously reported, the State Board of Education (SBOE) briefly discussed funding concerns associated with COVID-19, a thought that is on the minds of many educators. ATPE is monitoring the Texas economy and has taken action by sending a joint letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath requesting the suspension of charter school expansions during this pandemic. Current charter expansions could cost the state $90 million dollars at a time when state agencies and other public institutions foresee budget cuts on the horizon. ATPE has not received a reply to this request, though there was affirmation at the SBOE meeting that TEA would provide a response.

ATPE also hopes to hear back from the commissioner on our request for statewide action in the application of educator appraisals. Several other states have suspended appraisals, while others, like Texas, have left the decision up to individual school districts. Many educators have expressed that they feel like first-year teachers again and some say they haven’t heard from certain students since they last saw them in school. While feedback is essential for professional growth, this unique situation is likely to yield unfair and invalid appraisal results.

For more resources related to the pandemic, visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for frequently updated information for educators, and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest legislative and regulatory news. Also, keep reading below for updates on federal developments pertaining to COVID-19.


FEDERAL UPDATE: More COVID-19 developments at the federal level occurred this week as the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released the long-awaited application for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act funding. The CARES Act provides waivers of various federal laws and $13.5 billion in education-dedicated funding, 90% of which is divvied up through Title I formulas. According to the Learning Policy Institute, Texas is expected to receive on average $264 per pupil for a total of over $1.4 billion dollars from the CARES Act. This amount includes the Texas portion of the $13.5 billion and assumes half of the Texas portion of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, which could send over $307 million to Texas, will go to PK-12 with the other half going to higher education. Without any additional federal funding, a statewide cut to education of just 6% would zap the boost from the CARES Act. Texas has also been approved for federal spending waivers, which will allow districts to move federal funds around more freely to address new expenditures and potential shortfalls in the future (though this will not solve overall cuts).

Congress also passed a fourth coronavirus aid package this week, which sends hundreds of billions of dollars to small businesses and provides assistance for hospitals and COVID-19 testing needs. For more information about how the other coronavirus aid packages impact you, including paid family/sick leave and cash rebates, visit ATPE’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) page here and the CARES Act page here.


ELECTION UPDATE: With Texas’ July 14 primary runoff elections on the horizon, many Texans are contemplating the safety of voting in person. The option of mail-in voting, while recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has become a partisan issue. Ruling on one of two lawsuits filed by the Texas Democratic Party, a Texas district judge sided with voters last week by effectively allowing all Texans to vote by mail. This decision is expected to be appealed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has already refuted the arguments used by the district judge. Do you think all Texans should be allowed to vote by mail? Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Related: This year’s state legislative elections have even more significance with redistricting on the horizon. The 87th Texas Legislature is set to redraw district boundaries during the 2021 legislative session that begins in January. That’s why it’s important for Texans to respond to the 2020 U.S. Census. Talk to everyone you can about completing the census online, especially if they have small children. The census is crucial for funding public schools and informing redistricting decisions next year. Learn more about the 2020 Census and find FAQs here.


Master Teacher certification was eliminated last year as part of House Bill (HB) 3 passed by the 86th Texas legislature, reportedly to avoid avoid naming confusion with the “master teacher” designation in the new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) program. This has left Master Teachers wondering if they can keep their current teaching assignments once their certificates expire. The ATPE lobby team has been working on this issue with state leaders to find a solution and has made significant progress. Read more in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


ATPE member and award-winning, 17-year teaching veteran Amy McKee of Leander ISD planned to have her annual show week for her dance students this week. McKee’s spring show is the culmination of months of hard work, growth, and team spirit, and is an emotional capstone for seniors who ceremoniously hang up their uniform hats at the end of the show. Not about to let her students miss out on the joys of show week, McKee put her creative skills to work and curated a series of special, “socially-distanced” events to honor her students.

Thank you to all educators who are transitioning to the unique needs of students during this time! #TeachersCan

Do you have a story to tell? ATPE wants to hear how you are adapting to a new educational environment during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to email us your stories, best practices for distance learning, or strategies you’re using to stay upbeat during the crisis.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 17, 2020

Across Texas and the nation, educators are rising to the occasion to provide distance learning for their students. It is no easy feat to keep students engaged from afar, especially with absenteeism on the rise (including a crop of high school seniors with severe senioritis). Hang in there because this won’t last forever! Here is a look at this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Today, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference to announce several executive orders related to strategically reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing a plan to open businesses, Abbott stated that schools are to remain physically closed through the remainder of the school year, although teachers can still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). Gov. Abbott’s executive orders issued today follow President Trump’s release of guidelines for a state-led, phased reopening of the country. For more detail, read today’s breaking news post on Teach the Vote here.

