Tag Archives: Texas Education Agency (TEA)

ATPE expects more from state efforts to protect educators

Earlier this week, the Texas Education Agency released final public health guidelines for the return to in-person schooling in the fall. The guidelines were similar to the agency’s previously released “draft” public health guidance, with a few exceptions. ATPE’s statement on the guidance (see below) reflects our overall disappointment in the lack of clarity and specificity provided to educators who are concerned for their health and safety when returning to school.

TEA’s guidance prioritizes getting kids back in an in-person school setting without equal care for the educators who will stand alongside them in the classroom. Most educators would probably agree that students are experiencing setbacks due to the pandemic and that for some children, being away from the school environment means a lack of safety and stability amid a reported rise in child abuse. These are some of the reasons that would favor returning students to their campuses as soon as feasible, but it is equally important that educators and other school employees are able to work in a healthy and safe environment; otherwise the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning may suffer.

The TEA guidance document follows the same framework as what was in the agency’s initial health and safety guidelines draft and recommends designating an individual or group responsible for dealing with COVID-19 issues. ATPE’s Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines pressed the state to require districts to develop a more robust planning committee and COVID-19 policy approval process that includes educator and community input. Instead, the agency has opted to require districts to create a plan that is only posted for parent and public review one week in advance of the the school year and is not subject to school board approval, leaving it mostly to the discretion of superintendents.

One of the main differences in the new guidance document is that districts are granted flexibility in the form of a three-week back-to-school transition. During this time period, districts can require some students to engage in virtual or distance learning, if they have the internet and devices. Another big change in the new guidance versus the draft document is that, consistent with the governor’s recent mask order, schools must comply with face covering requirements. Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order includes exceptions, such as for those under age 10, those who have disabilities that prevent them from wearing masks, and other circumstances.

TEA has strengthened some of the language in the document to require districts to practice certain health and safety protocols, while continuing merely to suggest other practices. For example, educators and staff must self-screen, visitors must be screened, and parents must ensure that they are not sending their child to school with COVID-19 symptoms. Additionally, the new guidance says school systems must provide daily on-campus instruction for students who follow TEA’s public health guidance and whose parents want them to attend school in person.

Similar to the previous guidance, schools are encouraged to provide hand sanitizer, watch students wash their hands twice a day, and consider separating desks by six feet where possible, among many other health and hygiene suggestions. The guidance also suggests that schools reduce large assemblies and in-person staff meetings where possible.

Overall, the TEA guidance falls far short of what educators expect in terms of assurances that they will be safe when returning to work with students. ATPE will continue to work with education stakeholders and state leaders to gain better specificity for educators, as outlined in our recommendations, and to press for educators’ voices to be included in the decision-making process at all levels. Educators, and especially those who are cautious to return to school due to their age, pregnancy or nursing, health conditions, or the presence of vulnerable individuals in their household, deserve peace of mind and a seat at the table as we approach the fall.

Visit ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resource page for more information related to returning to school, including answers to such questions as whether your district can require you to get tested for COVID-19 or what might happen if you disagree with your district’s plan to reopen.


ATPE Statement on TEA’s Final Public Health Guidance
State’s largest educator association frustrated by TEA plan: “Too many questions are left unanswered by TEA’s guidelines.”

ATPE has reviewed the Texas Education Agency’s “SY 20-21 Public Health Planning Guidance” document posted on the agency’s website this afternoon.

Part of TEA’s “Strong Start” plan, the nine-page document lists minimal requirements and recommendations for school districts to consider as they prepare to start the new school year. While the final guidance contains a few more requirements than a draft leaked in mid-June, the responsibility for ensuring student and educator safety has been placed squarely on school administrators. Included in the new document are references to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order calling for masks to be worn in public, which will also apply to schools for as long as the statewide order remains in effect.

ATPE is frustrated that TEA has not heeded our call to provide more explicit guidance, nor is TEA requiring the involvement of educators and parents in developing COVID-19 protocols.

On July 2, ATPE released its own set of recommendations for state policies and district-level guidelines related to COVID-19. We urge school district leaders to follow ATPE’s recommendations as they work to fill in the gaps. Our recommendations would require each district to develop a COVID-19 advisory committee including non-administrative-level staff, parents, and community medical experts.

