Tag Archives: waiver

ATPE House of Delegates adopts resolutions on COVID-19 educational considerations

This week, over 2,000 educators convened for the 2020 ATPE Summit, held virtually for the first time. The ATPE House of Delegates (HOD) met Thursday, July 9, for the association’s annual business meeting. Delegates from every region of Texas convened to elect state officers and adopt policies and official legislative positions of the association on behalf of its 100,000 members.

The HOD adopted two new resolutions pertaining to education and safety concerns of school employees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:

RESOLUTION #1:

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to safeguard the health and safety of students and educators by delaying in-person instruction until Texas has demonstrated a flattened curve in the number of COVID-19 cases; and

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to require local school districts to include educators and parents in the development of plans for the safe re-entry of students and district employees; and

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and our U.S. federal government to allocate emergency funds for substitutes in case of mandatory quarantine requirements for district personnel.

During debate on the resolution, ATPE members cited the fears expressed by teachers who have compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, especially in light of a recent, rapid increase in the number of cases. Delegates also spoke about the difficulty of containing viral spread, especially if teachers are placed in classrooms with students who may not be required to wear masks, and expressed doubt about the ability to carry out contact tracing in schools. With some teachers feeling that they are being asked to make unreasonable sacrifices in order to hasten a reopening of schools that is motivated by economic factors or political pressure, ATPE members are recommending a delay in returning to campuses in order to keep everyone safe. Only one delegate spoke against the resolution noting that ATPE has already been urging the state to take steps to safeguard the health and safety of educators and students.

RESOLUTION #2:

RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and the U.S. Department of Education to waive requirements to administer the 2020-21 STAAR and TELPAS due to the disruption of in-person instruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The author of this resolution on standardized testing argued that students have lost critical learning time as a result of the pandemic and that teachers’ time should be devoted to fostering student learning rather than test preparation. Speakers observed educational quality varied widely as COVID-19 forced a sudden shutdown of schools. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the U.S. Department of Education both waived requirements to administer STAAR exams this spring. The ATPE resolution was amended yesterday to include the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) as well as the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR), based on discussion about the importance of both tests and a plea to prevent English language learners who are struggling in an online learning environment from being subjected to unfair testing through the TELPAS.

Read ATPE’s statement about the newly adopted resolutions here. These resolutions will be implemented by the association over the next year and along with the ATPE Legislative Program will guide ATPE’s continuing advocacy work on numerous issues, including the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

Recapping education changes due to the coronavirus

Two months have passed since Austin’s cancellation of the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival became national news as one of the first major events in the country called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also one of the first developments that made many of us wonder how serious the novel coronavirus was. As school districts embarked on their spring breaks, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) began to send out notices advising deep cleaning of school facilities, heightened hygiene practices, and protocols for students and families who might be traveling on vacation. In an interview with the Texas Tribune on March 6, 2020, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath jokingly advised students not to go around licking doorknobs.

Since this preliminary incubation phase (to borrow a term from the virus world), we’ve witnessed a barrage of press conferences, executive orders closing school facilities through the end of the school year, and a triage-like approach to maintaining educational services. New information surfaces daily amid an ever-developing curve of cases, while educators work speedily to learn and implement effective distance learning methods. To help you navigate everything that has happened, the ATPE lobby team offers a recap of the coronavirus-related education developments so far in this blog post, broken down into these categories:


State action in response to the pandemic

On March 13, 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of public disaster in Texas — the same day President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency. At the time, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath erred on the side of local control in letting school districts decide whether or not they wanted to extend their spring breaks or temporarily close down their facilities. Among many worries, school administrators struggled with how they would feed students who relied on school meals.

At a time when over half of Texas school districts had closed and under pressure from both Democratic and Republican legislators, Gov. Abbott agreed on March 16 to cancel this year’s administration of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests. The College Board also cancelled March and May test administrations and has since announced plans to offer the SAT test starting in August. The College Board also is offering online Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

Around the time of these events, TEA launched a new section of its website containing FAQs and guidance aiming to provide some degree of certainty to educators. This site has grown to include links to other web pages that offer meal locations for students and home learning resources. ATPE also launched its own Coronavirus FAQ and Resources web page for educators in early March.