Gov. Abbott gives a press conference at the Texas State Capitol, April 17, 2020.

In the new Executive Order EO-GA-16 issued today, Gov. Abbott writes, “Public education teachers and staff are encouraged to continue to work remotely from home if possible, but may return to schools to conduct remote video instruction, as well as perform administrative duties, under the strict terms required by the Texas Education Agency.” This afternoon, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) swiftly released new guidance on entering school buildings following today’s press conference.

Gov. Abbott added that he will issuing updated guidance for the state on April 27, 2020.

COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. As we reported last week, educator preparation and certification procedures stand in limbo with certification tests suspended through April 30, 2020. This week TEA posted updated information about certification testing. TEA also announced this week that out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension. Solving this issue for those in other situations will likely require rulemaking by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and potential legislation during the next legislative session. Meanwhile, ATPE awaits a response from the commissioner of education to our request for statewide action in the application of educator appraisals, which are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions, as well as the recent request by a consortium of education groups including ATPE to suspend the expansion of charter schools during this pandemic.

As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, recent congressional action is making emergency funding available to individuals, businesses, and state governments during the pandemic. Read ATPE’s information about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) here and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act here. The CARES Act provided flexibility in the form of waivers of various federal laws, such as student testing and accountability requirements. CARES also provides $3 billion in relief through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. Read more about the new funding available to Texas under this provision in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

Here are some additional resources to help educators dealing with the pandemic:

  • The TEA coronavirus resource page offers a plethora of resources. New guidance added to the site this week includes information on instructional continuity, special populations, accountability, English language learner guidance, waivers and funding, educator and staff issues, remote counseling, and more.
  • Also, TEA is assisting in the promotion of a meal finder tool and a home-learning website with resources for parents, educators, and school districts.
  • Visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for frequently updated information for educators dealing with the pandemic.
  • Follow the ATPE lobbyists and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest legislative and regulatory news related to this crisis.

ELECTION UPDATE: This week, a Texas district judge expanded the eligibility criteria for absentee ballots to include those who risk exposure to the coronavirus if they vote in person. The ruling effectively allows all Texans to vote by mail, but it is expected to be appealed. This is a temporary win for the Texas Democratic Party, which has filed two lawsuits against the state and the governor seeking expanded opportunities for mail-in ballots amid the risks associated with in-person voting during the pandemic.

According to a report in the Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats were concerned by the party-line decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in person in contradiction to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Republican Party of Texas Chairman James Dickey has voiced opposition to expanding mail-in ballots, suggesting that mail handlers could also risk COVID-19 infection. Gov. Greg Abbott stated in March that “everything’s on the table,” but has been relatively quiet on the subject since then.


SBOE conducted its April meeting by video conference.

This week, the State Board of Education (SBOE) met virtually to consider an abbreviated agenda. The board added a May 2020 meeting to its calendar to take up postponed items, including a discussion of the health and physical education TEKS.

The SBOE gave final formal approval this week to the new African American Ethnic Studies course after lengthy discussion over the past year. Additionally, members of the board’s standing committees discussed concerns about charter school expansion and the health of the Permanent School Fund (PSF) during the pandemic.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has reported on this week’s SBOE meetings for our blog: read his Thursday blog post and Friday blog post for more.


The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees also met virtually this week, covering a wide range of topics during its truncated meeting on Friday, April 17, 2020. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the board adopted TRS-ActiveCare rates and benefits, as well as plans to improve ActiveCare in response to information gleaned from outreach to employers and stakeholders.  Also of note, the board received a report on the TRS pension trust fund’s remarkable resilience during the current economic downturn.

TRS staff shared steps the agency has taken to protect the health of its employees while remaining  open and able to serve members during the COVID-19 Pandemic. On a related note, TRS has hit the pause button on resolving it leasing and sub-leasing plans surrounding the need to house the TRS investment division until markets stabilize. While rents at their current location, which they plan to release after a change of course, may come down, the ability to sublease the space at the Indeed Tower location may be greatly reduced. Additionally, TRS will reevaluate its broader plan to ensure it has adequate space in light of lessons learned throughout this period of forced telecommuting.

For more on today’s hearing, view this Twitter thread by Exter who live-tweeted today’s hearing. You can also review the TRS board meeting materials or watch an archived video of today’s hearing.


As of yesterday, the 2020 U.S. Census national self-response rate was tracking close to 50%. There was a slight bump in responses after Census Day (April 1), and responses have been slowly increasing since then but appear to be leveling off now. Though Texas’ response rate is up to 45.1%, it is still under the national count. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever to push online/phone/mail census completion options.