“Too many questions are left unanswered in TEA’s guidelines,” said Shannon Holmes, ATPE Executive Director. “We urge school district leaders to step in and fill this leadership vacuum to keep Texas children and educators safe, particularly as pockets of our state face rising COVID-19 outbreaks. All Texas students, parents, and educators deserve to be safe and have a firm understanding of the steps being taken to provide a safe learning environment.”

Read ATPE’s Recommendations for District-Level Guidelines.

BREAKING: TEA posts updated public health guidance for school reopening

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) today released a new Public Health Planning Guidance document for the 2020-21 school year. While ATPE is still analyzing the guidance, it appears fairly similar to the previously released “draft” public health guidance, which was seemingly posted by mistake last month on the agency’s website.

Notably, TEA’s press release on the guidance released today states that all students, teachers, staff, and visitors coming to campus must be screened before being allowed on campus. Additionally, Governor Greg Abbott’s statewide mask order will require that masks are worn while in school buildings, with certain exceptions as outlined in the governor’s order. However, it is clear that TEA’s nine-page guidance issued today, much like its “draft” predecessor, continues to place most responsibility on local school districts for coming up with their own plans for dealing with COVID-19.

As previously reported, ATPE has released Recommended Health and Safety Guidelines for a return to school and factors that local and state decision-makers should consider. Read a press statement from ATPE about the July 7 guidance document released by TEA.

Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for more detailed analysis on the public health guidance coming soon from ATPE’s lobbyists, and visit ATPE’s COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for other news and updates.

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.

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

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


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

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

ATPE continues to meet with legislators, other stakeholder groups, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal level to share our members’ feedback about the return to school. We released a statement on TEA’s draft health guidance document this week, in which we strongly urge the state to require stronger actions to ensure the safety of school employees and Texas students. ATPE also asks school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendations of medical experts regarding the impact of the pandemic in their area as they implement their back-to-school safety protocols. In the statement, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes says, “Elected school boards and superintendents now face a difficult balancing act between preventing COVID-19 outbreaks and ensuring children are in the most productive learning environment possible—a physical classroom with an in-person teacher. They deserve to have support and actionable guidance from the state of Texas.” Read more about ATPE’s response in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


Betsy DeVos

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


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

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

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

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

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.

ATPE reacts to preview of TEA’s health guidance for next school year

ATPE issued a statement this afternoon on a draft document that was widely circulated today regarding state officials’ plans for the next school year. The draft of the “SY 20-21 Public Health Guidance” document from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) includes recommendations for school districts as they plan to prevent and respond to COVID-19 in their communities.

The proposed guidance includes certain notice requirements for school districts, including posting a  summary of the district’s plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 before the start of school. It would also require schools to instruct students on the first day of school about hygiene practices to reduce the spread. Most of the recommendations in the draft document, however, are merely suggestions and not mandates. For example, the draft advises that having students, staff, or visitors wear masks on campus and placing student desks six feet apart are things a district should “consider.”

As noted by the Texas Tribune today, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told school superintendents this afternoon that his agency was not yet ready to issue final health and safety guidance today. Educators, school district leaders, and parents have been anxiously awaiting additional direction from TEA after the governor and commissioner made comments last week about plans for students and staff to return to school.

Saying last Thursday, “It will be safe,” regarding schools’ resuming in-person instruction this fall, Commissioner Morath promised additional guidance early this week on the plans for instruction during the 2020-21 school year, as well as “flexibility” for families with health concerns. The draft document circulated today includes assurances that parents will have options for virtual instruction of their children if they choose not to attend classes on campus. The draft does not include any similar guidance on flexibility for staff with health concerns related to COVID-19, instead stating, “Employees of school systems, like employees of any organization, must continue to meet the work expectations set by their employers, subject to any applicable employment contract terms.”