Gov. Abbott explained a new coronavirus executive order during a press conference with other state leaders, March 31, 2020.

On March 19, Gov. Abbott announced the physical closure of schools, gyms, bars, and restaurants through April 3, which included all Texas public and private K-12 and higher education institutions. This order was extended by another month on March 31, when Abbott issued a more restrictive executive order that closed school buildings across Texas until May 4. The order also followed federal guidelines for “essential workers.” Included within the federal definition of essential workers were “Educators supporting public and private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities for purposes of facilitating distance learning or performing other essential functions.” TEA reminded school officials that continued funding during closure of their campuses would be dependent on students receiving instructional support even when they are unable to physically attend school.

On April 17, the governor extended school facility closures through the end of the academic year and announced preliminary plans for reopening Texas in gradual phases. While sharing designs for reopening various businesses, Abbott stated that schools would remain physically closed through the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, although teachers could still access school buildings in order to carry out their duties (including facilitating distance learning). TEA quickly issued its guidance on entering school buildings for more information.

On April 27, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a phased plan to reopen Texas businesses, starting May 1 with limited capacity at malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries. Establishments are currently limited to 25% occupancy, although those in counties with five or fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases are allowed up to 50% occupancy. Abbott stated that after two weeks, if there has not been a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the state will move into its next phase, loosening restrictions and opening hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars. However, Abbott on May 5 announced that wedding venues, salons, barbershops, and pools may reopen on May 8, with gyms being allowed to open with reduced occupancy on May 18. The state has yet to allow bars to reopen.

State regulatory entities such as the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), State Board of Education (SBOE), and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) have moved to online meeting platforms to continue fulfilling their duties. The SBOE met via video-conference in mid-April to take up an abbreviated agenda, which included a discussion of funding concerns related to the pandemic. The TRS Board of Trustees also met in mid-April for a truncated online meeting that included a discussion of delaying office space changes until the real estate market stabilizes. TRS was one of the first state bodies to change its practices at the beginning of the pandemic by restricting in-person visits and moving its staff to a tele-working environment. The SBEC board met May 1 to discuss a variety of issues, including the impact of COVID-19 on current and future educators.

Elections have also been affected by the pandemic. Most local elections, including a number of school board races around the state, originally slated for May 2, 2020, were postponed to November. The runoff elections for the Texas primaries have also been postponed from May to July 14, 2020.


Federal action in response to the pandemic

On March 13, President Trump declared a national state of emergency. Five days later, he signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which was the second coronavirus-related aid bill passed by Congress. (The first coronavirus bill signed by the president was a supplemental appropriations package that sent $8.3 billion to federal agencies to promote their work in combating the developing coronavirus crisis in America.) The higher profile FFCRA included, among other provisions, expanded paid sick/family leave and authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to waive federal provisions regarding the National School Lunch Program, allowing schools to continue providing food service to qualifying students while they are not on campus. Read ATPE’s information about the FFCRA here.

On March 27, Congress passed and the president signed a third coronavirus aid package. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act contains $13.5 billion in funding for K-12 education, plus additional amounts for child nutrition and child care. The bill also included temporary deferment on payments and interest for federal student loans and  a cash assistance program, which has begun to deliver one-time direct payments to qualifying individuals and families. Read ATPE’s information about the CARES Act relief for individuals here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at a White House press conference in March 2020.

The CARES Act also authorized the U.S. Secretary of Education to provide flexibility to states 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 blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The additional $13.5 billion in dedicated education funding under the CARES Act has yet to be distributed.