This week, the Trump administration proposed delaying the date that census counts would be delivered to the states, which would push redistricting decisions in Texas into the 2023 legislative session. The proposed 120-day extension would have to be requested of Congress by the U.S. Census Bureau. While having conversations about the census, it is important to not politicize the intent of the counts, which are meant to ensure a fair and representative democracy, plus funding for public benefits such as schools and roads. Learn more about the 2020 Census, including timeline delays already in place, in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and find census FAQs here.


ATPE member James Butler of Austin was featured during the last two weeks in news stories by KUT and KXAN for his daily “Mindful Moment” postings on social media. Butler is the social emotional learning mindfulness specialist for Austin ISD. He works with children (and adults) to instill a routine that includes breathing, journaling, naming your feelings, and showing gratitude in order to be mindful and present. Check out his post today, shown below, for a quick reset and some good feelings.

ATPE wants to hear how you are adapting to a new educational environment during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to email us your stories, best practices for distance learning, or strategies you’re using to stay upbeat during the crisis.


BREAKING: Abbott says schools to remain closed, offers early plan to open other Texas businesses

Today, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference at the Texas State Capitol in which he outlined early plans for reopening the state to commerce. While additional businesses and services will be authorized beginning next week, Texas schools will remain physically closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year due to safety concerns. In his press conference today, Abbott added that the commissioners of education and higher education each will provide guidance to schools on how they may conduct graduations this spring. Distance learning will continue, and educators will be allowed access to school buildings in order to facilitate this.

Gov. Abbott’s April 17 announcement and issuance of new executive order come on the heels of a consequential press briefing by President Donald Trump yesterday. Trump detailed a phased re-opening of the country and shared new federal guidelines that include three phases of progressive opening. In phase one, schools that are already closed should remain closed. In order to move from one phase to the next, states must pass “gating” criteria to prove that there has not been any rebound in viral outbreak. For instance, with adequate testing in place, states must show that confirmed cases and cases with flu-like and COVID-like symptoms have declined over a 14-day period.

Similarly, the governor announced plans today for a phased re-opening of the state, starting today. Businesses that present little to no impact on the spread of the virus are being allowed to open first, with appropriate safety measures as prescribed by the state in place, followed by a second phase on April 27 for additional businesses to open, and a third phase in May. Under the state’s plan, existing restrictions on surgeries and other medical protocols are being eased next week and additional retail businesses will be allowed to re-open next Friday as long as they operate using a “to go” or delivery-based model only, as many restaurants are already doing. Abbott announced that state parks will re-open on Monday, April 20, but six-foot distancing, limits on the size of groups, and facial covering requirements will remain in effect. During today’s press conference, the governor also named a long list of business leaders and current and former elected officials who will serve on a “strike force” to oversee the re-opening process.

Gov. Abbott said that revised guidelines for the state will be shared on April 27, 2020, including an update on the statewide stay-at-home order that is set to expire April 30. ATPE’s lobby team will provide additional updates on the new executive orders this afternoon in our Week in Review blog post here on Teach the Vote.

2020 Census: FAQs and coronavirus

Have you completed your 2020 Census questionnaire yet?

As of today, over 11 million people living in the United States completed their census questionnaire. An accurate census count is crucial to funding in Texas that supports infrastructure, public schools, healthcare, and other services. In this post, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier shares answers to commonly asked questions about the census, including the impact of COVID-19 on this census collection.

I haven’t received my invitation in the mail yet. When will I get it?

Invitations are being sent out to 140 million U.S. households from March 12-20. About 5% of the country will be visited in-person by a census enumerator because mail is not delivered to physical addresses in those areas.

Can I take the census if I haven’t received my invitation?

Yes, you can! If you are home due to concerns with COVID-19 and have access to the internet, now is a great time to fill out your census questionnaire, and you don’t have to wait on the mail (or touch the mail).

How do I complete the census? Is it available in non-English languages?

The online portal at my2020census.gov is a secure website that will walk you through the census, even if you haven’t received your invitation in the mail yet. The online questionnaire is translatable into 13 different languages, and the Census Bureau also has guides in 59 non-English languages, including American Sign Language, Braille, and large print. Individuals also have the opportunity to fill out the paper-based census questionnaire, which in areas with limited internet will be mailed with the initial invitation. The Census Bureau will send out reminders during the summer to non-responders that will include a paid-postage envelope and a paper questionnaire. Individuals can also respond by phone.

How do I fill out the race, ethnicity, and origin questions on the census?