A recent increase in reported cases of COVID-19 infection is one of the reasons state officials are said to be revising the guidance and not ready to release it today. The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in Texas hit a new record high on this Tuesday, adding to the difficulty of decision-makers at the local and state level to implement appropriate precautions. As we await additional information from TEA or the governor that we will promptly share here on Teach the Vote, below is a copy of ATPE’s June 23 public statement about the TEA draft guidance:


ATPE Statement on Texas Education Agency’s Public Health Guidelines
State’s largest educator association: TEA’s draft guidance shows need for more work to provide the support schools need

Earlier today, ATPE reviewed a draft of what Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and TEA are calling the “Strong Start” plan—a framework for school districts to follow as they implement COVID-19 safety protocols to bring students and faculty back to school. The draft comes after the governor’s announcement last week that students and teachers would be back in classrooms this fall.

While the Commissioner has pledged to release the final guidance in the coming days, it’s clear from this draft that much is being left up to individual school districts to determine what works best for their local communities, with few state-level requirements beyond notice to parents and students of a district-adopted plan and protocol following a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19.

Considering this, ATPE strongly urges the state to require stronger actions to ensure the safety of school employees and Texas students. ATPE also asks school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendations of medical experts regarding the impact of the pandemic in their area as they implement their back-to-school safety protocols. 

ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes

“Nothing in this guidance so far offers additional peace of mind for teachers, school district leaders, or parents,” said Shannon Holmes, ATPE Executive Director.  “Elected school boards and superintendents now face a difficult balancing act between preventing COVID-19 outbreaks and ensuring children are in the most productive learning environment possible—a physical classroom with an in-person teacher. They deserve to have support and actionable guidance from the state of Texas.”

According to a just-concluded survey of ATPE’s 2020 membership, more than 65% of ATPE members said their students were less engaged in learning when required to attend school virtually. This fact must be balanced with health and safety concerns, which are top-of-mind to a large portion of Texas educators, according to another recent ATPE survey, this one open to all Texas educators.

The COVID-19 Educator Impact Survey, which focused on educators’ top concerns related to returning to campus during the pandemic, showed that more than 65% of the educators surveyed named the health and safety of students as a top concern. Sixty percent of respondents listed their personal health and safety, and more than 45% reported concern about student learning gaps and learning loss.

ATPE is committed to ensuring the success of Texas educators and public schools, especially during these uncertain times. In early March, ATPE launched a COVID-19 resource and FAQ page at www.atpe.org/coronavirus. The webpage, one of the first COVID-19 resource webpages directed specifically toward Texas educators, lists government resources, breaking news, self-care resources and tips, and a comprehensive FAQ with fact-checked answers to common questions on everything from district requirements, health and employment, and working with students.

In addition, ATPE staff have been engaged in daily communications with ATPE members, elected officials, agency staff, school district leaders, and other stakeholder groups to find solutions to the many challenges created by COVID-19. As an association representing approximately 100,000 educators across Texas, ATPE welcomes any opportunity to share input from our research with TEA as officials finalize their guidance.

“Given the current trends related to COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, it is impossible to predict the public health situation in August 2020,” said Holmes. “What we at ATPE can guarantee is that we will be with our members each step of the way, helping individual members navigate concerns related to policy decisions in their districts and championing the tremendous contributions of educators as essential workers in this crisis.”


From The Texas Tribune: Draft documents show Texas planning few mandatory safety measures when public schools reopen in fall

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
June 23, 2020

Students gather in an auditorium before class. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas education officials are envisioning a largely hands-off approach to helping school districts bring students back to campus this fall, imposing few mandatory safety precautions but recommending staff and students wear masks, hand sanitize regularly and stay six feet away from each other, according to draft documents found on the Texas Education Agency’s website Tuesday.

“Consistently implementing recommendations to the extent feasible is the best way to reduce the potential negative impact of infection on students’ educational experiences,” the draft document reads.

The light-handed oversight role parallels the state’s overall approach to the coronavirus pandemic under Gov. Greg Abbott, with local officials, parents and students expected to devise their own strategies for protecting their health.

Abbott told state lawmakers last week that schools would open for in-person instruction in the fall, but gave few details. State education officials are expected to detail their approach for the upcoming academic year in a briefing with superintendents Tuesday afternoon.

Separate draft attendance guidelines found on the TEA’s website Tuesday said school districts will be required to offer on-campus instruction for students who want to return to schools, but the state will also count students taking virtual classes in the attendance figures use to determine state funding. Districts can choose to provide live virtual instruction or instruction that is not delivered in real time, including prerecorded video lessons or paper assignments.

