Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was expected to release formal safety guidelines Tuesday regarding the opening of public schools in the upcoming 2020-21 academic year, but backed off in the face of rising COVID-19 cases across the state.
A draft of the state guidelines, however, briefly was posted to the TEA’s website.
In it, TEA officials recommend — but do not require — that local school leaders implement several health and safety protocols to fight the spread of the coronavirus. They include placing desks at least six feet apart, requiring students and staff to wear face masks, taking the temperature of teachers and other staff members at the start of each day and setting aside times for hand washing, among others.
The guidance does outline several mandates: people with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 must remain home while sick and meet three conditions before returning to school; school leaders must notify local health officials and school community members of individuals who were on-campus and tested positive; educators must provide instruction on hygiene practices on the first day of school.
“While it is not possible to eliminate all risk of furthering the spread of COVID-19, the current science suggests there are many steps schools can take to reduce the risk to students, teachers, staff and their families significantly,” the draft states.
In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, when he laid out plans for how schools will receive funding, Morath said the preliminary health guidelines “are still draft, working documents.”
“It’s a rapidly changing public health situation, so we are unable to give final guidance (Tuesday) on on-campus instruction,” Morath said.
The agency did confirm that school funding will be based on student attendance, which will include students on campus as well as those who choose to stick with the kind of online instruction and distance learning that districts provided after Gov. Greg Abbott shut down all public schools in March.
Local school leaders across Texas are awaiting directives from the state as they craft extensive plans for the upcoming school year. They are deciding how to structure school days, implement safety protocols, assign staff responsibilities and provide instruction to students who fell behind in recent months.
Many school leaders are planning to reopen campuses in August, but with a limited number of students and staff in attendance each day. In those cases, the remaining students would continue online classes from home. Several Houston-area superintendents have said they also are creating contingency plans in case they are forced to shut down campuses again.
Several Houston-area public school leaders said they aim to announce back-to-school protocols in July.
“State guidance will help us finalize some things and stamp some decisions, but at the end of the day, we’re going to make decisions based on the best available data and information about the spread of the virus,” said KIPP Texas Public Schools CEO Sehba Ali, whose charter network outlined several expected safety protocols in a letter to families this week.
The final review of state guidelines comes as the Houston region reports its highest number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations, as well as the highest rate of positive tests, since the pandemic arrived in Texas in March. The state on also recorded nearly 5,200 positive COVID-19 test results Tuesday, it highest single-day total since the pandemic began.
The 2020-21 school year starts in August, with some districts scheduled to return early in the month and others waiting until the fourth week. No local districts are providing regular in-person summer school classes.
Education leaders across the state say there are innumerable academic, social and economic benefits to resuming in-person classes, particularly for children from lower-income families and working parents.
At the same time, education and public health officials worry about the potential for increasing the spread of the novel coronavirus. While children fall ill from COVID-19 at exceedingly low rates, health experts fear they could infect staff members or relatives.
The draft guidelines drew mixed reviews from the state’s largest teachers unions and employees groups.
Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said state leaders should issue a mask mandate for all people on campus. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association argued the TEA “must provide clear, enforceable parameters” for reopening schools that are set by state health care professionals.
Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said his organization wants to see more flexibility for teachers concerned about returning to in-person classes.
“We would simply urge the state and school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendation of medical experts as they start developing these plans,” Holmes said. “There’s not going to be any one-size-fits-all plan for every district in the state — and even if they did, it probably wouldn’t work for every pocket of Texas.”
At least half a dozen other states have released guidelines on how local schools should work to reopen for in-person instruction as the pandemic continues.
Florida’s Department of Education released a set of recommendations “as points to consider and implement with local context.” Similarly, the Arizona Department of Education released a “roadmap” that contained suggestions about physical distancing. Washington state went further, requiring all students and staff to wear face coverings in K-12 settings, among other things.
While Morath held back on safety guidance, he released an 11-page outline on plans for allocating money to schools.
Morath said schools will receive the same amount of funding for each student learning from home or reporting to campus, as long as they capture attendance in virtual learning spaces.
To count at-home attendance, students must log onto live instructional videos each day or show progress on their school work without real-time instruction from a teacher.
Districts also will be given two grace periods. During the first 12 weeks of school, they will be funded no lower than the same level as the first 12 weeks of 2019-2020, even if enrollments drop. There will be an attendance grace period for funding students engaged in online learning for up to 18 weeks.
Aldine ISD Superintendent LaTonya Goffney, however, questioned whether the 12-week break would last long enough to stop significant funding losses. Aldine staff members were unable to reach about 5 percent of district students at any point following the closure of schools in mid-March — a potential harbinger for the challenge of counting daily attendance with students learning from home in 2020-21.
“I just really think we’re going to need a semester to level set and see what that looks like, especially if we have most of our (COVID-19) cases in the fall,” Goffney said.