On April 27, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced that it will use some of the funding approved by Congress through the CARES Act for competitive grants to states that may use the money for private school vouchers. The $180 million “Rethink K-12 Education Models” or “REM” grant would be available for implementation of voucher programs, statewide virtual learning, or other models of remote learning. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a vocal proponent of vouchers, had previously said her department would urge Congress to approve a form of voucher termed a “microgrant,” but many lawmakers were surprised by her decision to preemptively use the CARES Act funding, intended to provide coronavirus relief, in this manner. Read more about the voucher proposal in this blog post from the ATPE lobby team. Working with our federal lobby team in Washington, D.C., ATPE continues to address this issue with Texas’ Congressional delegation.

A fourth coronavirus aid package was approved by Congress and signed by the president on April 24. Known as the “Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act,” this $484 billion dollar package is focused on loans for small businesses, with other much smaller pots of money for hospitals and increased virus testing. More federal legislation is anticipated in the coming months, which ATPE hopes will include additional funding related to public education.


Waivers are everywhere

At both the state and federal level, waivers have been the preferred method of responding to the challenges facing education during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Waivers are quick, easy, and in some cases can provide automatic relief from mandates that may make an already tough situation tougher. For instance, thanks to a waiver granted to Texas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parents can pick up meals from ISDs for their children without the children being present. Gov. Abbott also issued several waivers related to educator preparation that will assist candidates in moving forward with their careers while testing centers are closed. More long-term fixes such as funding take longer to roll out, and remedies that require state legislation will have to wait until Texas’ next legislative session in 2021, absent a special session being called by the governor.

TEA has compiled a list of all state and federal waivers. Some waivers don’t require any action by school districts or individuals, as they apply automatically. Others require documentation. For instance, in order to avoid being penalized financially for missed school days, districts must attest that they are providing off-campus instruction to the best of their ability and submit supporting documentation. Additionally, districts must proactively request to waive educator, principal, and administrator appraisals. ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes wrote a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for statewide action to suspend appraisals this year for all districts. (See ATPE’s press release here.)

Among the most popular statewide waivers is the assessment and accountability waiver, provided first by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and subsequently (in a streamlined fashion) as part of the CARES Act. Texas received approval from ED that freed our state from student assessment and accountability requirements under federal law. As a result, all districts will officially receive a rating of “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for the 2019-20 school year, and the list of schools previously identified for improvement will essentially freeze in place.

The federal government is also offering a spending flexibility waiver that allows states to move money around as they anticipate new expenditures and potential shortfalls. For instance, under this waiver, school districts could carry over as much Title I money from this school year to the next as necessary, spend more Title IV money on technology infrastructure, spend federal funds over a longer period of time, and take advantage of a broader definition of professional development that allows funds to be used on remote instruction training. On April 10, Texas received approval from ED for these waivers and two other waivers that will allow districts to spend federal funds more readily.

Secretary DeVos announced on April 27 that ED would not seek additional waiver authority from Congress for the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Additionally, the Department is not requesting further waiver authority from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but it is requesting various waivers under other federal education statutes such as the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the IDEA, and the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act that mostly pertain to flexibility in using federal funds. The CARES Act required DeVos to notify Congress 30 days after its passage on any additional requests for waiver authority.


Changes to educators’ work

COVID-19 continues to impact educators’ work lives. ATPE’s lobbyists previously reported on uncertainty around educator preparation and certification procedures during the pandemic since certification tests were suspended through April 30, 2020. TEA has posted information about certification testing and announced 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 SBEC and potential legislation during the next legislative session.

TEA’s educator support page features guidance 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. If they haven’t already, these candidates will have to complete the fingerprinting process, which — while safer for students — will also create some hiccups as many fingerprinting locations are closed or offering limited appointments. Certification candidates will also have to pay the probationary certificate fee now, plus the standard certificate fee later on when they pass the required examinations. Additionally, candidates must meet all requirements for initial certification, which are outlined in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) Chapter 230, Subchapter B, General Requirements (230.11), with the exception of passing the certification exam. These requirements include having a bachelor’s degree and submitting to a criminal history review. Out-of-state educators who are on a one-year certificate will receive an automatic one-year extension.