An individual’s answers to the race, ethnicity, and origin questions are based on how they self-identify. In the series of race/ethnicity/origin questions, the census will first ask about Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin and notes that these are not considered racial categories. Individuals who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish will be required to also choose a racial category (White, Black or African American, etc.) and write-in an origin. This can be confusing for those who already stated their origin in the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish question. A good rule of thumb is to simply answer as you identify and to not worry about your answers being right or wrong.

Is there a citizenship question?

No, there is not a citizenship question on the census.

Is taking the census safe? Can the information I provide be used against me?

The Census Bureau is prohibited by law from releasing identifying information to any entity, including law enforcement. The online website is secure, but beware of scams. Make sure you are using the website that has the “.gov” address before starting the questionnaire.

How will COVID-19 impact the census collection?

The Census Bureau is actively monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and modifying its protocols as necessary. Currently, they are working on changes to cover some of the harder-to-count populations, since these often require in-person visits. Additionally, in-person visits to non-responders have been pushed later into April. According to news released today, field operations for the census have been suspended until April 1. As the situation develops, the Bureau will continue to make changes as necessary to protect the health of census workers and of the general public. The Bureau is urging everyone to take the census online, by mail, or by phone as early as possible.

For more information and a full list of FAQs about the census, please visit 2020census.gov. Also, don’t forget to check out texascounts.org for specific information regarding the census in Texas, as well as tool kits and other helpful resources.

Please also visit ATPE’s coronavirus FAQ and resource page for more information about COVID-19 and its impact on educators and education.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas’ coronavirus strategy is a patchwork of different local rules

While other states fighting coronavirus enforce widespread closures, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott goes with a patchwork system

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has employed a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the new coronavirus however they see fit. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, states across the country are increasingly taking a more heavy-handed approach to contain the new strain of coronavirus — shuttering schools, bars and restaurants and deploying state militaries.

Nearly 30 states have mandated temporary school closures, for example, with some orders applying even to private institutions. In Texas, though, only half of school districts have ordered students to stay home after spring break.

That’s because Gov. Greg Abbott has clung so far to a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the virus however they see fit. The result has been a patchwork of local policies that differ from county to county, with leaders setting various limits on public gatherings and other putting in place other regulations meant to encourage “social distancing.”

Over the weekend, Abbott said he was confident that cities will make the best decisions for their communities. And he appeared to double down on that approach Monday at a news conference in San Antonio, where he praised Mayor Ron Nirenberg for opening the state’s first drive-through testing facility and choosing to go well beyond almost every other Texas city in banning public gatherings of more than 50 people, following recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those are smart strategies that will prove effective,” he said.

To be sure, Abbott has taken notable steps to combat the spread of the virus. Last week, he declared a state of disaster — as every state has — and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees. He restricted visitation to high-risk facilities including nursing homes, hospitals, day cares and jails. Amid panic buying, he waived regulations on the trucking industry to streamline the flow of goods to depleted grocery stores. And on Monday, amid bipartisan pressure from state lawmakers, he waived standardized testing requirements for public schools, saying it would be impossible to administer the STAAR tests as planned given the closure of more than 560 districts and charter schools beyond spring break.

Overall, though, Abbott’s cumulative actions stop short of those taken in many other states, including neighboring Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana, whose governors shuttered schools across the board, mobilized their militaries and implemented travel restrictions.

According to the National Governors Association, about 20 state leaders have activated their national guards and limited travel of state employees or citizens, and about 17 have passed legislation to divert state funds to the response effort. (Abbott promised Monday that federal money is on the way.) More than a dozen have also ordered restaurants and bars to close to in-house patrons — a policy various cities and counties, including Houston and Dallas, enacted Monday.

Local decision-making

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of the new coronavirus, said Sunday that “Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

On Sunday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents and lawmakers that decisions on extended school closures would be left up to locals.

That means that policies may differ even among neighboring school districts.

Public-health experts said such a patchwork approach can be confusing and make it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of containment policies. They also said governors have sufficient authority to ensure such consistency during emergencies.

It “makes people feel that they don’t really know what’s going on and that the people who are in charge don’t really know what’s going on,” said Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

Leaders should be consistent not only in policy, said Bassett, who was New York City health commissioner during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, but also in messaging, “otherwise people aren’t confident that they’re being given good advice.”

She noted that President Donald Trump has largely deferred to governors on COVID-19 response strategy.

Because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention health care, it’s an authority that largely resides with the states, and some have more decentralized approaches than others, said Claire Standley, a researcher with the Center for Global Health Science and Security and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University.

