By Charlotte Aguilar
The Texas Education Agency issued its guidelines Tuesday (July 7) for the 2020-21 school year — and to use a phrase common in the news business, TEA “buried the lead” about the uncertainty of its pronouncements at the end.
“Due to the nature of this pandemic, parents and educators should expect to see some campuses close for brief periods during the upcoming school year,” the last paragraph of the summary media advisory read. “If there are significant changes to the public health situation, there may need to be additional changes to the framework as well.”
But to start the school year — Houston ISD has announced Aug. 24 as the opening day — parents will have a choice between “safe,” campus-based classes and remote online learning. Districts will have a three-week grace period to phase in campus instruction, to make sure safety measures are in place. HISD has said it will announce a specific plan on July 15.
The timing of the announcement, which the TEA said was “based on the most current science,” seemed ill-advised, as Texas reported a staggering 10,000-plus COVID-19 cases in a single day. But with President Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott both pushing for schools to reopen, it was not a surprise.
“Much of the guidance released by TEA today appears to ignore the reality of the record number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across the state,” Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo said in a statement. “We are actually one of the nation’s worst ‘hot-spot’ states, and yet TEA continues to stress the supposed dire need to get kids clustered together again in often overcrowded school buildings.
“It is simply not worth the enormous risk of harm to our children and school employees.”
With just seven weeks until school starts, those parents who opt for virtual classes for their children are being asked to do so for a full grading period of six or nine weeks and have until two weeks prior to each period to decide whether to choose in-person or online instruction.
School safety measures include everyone — students, teachers, staff, visitors — being screened for the COVID-19 virus before being allowed on campus. If the governor’s executive order mandating masks is still in effect, face coverings will be required, with the exceptions outlined in his order.
And a vague note appears to offer some discretion for campuses to expand safety measures: “Additional health procedures are recommended for every school that can reasonably implement those procedures,” the advisory reads.
For school districts, TEA will be reimbursing unexpected COVID-19 related expenses from the last school year, providing digital resources aligned with state academic standards, as well as teacher training to deliver the specialized instruction. The agency is also promising “efforts” — no mention of funding or specific resources — to help narrow the “digital divide” in students’ homes that became painfully obvious in HISD when the district was forced to switch to distance learning after spring break.
The state is also prepared to offer “tens of millions” of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies to districts for free, according to the statement.
“Both as commissioner and as a public school parent, my number one priority is the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. “That is why the guidance laid out today will provide flexibility to both parents and districts to make decisions based on the ever-changing conditions of this public health crisis.
“The state is and remains committed to providing a high-quality education to all Texas students, while ensuring the health and safety of students, teachers, staff, and families.”
This framework was developed based on the most current science with input from: Governor Greg Abbott’s Coronavirus Medical Advisory Team; the Governor’s Strike Force to Reopen Texas; Texas school system leaders; ongoing global analysis of school operational practices; ongoing global analysis of research on viral spread in schools; and the latest peer-reviewed viral research studies.
The TEA’s dedicated webpage on the coronavirus can be reached by clicking here.