On April 2, ATPE sent a letter to Commissioner Morath asking for a statewide suspension of educator appraisals for the 2019-20 school year in light of the closure of school facilities and resulting disruptions to normal classroom instructional practices. Citing the inability to conduct classroom observations, fears of adverse employment actions, and the high stakes attached to teacher evaluations, ATPE urged the commissioner to issue a statewide moratorium rather than allowing evaluations to be conducted in an inconsistent manner at each district’s discretion.

Commissioner Morath wrote a response to our letter on April 23, which was not transmitted to ATPE until May 7. In his reply, Morath declined to issue a statewide order, noting that TEA has offered schools districts opportunities to apply for waivers of certain requirements pertaining to evaluations. TEA posted guidance documents in late April advising that school districts may apply for waivers of educator evaluation requirements found in Sections 21.351, 21.352, 21.354 and 21.3541 of the Texas Education Code, plus related commissioner’s rules in Title 19, Chapter 150 of the Texas Administrative Code, if the districts find that they are unable to complete aspects of the appraisal process.”The decision to pursue waivers of appraisal requirements is strictly a local decision,” the commissioner wrote in his letter to ATPE.

School districts around the state have taken varying approaches to the issue of evaluating their staff during this crisis, and ATPE maintains that educator appraisals conducted in an incomplete or truncated manner are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions.


The Texas budget

On April 7, 2020, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sat down (virtually) with Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey, to confirm that Texas is in a recession. Hegar said that Texas will be able to meet current budget obligations through August 31, 2021, despite the recession.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar was interviewed by the Texas Tribune, April 7, 2020.

On May 1, Hegar announced that state sales tax revenue totaled $2.58 billion in April, which is 9.3 percent less than the $2.8 billion brought in by the state in April 2019, the steepest decline since January 2010. In the summer, Hegar will release an updated revenue estimate that will likely be several billion dollars less. Because the state pumped billions into education during the last legislative session, educators worry that the continued funding commitment might be hard to maintain.

In light of these budget concerns, ATPE joined 17 other organizations calling on Commissioner Morath to place a moratorium on charter school expansion during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because charters cannot levy taxes, the state picks up the tab in order to fully fund every charter school while reducing the amount of funding available to local school districts. ATPE believes the expansion of charter enrollment during a pandemic with extremely uncertain financial outcomes would be fiscally irresponsible. In fact, the 94 charter expansion amendments currently on file with TEA could cost the state an additional $90 million per year if approved, money that may be sorely needed to shore up budgets of existing public schools across the state.


The road ahead

What lies ahead for Texas education is murky. Many graduation ceremonies this spring will be virtual, socially distanced, and involve a lot of honking car processionals. We still don’t know what a return to school in the fall will look like, or even if there will be a physical return at all should the virus rebound. Will students start back to school earlier in the summer? Will social distancing guidelines still be in place? Will schools implement extended school days or staggered instruction?

With each new piece of guidance or set of rules and policies that agencies and bodies such as TEA, SBEC, SBOE, and TRS develop, we get a little bit more clarity. Rest assured, the ATPE lobby team is involved in this process to make sure the voices of public educators are heard. As developments occur, check ATPE’s Coronavirus FAQ and Resources and watch for updates here on Teach the Vote and via our @TeachtheVote Twitter account.

One thing we know for sure is that educators are resilient and abundantly caring individuals, which is why each Friday we are featuring a positive educator story in our “Week in Review” blog post. here on Teach the Vote. Thank you to all educators who are still brightening their students’ days, all while taking care of their own needs and the needs of their families. #TeachersCan

Share 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 10, 2020

For many Texas educators, this week marked the beginning of an uncharted journey into distance learning. Our ATPE Governmental Relations team applauds all the educators who are rising to the unprecedented challenge. As always, we are here to provide the latest in education news. The ATPE state office is closed today, April 10, but our staff will be back in action next week and ready to help you find your way through these uncertain times. We hope you get to enjoy the weekend and this edition of Teach the Vote’s Week in Review.