That can be a good thing, particularly when the federal government’s response is inadequate, Standley said, noting that New York was able to expedite COVID-19 testing before federal guidelines were finalized.

But having many different response policies across a state might make it difficult to manage the crisis, too.

“I honestly think it’s more about coordination between central level and peripheral level and having that trust in place,” she said. “If people don’t trust their authorities, they’re not going to comply with regulations, which is largely what we’ve been seeing so far with a few exceptions.”

Elected officials respond

Abbott has also been in frequent contact with members of the Texas Legislature and other local officials since the spread of the virus reached a fever pitch last week. The governor’s office has organized a number of conference calls already in an attempt to get state lawmakers and local players on the same page as new information becomes available.

Many Republicans and some local officials have lauded Abbott’s decentralized strategy so far, thanking his office for his leadership approach, giving local governments the flexibility to operate as they see fit on most matters.

“I have not been one who has been bashful about criticizing Abbott in the past,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who has previously criticized Abbott for micromanaging county spending. “But I think he’s doing a fantastic job and giving us the flexibility to do what’s right for our areas. I don’t see any politics in this deal; I see [Abbott] really trying to tackle a difficult issue and recognizing the importance of the fact that this is a huge state.”

Meanwhile, a number of Democrats have offered muted praise for Abbott’s crisis management, though some have suggested the governor could be doing more to offer guidance for local governments.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat from Driftwood, said she thinks clearer guidance at the state and federal levels would better position local governments to respond to the virus.

“I’ve observed confusion from my local decision makers,” Zweiner told The Texas Tribune. “I see my city councils, my city administrators, my county commissioners desperate for answers on what the right thing to do is, and they’re not getting answers; they’re getting general advice.”

Another House Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, told the Tribune that the best thing leaders can do is “give to the people of Texas consistency, uniformity and predictability, because that’s not coming from any other direction.”

“To the extent we can give people some normalcy … and whoever has the most authority to do that as swiftly as possible, should do it,” Moody said. “They should do it with an understanding that no one expects them to be perfect right now, but that we expect them to act quickly so that we remain ahead of the virus.”

But Republicans said Abbott has handled the situation appropriately — and that he has rightly shifted certain responsibilities to local governments.

“In terms of a crisis, we don’t need somebody to act like a dictator and push all of that information down to people,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. “We need those empowered local officials to make the detailed decisions, and the governor has empowered local officials to make those judgments.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/17/experts-say-texas-patchwork-strategy-coronavirus-problem/.

Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part I

Last week on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE published a series of voting records for all Texas state lawmakers, analyzing their actions taken on significant education-related legislation. This blog post is Part I of a two-part feature on the record votes. Here, we’re taking a closer look at how the ATPE lobby team analyzed and chose the record votes that are featured on the legislators’ profiles.

Which bills are featured in the 2019 legislative voting records on Teach the Vote, and why were they chosen?

Without question, the most significant bill debated and ultimately passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year was House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). This major school finance and public education reform bill, deemed the top priority of the session, resulted in $6.5 billion in increased funding for public education and $5 billion for property tax relief. ATPE’s lobbyists have written extensively about the omnibus bill here on our Teach the Vote blog, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also dedicated a set of online resources to helping Texans understand the many components of the bill. With its high profile, HB 3 figures prominently in the 2019 record votes compiled by ATPE. We’ve selected both the House’s and Senate’s votes on HB 3 on “third reading” as the first record vote featured in this year’s list for Teach the Vote.

There are also a few votes on floor amendments to HB 3 that made our list this year. On the House side, we’ve provided representatives’ votes on House Floor Amendment #15 to HB 3, which dealt with charter school transparency and efficiency. The amendment by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), which passed and was incorporated into the House’s version of HB 3 but later stripped out by the Senate, requires charter schools to undergo an audit of their fiscal management. The Bailes amendment would have required such an audit to be conducted before a charter could expand or open new campuses, and it also called for charter schools to share the results of those audits publicly on their websites.

For senators, we similarly tracked their votes on three amendments to HB 3:

  • Senate Floor Amendment #8 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) attempted to remove from the Senate’s version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay program that ATPE and most of the education community opposed.
  • Senate Floor Amendment #30 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) also failed to pass but aimed to provide a guaranteed pay raise for all professional public school employees. While teacher pay was another high-profile issue debated throughout the 2019 legislative session, most discussions about pay raises at that point in the session had been limited to classroom teachers and librarians.
  • Also, Senate Floor Amendment #66 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) was an unsuccessful attempt to add language to the Senate’s version of HB 3 to ensure that state standardized tests were written at the appropriate grade level. Testing was also a subject of great importance to the education community during the legislative session, particularly after studies found that certain test questions on the STAAR test had been written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. Although the Menendez floor amendment did not get approved by the Senate, another bill passed during the 2019 legislative session (HB 3906) requires a study of STAAR readability, and results of that study should be released beginning in December.