State funding is typically based on classroom attendance, and many districts feared they might see dramatic drops in state money with parents saying they will not feel comfortable sending their children to school in person, especially as cases continue to rise in Texas.

Many of the public health guidelines in the TEA’s draft document are suggestions and not mandates for how school districts can keep communities safe during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the draft, Texas will require school districts to publicly post a summary of their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19, based on the guidance, though the plans are not subject to government approval. And school districts are required to separate students who show COVID-19 symptoms at school until they can be picked up by a guardian, and clean the areas used by anyone potentially infected.

Reopening schools is a large part of Abbott’s plan to jumpstart the economy, as Texans returning to their workplaces seek safe places to leave their children. But since Abbott first allowed businesses to reopen, the number of new cases and Texans hospitalized have reached record heights.

Abbott has urged Texans to wear masks and stay socially distanced, but has declined to issue a statewide requirement or shut businesses down again. He told lawmakers last week that masks and testing would not be required in schools in the fall.

According to the draft guidance, school districts should require staff and students to “self-screen” for COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their own temperatures, before coming to school each day. And school leaders should ask students at the beginning of each week whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone who tested positive.

“Regularly performing a forehead temperature check of otherwise asymptomatic students in school is not recommended, but the practice is also not prohibited by this guidance,” the draft document states.

Some school districts, especially larger ones in urban and suburban Texas, have already decided to offer “hybrid” programs, teaching some students in person and some remotely.

The draft document said Texas would continue to fund school districts serving students remotely. School districts providing live virtual instruction to students must track how many students are engaged each day, and will not receive funding for students who do not participate remotely.

According to the draft document, those that choose to offer remote instruction through worksheets and prerecorded videos must first get state approval of their instructional plans. They must track students’ daily progress through their interactions with their teachers or completion of assignments. Districts can also choose to offer a combination of both types of remote instruction, to meet more students’ needs.

This year, school districts scrambled to get computers and hotspots out to the students who needed it most and lost track of thousands of students, including the most vulnerable. Texas required districts to sign a form saying they were providing remote instruction in order to continue receiving funding — much less stringent than the plan in the draft guidance.

Reference

Draft public health guidelines from the Texas Education Agency.

Reference

Draft attendance and enrollment guidelines from the Texas Education Agency.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/23/texas-planning-few-mandatory-safety-measures-when-schools-reopen-draft/.

Governor acknowledges COVID-19 surge, but no new mandates

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged that cases of COVID-19 are surging in Texas, but did not issue any new executive orders or require any additional action be taken to decrease the spread. The governor and his top healthcare advisors held an afternoon press conference Monday at the Texas Capitol, all donning masks while not speaking.

The governor repeatedly encouraged Texans to wear masks, which have been proven to slow the spread of the deadly disease. While acknowledging that some people view wearing a mask as infringing on their personal freedom, Abbott at the same time stressed that wearing masks is crucial to fully reopening businesses and to preventing deaths. Yet the governor again stopped short of making masks mandatory, instead suggesting individual communities could determine whether to require masks based on local needs. Gov. Abbott said today that because of the differentiation in the impact of COVID-19 from county to county, there must be “a level of flexibility.” The governor only recently allowed cities and counties to issue their own orders about the requirements for wearing masks in certain public places, marking a reversal from his previous warnings not to restrict individuals’ choices not to wear a mask.

Gov. Abbott did not announce any additional restrictions on businesses or social gatherings Monday, only cautioning that future action may need to be taken if Texans do not behave responsibly by continuing to wear masks, wash their hands, practice social distancing, and stay home if they’re sick. Regarding the upcoming elections, early voting for which starts next week, the governor suggested voters adhere to the same safety guidelines.

During today’s press conference, Gov. Abbott did not address plans to reopen schools in August with in-person instruction, on which the governor spoke and we wrote last week. The Dallas Morning News published an editorial Monday calling on schools to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and clear safety guidelines to keep students and teachers safe. Both the governor and the commissioner of education have said that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will provide additional information about the return to school and related guidelines this week, most likely tomorrow. ATPE has been updating our Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page for educators as we receive additional information from state officials, and we’ll continue to post updates here about any new developments.