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The worlds of the novel coronavirus and education were a bit quieter this week, but many questions remain on the long-term impact of the pandemic. Texas educators are facilitating distance learning and conducting other essential work even though Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the closure of Texas school buildings until at least May 4th, and some localities and districts have extended their closures beyond that date or even for the rest of the school year. Abbott held two press conferences this week, but neither provided further updates regarding education.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been issuing and updating its guidance for public schools on a daily basis, but numerous questions remain, especially for educators and those working to become educators who are concerned about job security. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier summarized what we know so far about changes to educator preparation and certification procedures in this blog post for Teach the Vote. We also await a response to ATPE’s call for accommodations regarding educator evaluations, on which so many compensation and job-related decisions are based. As we reported last week, ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes sent a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to request statewide action regarding educator appraisals, which are unlikely to yield fair and valid results under current conditions. Read more in this ATPE press release.

For a quick recap of where we stand, here are other notable state-level developments pertaining to the pandemic:

  • After Gov. Abbott cancelled this year’s STAAR tests, Texas sought and was approved by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to waive statewide testing and accountability. All districts will be “Not Rated: Declared State of Disaster” for 2019-20.
  • If you’ve seen a graphic circulating on social media with what looks like “Woody” from Toy Story, it is probably TEA’s “Stay Well, Texas” public health campaign, which school districts are helping to roll-out.
  • Parents can use TEA’s “meal finder” tool and pick up meals without their children being present, thanks to an waiver granted to Texas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • The TEA coronavirus resource page is chock-full of resources (mainly geared towards district leaders) relating to instructional continuity, special education, testing, graduation, and more. New guidance added to the TEA site this week includes FAQs on FERPA, the SAT, ACT, TSIA, and AP/IB tests, FEMA assistance, and Information Technology, plus child care support sample documents, a list of available waivers, and TELPAS and LPAC Guidance.
  • TEA has launched a partially-complete website that includes home learning resources for families, districts, and teachers.

At the federal level, Congress has approved substantial federal aid packages, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act, which provide billions in funding for individuals and businesses, along with waivers from various federal laws to facilitate relief. Attempts to advance another piece of coronavirus relief legislation stalled this week in Congress after partisan disagreements. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced this week new spending flexibility waivers under the CARES Act that would purportedly allow school officials to dedicate funds to distance learning and virtual classrooms. As we reported last week, DeVos has also floated the idea of “microgrants” for students and teachers, which are essentially vouchers and have not yet been approved by Congress.

  • ATPE has helpful information about the CARES Act here, including more on the direct cash payments to individuals that are expected to be distributed soon by the U.S. Treasurer.
  • Read ATPE’s information about the FFCRA’s expanded paid leave benefits here.

For guidance on dealing with COVID-19, we encourage educators to visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page.  Also, follow the ATPE lobbyists here on Teach the Vote and on Twitter for related legislative and regulatory news.


ELECTION UPDATE: The Texas Democratic Party filed a second lawsuit against the state this week over mail-in ballots, this time in federal court. According to a report in the Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats were concerned by Monday’s party-line decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in Wisconsin voters being forced to vote in person this week in contradiction to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Texas Democrats are asking the state to expand eligibility for mail-in ballots so that voters are not forced to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to cast a ballot. Current 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.


We reported last week that the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission has released its sunset staff recommendations for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). While TRS can’t be abolished through the sunset review process unlike other agencies, the commission staff have identified several issues that the legislature will likely address during the next legislative session in 2021. Check out this new blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, which takes a deeper look at one of the major issues raised by the sunset report: a recommendation that TRS should “repair its relationship with its members by focusing on their needs.”