HB 3 ultimately included some additional funding for increasing educator compensation, but it was not the only bill pertaining to teacher pay that lawmakers debated in 2019. Early in the session, the Senate rallied behind Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) pledged would be one of the first bills passed by the full Senate in 2019. Although SB 3 was later rejected in favor of the alternative compensation-related language in HB 3, we’ve included the Senate’s third reading vote on SB 3 in our list of record votes due to its early significance.

ATPE also supported a stand-alone bill in 2019 that was designed to fund and strengthen mentoring programs for teachers. The House’s third reading vote on HB 102 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) made our list of record votes this year. HB 102 did not get heard in the Senate, but its language was later incorporated into HB 3.

Another piece of legislation related to educator quality produced one of the record votes published on Teach the Vote this year. The House voted to approve HB 1276 by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) on third reading. HB 1276 was designed to prevent elementary grade students from being assigned for two consecutive school years to teachers who had less than one year of teaching experience or teachers who were not certified in the subject being taught as part of the foundation curriculum. Exceptions would have been provided under HB 1276 for new transfer students and for students whose parent or guardian consents to the non-compliant placement. Also, the bill would not have applied to school districts serving fewer than 5,000 students, those exempted under the District of Innovation (DOI) law, or those districts that received a hardship waiver from the commissioner of education. Unfortunately, this ATPE-supported bill did not get heard in the Senate.

School safety was another high priority issue debated during the 2019 legislative session. The key piece of legislation on keeping schools safe was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), aimed at driving funding to implement school safety improvements and provide mental health resources. We’ve featured on our website the third reading vote taken on this bill in both the House and Senate chambers. Also on our list is the House’s treatment of House Floor Amendment #8 by Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) to SB 11, aimed at improving mental health support by requiring the state to identify regional resources that schools could use to address their students’ mental health needs. Legislators were considering a number of different measures pertaining to mental health resources in the context of the debate about school safety. Particularly in the House, some lawmakers were openly skeptical of efforts to link students with outside mental health professionals, worried about privacy concerns, and generally opposed to perceived government overreach. The controversy surrounding those issues had seemingly killed another high-priority bill aimed at addressing mental health earlier on the same evening that SB 11 was being debated. House leaders used Rep. Allison’s floor amendment as a vehicle for resurrecting the lost bill. Thus, Allison’s original amendment to SB 11 passed, was reconsidered, got amended to include language from the other mental health bill that had already been voted down, and then Floor Amendment #8 passed again. We provided data on both votes approving Floor Amendment #8 since there were some representatives who opted to change their position on the Allison amendment after it was expanded.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also garnered attention during the 2019 session and was an ATPE legislative priority. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which increased the contribution rates for the TRS pension fund. ATPE included the third reading votes on this bill taken by both the House and Senate among our record votes compilation. The legislature’s passage of SB 12 resulted in immediate actuarial solvency for the fund, which made it possible for TRS to issue a one-time 13th check to retirees in Sept. 2019. Read more about the TRS bill here.

Another ATPE legislative priority for 2019 was opposing vouchers and stopping the privatization of public schools in any form. Few voucher bills were considered this session, but the full Senate did take a vote on Sen. Taylor’s SB 1455, which we included on our list of record votes. The bill would have expanded full-time virtual schools and created a “virtual voucher.” Despite passing the Senate, SB 1455 did not make it out of a committee on the House side.

The House also took a record vote on HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), which is included on our list. That bill produced one of the most dramatic debates but did not garner enough votes to pass the House. HB 1133 would have weakened the existing 22:1 cap on elementary school class sizes by moving to a campus-wide, grade-level average. Many ATPE members reached out to their legislators in opposition to this bill, which would have allowed class sizes in the lower grades to dramatically expand.

Finally, there are a few record votes on our list this year that pertain to efforts to restrict legislative advocacy by school districts or dissuade educators from being politically active. One such bill was SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), which the Senate voted to approve on third reading but the House left pending in committee. ATPE staunchly opposed SB 1569, which would have restricted educators’ First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, limited their ability to teach students about elections, and unreasonably subjected educators to criminal penalties. Another troubling bill was SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which tried to prohibit school districts and other local governmental entities from funding legislative advocacy efforts or paying membership dues to organizations that engage in legislative advocacy. SB 29 made our record votes list in two places. First, the Senate voted to approve the bill on third reading. Later, the House voted the bill down. Interestingly, the vote to defeat SB 29 on the House floor became even more significant after the legislative session ended, when certain Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill were seemingly targeted for retribution by their own party leadership in a taped discussion between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the head of the controversial dark money group, Empower Texans. The scandal resulted in Bonnen’s announcing that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for election of a new speaker when the 2021 legislative session convenes.

