Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! Hardworking educators have been in the spotlight this week, but soon the attention will shift to graduating seniors. Who is ready for virtual graduation ceremonies from home and honking parades of whooping high school seniors down the street? We are excited for the good news this week that teachers and students can celebrate their accomplishments (safely). Here is more of this week’s education news from the ATPE lobby team:
- CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: A recap of recent developments, plus graduation ceremonies are still on
- ATPE pushes back on vouchers at the state and federal levels
- ELECTION UPDATE: Important dates as the next election approaches
- Returning to school in the fall might be earlier than expected
- SXSW EDU goes online
- ATPE member receives leadership award during Teacher Appreciation Week
CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: For a comprehensive look at the intersection of COVID-19 and education, from the first major event cancellation to the road ahead, ATPE’s lobbyists have compiled a new summary this week of the legislative and regulatory developments since the crisis began. Read the coronavirus recap in this May 8 blog post.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott expanded the types of businesses that can reopen in his phased plan to reopen Texas. Today, salons, barbershops, and pools will join malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries as those that can reopen their doors to limited numbers of customers. This development is a change from Abbott’s previous declaration that the state would wait two weeks before expanding which businesses can open. It is still expected that gyms, office buildings, and non-essential manufacturing facilities will open (with occupancy limitations) on May 18. Abbott also modified his previous order by allowing weddings with social distancing guidelines.
Education Commissioner Mike Morath joined Abbott at his press conference Tuesday to talk about graduation ceremonies. Under Abbott’s orders, graduation ceremonies and grade promotion ceremonies must be approved by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and adhere to certain stipulations. Outdoor ceremonies are allowed in rural counties between May 15 and May 31, and only with social distancing protocols in place. On or after June 1, outdoor ceremonies will be allowed in any Texas county. TEA has also suggested other options such as hybrid ceremonies (where students are video-recorded receiving their diplomas one-by-one and these videos are stitched together for a virtual ceremony), all-virtual ceremonies, and vehicle-based parades and drive-in ceremonies. Perhaps you’ve heard (literally) of some districts already honoring their seniors through “honk lines” or seen yard signs popping up to celebrate graduating seniors. TEA has provided guidance on graduation ceremonies here.
Also this week, TEA updated its main coronavirus resource page on nearly every topic and added new superintendent debriefs. Among many other things, TEA has provided updates to the protocol for employees who are accessing school buildings, the FAQ on optional end-of-year assessments (which will NOT be used for accountability), and the educator certification and preparation FAQ (including answers to questions about probationary certificates, rescheduling cancelled tests, and continuing professional education requirements for educators), plus new guidance on school calendars and start dates for this fall. (Read more on this topic below.)
Yesterday, Commissioner Morath sent a response to ATPE’s April 2 letter asking for a statewide suspension of educator appraisals for the 2019-20 school year due to challenges associated with COVID-19. In his reply, Morath declined to issue a statewide order and stated that, ”The decision to pursue waivers of appraisal requirements is strictly a local decision.” ATPE has yet to receive a response to our joint letter with 17 other organizations regarding a moratorium on costly charter school expansion during the pandemic.
Last week, we reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has allocated $180 million of the funding approved by Congress through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act for private school vouchers. In response, ATPE sent a letter in opposition of this development to every member of the Texas congressional delegation, including U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R) and Ted Cruz (R). In particular, ATPE asked for strong congressional oversight of this use of funds and for continued diligence regarding federal funding for vouchers in any future legislation passed by Congress.
At the state level, the Coalition for Public Schools, of which ATPE is a member, sent a letter this week to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to address recent suggestions made by Republican members of the Texas Senate Education Committee that the state should try to expand virtual school options in Texas, despite the data showing that virtual schools do not perform as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
ELECTION UPDATE: With all the coronavirus news, it’s easy to forget that another election is slowly creeping up on us. On July 14, Texans in various parts of the state will be able to vote in primary runoff elections to choose which candidates will be on the general election ballot this November.
The runoff elections were originally scheduled for May 26, but were postponed by Gov. Abbott over concerns about the safety of voters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the election has been postponed, many of the deadlines leading up to it have also been shifted. For example, the deadline for registering to vote in time to participate in the runoff elections is now June 15, 2020. Check out this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a list of important deadlines as we get closer to voting time.
One of the biggest questions on educators’ minds right now is what the return to school in the fall will look like. The variety in plans being contemplated by school districts for the 2020-21 school year was the topic of a recent article from the Texas Tribune, which ATPE republished here on our our Teach the Vote blog this week. Also this week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) provided updated guidance on start date and calendar changes to account for student learning loss and a potential resurgence in virus cases this fall.
In particular, the agency has suggested that districts can become Districts of Innovation (DOI) or add an amendment to their existing DOI plans to allow for an exemption from the law preventing schools from starting earlier than the fourth Monday in August. This exemption is already the most popular one among DOIs, as many districts prefer to start their school year earlier, insert more breaks throughout the year, and end the year later. TEA suggests that this format of an “intersessional” calendar could help to build in breaks that may be used for remediation of students who have fallen into a steep loss of learning on the “COVID slide.”
Other districts may choose to implement a year-round school calendar, which in many ways is easier than obtaining DOI approval. Under this route, districts need only obtain board approval for a new academic calendar and designation as a year-round system, and they must notify their Education Service Center PEIMS coordinator of their intent to operate through a year-round system.
TEA has also suggested using the flexibility in additional school days for elementary students as provided by House Bill (HB) 3 passed in 2019. HB 3 adds half-day formula funding for school systems that want to add up to 30 instructional days beyond the minimum of 180 days, but only for grades PK-5 and only after September 1, 2020.
Related: The COVID-19 pandemic has already dealt an enormous economic blow to our state, resulting in declining state revenue from oil and gas as well as sales taxes. This has many educators worrying about budget cuts next year. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter discussed the financial uncertainty with KXAN this week in this news story about how school districts in Central Texas are preparing for the future.
When SXSW EDU was abruptly cancelled back in March 2020, many in the education community were disappointed to miss the week-long learning event in Austin, Texas. Since then, SXSW EDU has gone virtual. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier attended this week’s virtual keynote address on growth mindset in education The presentation, entitled “A Science of Human Motivation for the Next Decade,” is viewable here. Read Chevalier’s blog post about the session here.
This week, ATPE member Morgan Castillo of Woodgate Intermediate School in Midway ISD received an H-E-B Excellence in Education Teaching Leadership Award. This award honors teachers with 10 to 20 years in the classroom. Castillo received a $10,000 award for herself and a $10,000 grant for her school. She was one of eight educator winners announced this week and chosen from a group of 40 finalists who received smaller cash awards earlier this year. Castillo and the other award recipients were recognized Tuesday during a virtual “Toast to Texas Teachers” organized by the #TeachersCan initiative as part of several Teacher Appreciation Week festivities.
ATPE has been featuring our “Work from Home Classroom Makeover Contest” during Teacher Appreciation Week. Visit ATPE’s Facebook page to view the entries and cast a vote for your favorite between now and May 13. Winners will be announced on May 15.