ATPE joined 17 other organizations calling on Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to place a moratorium on charter expansion during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because charters cannot levy taxes, the state picks up the tab in order to fully fund every charter school student. ATPE believes the expansion of charter enrollment during a pandemic with extremely uncertain financial outcomes would be fiscally irresponsible. In fact, the 94 charter expansion amendments currently on file with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) could cost the state an additional $90 million per year if approved, money that may be sorely needed to shore up budgets of existing public schools across the state. Read more in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins


This week, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar sat down for a virtual conversation with the Texas Tribune to discuss what the novel coronavirus means for our state’s economy. Hegar said that Texas is in a recession but will be able to meet current budget obligations through August 31, 2021. In the summer, Hegar will release an updated revenue estimate that will likely be several billion dollars less. Since the state pumped billions into education during the last legislative session, educators worry that continued funding commitment might be hard to maintain. Read a full rundown in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Census 2020 self-response rates as of March 8, 2020. (Source)

The 2020 U.S. Census is still underway, and everyone’s response is critical for many important streams of funding, including for public education. Texas’ response rate has increased from 36% last week to over 41% this week, but we are still behind the current national rate of 46%. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some census work has been delayed, making it more important to push online/phone/mail census completion options that can reduce the need for interpersonal interaction. Learn more about the 2020 Census in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and find census FAQs here.


ATPE member Michelle Bish of Pasadena was featured this week in a news story by KHOU 11 news in Houston. While taking care of her own three children, Bish is also implementing distance learning for her third graders and staying in contact with her students’ parents. Bish says it is overwhelming but that we will all get through this together. In the article, she says:

“I cannot wait for this to be over,” she said. “This is not why I signed up to be a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to be present. Like, physically be in the presence of my students. You know, at school and being a part of them and teaching.”

We can’t wait for this to end either! In the meantime, we can help each other stay positive. 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.


Feds announce availability of student testing waivers

The U.S. Department of Education today signaled its willingness to waive federal testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year for students who are impacted by school closures due to the coronavirus outbreak. According to its March 20 press release, the Education Department will waive the requirements for any state that submits a “proper request.” Texas already announced it was waiving state requirements for STAAR testing for the 2019-20 school year and seeking a federal waiver, and today’s announcement by the federal government supports this decision.

According to additional TEA guidance released this week, STAAR assessments in grades 3 through 8 planned or April, May, and June 2020 are cancelled. Student Success Initiative (SSI) requirements for promotion or retention are also waived for the current school year. Districts will be given discretion in deciding whether to promote students to the next grade, with consideration given to teacher recommendations, student grades, and other academic information.

STAAR End-of-Course (EOC) assessments are also waived for the 2019-20 school year. Districts will be allowed to utilize the individual graduation committee (IGC) process to determine graduation eligibility for all five STAAR EOC courses. On Thursday, the agency issued FAQ related to assessments, which you can find here.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

At the federal level, additional relief is on the way for college and university students and those paying off student loans. The Education Department under direction from Secretary Betsy DeVos has suspended interest on all federally held student loans for the next 60 days. Additionally, students will be able to place their loans into forbearance for at least two months. According to the press release: “Secretary DeVos has directed all federal student loan servicers to grant an administrative forbearance to any borrower with a federally held loan who requests one. The forbearance will be in effect for a period of at least 60 days, beginning on March 13, 2020. To request this forbearance, borrowers should contact their loan servicer online or by phone. The Secretary has also authorized an automatic suspension of payments for any borrower more than 31 days delinquent as of March 13, 2020, or who becomes more than 31 days delinquent, essentially giving borrowers a safety net during the national emergency.”

Bloomberg News is also reporting that under federal stimulus legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Senate in response to the outbreak, students could defer student loan payments up to six months. The proposal would also protect existing federal student aid benefits for students who have to withdraw from classes due to the outbreak. As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, ATPE is closely watching the legislative proposals being considered by Congress and will report on any significant developments of interest to educators.

For additional resources for educators dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, visit ATPE’s FAQ and Resources page here.