In any legislative session, there are limited votes taken on the record, offering relatively few options for us to showcase how individual legislators voted on education-related bills. However, we believe the votes listed above offer an informative glimpse into the treatment of public education by the 86th Texas Legislature, and we invite you to check out how your legislators voted by looking them up on our search page here on Teach the Vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for Part II of this blog feature where the ATPE lobbyists will explain more about the usefulness and limitations of record votes in general.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 8, 2019

Happy Election Week! Here are your highlights of this week’s education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


ELECTION UPDATE: Thank you to all who voted in Tuesday’s general election!

All three special elections to fill vacated Texas House of Representatives seats are headed to runoffs. Additionally, of the 10 constitutional amendments on the ballot Tuesday, nine were approved by voters. Check out this election results post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins to learn more about how candidates and ballot measures fared on Nov. 5. Wiggins also has you covered on nationwide election news, including the recent exit from the presidential race of former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. This just in: State Rep. Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) announced late Friday he will not run for reelection in 2020. Nevarez chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. You can read more about his announcement in this post by the Texas Tribune.

In additional election-related news, our friends at TexasISD.com report that local voters passed 81 percent of the 63 school district bond elections held around the state during Tuesday’s election. When votes were tallied up, more than 93 percent of the total value sought by all districts statewide being approved. These high passage rates are a continued sign that the public overwhelmingly supports their local public schools and additional spending on those schools’ and students’ needs.

If you didn’t get the chance to vote this time, your next opportunity will be the primary election on March 3, 2020. The deadline to register to vote in the primary is Feb. 3, 2020. Check to see if you are registered to vote here. Need some inspiration? Read ATPE Lobbyist and former educator Andrea Chevalier’s voting story.


Do you have a couple of minutes to spare? The ATPE Governmental Relations team invites all ATPE members to take a short, three-question survey about the most recent legislative session and your education priorities. Help us best represent your voice at the Texas Capitol by taking our new “Your Voice” survey on ATPE’s Advocacy Central. You must be signed into the ATPE website as a member to participate in the survey, so call the ATPE Member Services department at (800) 777-2873 if you’ve forgotten your password.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced on Wednesday plans for the state to take over management of Houston ISD and two rural school districts, Shepherd ISD and Snyder ISD. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath cited two reasons for the takeover of Houston ISD: “failure of governance” and the consistent under-performance of Wheatley High School in the district. Houston ISD serves over 200,000 students. The takeover of all three school districts will entail replacement of each elected school board by a state-appointed Board of Managers and the appointment of a state conservator. Learn more in this reporting from the Texas Tribune.


This week the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center released a comprehensive analysis of targeted school violence. The report, focused on K-12 schools for the period of 2008 to 2017, details common trends among the school attacks. One significant finding was that, while there is no typical “profile” of a perpetrator, they do exhibit certain warning signs and traits. These include having been a victim of bullying, an adverse childhood experience, a mental health issue, access to firearms, and motive typically involving a grievance with classmates or school staff. Read a summary of the report from Education Week here, or read the full report here.

Back home in Texas, the House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety held its third public meeting this week. The hearing took place in Odessa, the site of one of the recent shooting attacks that garnered national attention. The committee heard several hours of testimony from local families and law enforcement, some of whom had lost loved ones in the Midland and Odessa shooting on Aug. 31, 2019. Testifiers pleaded for a more effective background check system and the integration of mental health information into the public safety system. Legislators and law enforcement officials discussed prevention strategies focused on more cohesive communication, such as a regional communications center. A recording of the hearing can be found here. Read more about the hearing from local CBS7 in Midland here.


Next week on Teach the Vote, we’ll be updating all state legislators’ profiles on our website to incorporate voting records from the 86th legislative session. ATPE’s lobbyists have analyzed all the education-related votes taken during the 2019 legislative session and selected a collection of recorded votes that will help Texans find out how their own lawmakers voted on major public education issues and ATPE’s legislative priorities. By sharing this information, we hope to help voters gain insight into legislative incumbents’ views on public education so that they can make informed decisions at the polls during the critical 2020 election cycle.

The candidate filing period opens this weekend for those seeking a place on the ballot in 2020. Once the candidate filing period ends, ATPE will be updating our Teach the Vote website to include profiles of all the candidates vying for seats in the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education. Stay tuned!


