Texas gives school districts more leeway in reopening schools amid pandemic

AUSTIN, Texas — Amid growing angst among parents and educators, the Texas Education Agency softened its stance on in-person instruction mandates as schools navigate around the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency issued new rules Friday that give local school districts more control over the decisions on start dates and on how long schools can remain closed and teach students online.

Also on Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state will allocate $200 million in federal coronavirus aid to purchase of eLearning devices and internet access to help families who don’t have WiFi to be able to learn remotely.

The Texas agency’s new rules come a week after the agency laid out guidelines that required parents to choose between sending their children to school in person all the time or only being educated online, rather than any combination of the two.

Also last week, the state education commissioner in Florida called for all Florida public schools to provide in-person classes five says a week. That state, which saw a record 15,300 new cases on Sunday, hasn’t shown any signs of softening its stance. Many school districts have responded by delaying the start of the school year to allow time for the spread of the virus to possibly slow.

A custodian cleans a classroom at Akin Elementary in Leander, Texas on Thursday. The school has been preparing for possible return of students by cleaning and disinfecting classrooms to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
A custodian cleans a classroom at Akin Elementary in Leander, Texas on Thursday. The school has been preparing for possible return of students by cleaning and disinfecting classrooms to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In Texas, state officials are extending the time districts can teach online without financial penalty. TEA will allow districts to teach online for up to eight weeks, with the second four weeks requiring a waiver from the state. High school students also will now have the flexibility to learn through a hybrid model of some in-person instruction and some online.

The change, which comes just weeks before some districts are scheduled to open their doors, goes beyond the previous guidance, which allowed districts to teach only online or delay school starts only after an order by local health authorities. That means districts that fall within counties that have not issued such orders can teach their students online for up to eight weeks and still receive full state education funding.

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The agency said the move was in response to the varying public health realities of each Texas community and gives schools the needed flexibility to create the safest environment and least disruptive mode of learning as the school year launches. Education Commissioner Mike Morath said while some parents are nervous and want to keep their children home, on-campus instructional environment is invaluable, that a child’s academic and social growth flourishes in school.

“Our framework ensures that there will be on-campus instruction available for all students who need it in the state of Texas,” Morath said. “But at the same time, we know we need to provide local schools flexibility to adapt to local health conditions. especially given the rise in covid cases we’re seeing across the state.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Friday announced new guidelines for reopening schools, which give districts more local control and allows them to teach students online for up to eight weeks.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Friday announced new guidelines for reopening schools, which give districts more local control and allows them to teach students online for up to eight weeks.

The guidelines also require districts to post one week prior to the start of their school year a summary of the plan they will follow to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in their schools.

Various districts have announced reopening plans, but those may change after Friday’s announcements.

Some school leaders said last week’s guidelines that required in-person instruction five days a week would hinder their efforts to control social distancing and manage class sizes.

Multiple districts across the state called on Morath and the governor to suspend in-person school until average hospitalization rates are lower and to provide additional funding to supplement coronavirus-related costs, including remote learning.

But cases and hospitalizations continue to surge across Texas. On Thursday, the state reported 129 new deaths, for a total of 3,561, and hospitalizations topped 10,000 for the seventh consecutive day.

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While the state has given students the option to attend in person or to fully learn remotely, many teachers have expressed concern that they don’t have that option and that the state has not outlined how districts are to keep them safe. About 150 Texas teachers gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to urge state education leaders to rethink how they plan to put teachers and students back in the classroom next month. They said reopening while coronavirus infections remain high will put lives at risk. More educators also plan to gather at the Capitol on Saturday.

“It’s a certainly a step in the right direction,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “The immediate safety concerns are being addressed, which is a good thing. But I’m still a little skeptical about the entire situation. I want to ensure that safety is going to continue to be the paramount rationale for making decisions and politics and the economy don’t creep their way back in the fold. What we saw was teachers across the state of Texas pushing back on what we consider to be very dangerous and reckless reopening plans.”

A custodian cleans a classroom at Akin Elementary in Leander, Texas, on Thursday. The school has been preparing for possible return of students by cleaning and disinfecting classrooms to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
A custodian cleans a classroom at Akin Elementary in Leander, Texas, on Thursday. The school has been preparing for possible return of students by cleaning and disinfecting classrooms to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Families say they are frustrated by the ongoing changes in plans and feel pulled between local and state orders. Some remain undecided on whether to send their children back to school and are considering launching small learning co-ops for their children that would better manage their safety but still provide them hands-on learning. Others just want to return to some kind of normalcy, giving students a chance to be around classmates and participate in sports or extracurricular activities. The UIL is expected to make an announcement Monday regarding the start of the fall sports season.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said on social media the change in handing off control to local jurisdictions is welcomed news.

“Next time let’s listen to parents and teachers on the front end before announcing broad proclamations on our schools,” she wrote, adding it would have saved planning time and prevented angst.

What happens once districts get past the eight-week point remains unknown. The governor this week indicated he would provide flexibility to school districts to prevent teachers and students from being put in unsafe situations. But it’s unclear, however, how long state leaders will allow that local control to last.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: COVID-19: Texas gives districts more leeway in reopening schools

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