 

Breaking news: Gov. Abbott issues executive orders in response to shootings

In response to the recent El Paso and Odessa shootings, Gov. Greg Abbott today issued eight executive orders aimed at addressing public safety regarding gun violence. The executive orders are focused on tightening the alignment between reporting suspicious behavior and the actions taken by law enforcement officials in response to potential threats. Executive orders numbers five and six are likely to have the most impact on schools.

  • Order No. 1 Within thirty days of this order, the Texas Department of Public Safety shall develop standardized intake questions that can be used by all Texas law-enforcement agencies to better identify whether a person calling the agency has information that should be reported to the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Network.
  • Order No. 2 Within thirty days of this order, the Department of Public Safety shall develop clear guidance, based on the appropriate legal standard, for when and how Texas law-enforcement agencies should submit Suspicious Activity Reports.
  • Order No. 3 Within sixty days of this order, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement shall make training available to educate all law-enforcement officers regarding the standards that will be developed pursuant to Order No. 1 and Order No. 2.
  • Order No. 4 The Department of Public Safety shall create and conduct an initiative to raise public awareness and understanding of how Suspicious Activity Reports are used by law-enforcement agencies to identify potential mass shooters or terroristic threats, so that the general public and friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, and classmates will be more likely to report information about potential gunmen.
  • Order No. 5 The Department of Public Safety shall work with the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on ways to better inform schools, students, staff, and families about the importance of Suspicious Activity Reports and how to initiate that process.
  • Order No. 6 The Department of Public Safety shall work with local law enforcement, mental-health professionals, school districts, and others to create multidisciplinary threat assessment teams for each of its regions, and when appropriate shall coordinate with federal partners.
  • Order No. 7 The Department of Public Safety, as well as the Office of the Governor, shall use all available resources to increase staff at all fusion centers in Texas for the purpose of better collecting and responding to Suspicious Activity Reports, and better monitoring and analyzing social media and other online forums, for potential threats.
  • Order No. 8 Beginning January 1, 2020, all future grant awards from the Office of the Governor to counties shall require a commitment that the county will report at least 90 percent of convictions within seven business days to the Criminal Justice Information System at the Department of Public Safety.  By January 1, 2021, such reporting must take place within five business days.

Before the 86th legislative session, Gov. Abbott declared school safety as an emergency item, which led to the passage of several bills on the topic. See our blog post on school safety, part of ATPE’s “New School Year, New Laws” series here on Teach the Vote, for more information on changes coming to school districts this year. For more information on the funding and policy decisions made over the last two years to address school safety, view the governor’s recently released report entitled “Improving School Safety in Texas”.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 26, 2019

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


This week Congressman Kevin Brady (R-TX) filed H.R. 3934, the “Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act of 2019.” The ETPSA aims to address unfair reductions to the Social Security benefits for many educators and other public employees under what is known as the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP).

While there are many similarities between this WEP replacement bill and a previous version of the ETPSA filed by Brady in the last congress, H.R. 3934 would produce a higher benefit payment for the majority of retirees, including those future retirees who are over the age of 20. For more details on the newly filed bill, check out this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


Today, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is meeting to discuss several important items, including the adoption of changes to allow for the implementation of the EdTPA portfolio assessment pilot for teacher certification. The board is also discussing pending rule changes resulting from bills passed by the 86th Legislature, such as the repeal of the Master Teacher certificates within HB 3. Check the Teach the Vote blog later this weekend for a more detailed summary of the meeting by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


ELECTION UPDATE: November is right around the corner. Are you registered and ready to vote? This week the Secretary of State revealed the ballot order for constitutional amendments that voters will consider in November 2019, including one that pertains to education funding. Learn more about the proposed amendment, along with updates on campaign announcements for the 2020 primary elections in this new election update post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


In Washington, DC, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held a hearing on school safety on Thursday, July 25, 2019. The specific focus of yesterday’s hearing was on examining state and federal recommendations for enhancing school safety against targeted violence. The committee heard from four invited witnesses: Max Schachter and Tom Hoyer, who are both parents of children killed in the Parkland School shooting; Bob Gualtieri, Sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida; and Deborah Temkin, PH.D., Senior Program Area Director, Education Child Trends. Mr. Hoyer identified three areas where policymakers can impact school safety, particularly with regard to school shootings: securing the school campus, improving mental health screening and support programs, and supporting responsible firearms ownership. Committee members focused their questions and attention on the first two issues. Archived video of the hearing and the testimony of the individual witnesses can be found at the links above.