A big week for public education, regarding masks, vaccines, and school funding

Major pronouncements came out this week on masks, vaccines, and funding. Here’s the lowdown:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded requirements for masks and capacity limits for businesses. With no mention of the impact on masks in schools, we stated that the ill-advised decision could throw school districts into chaos wondering what they could require. The Texas Education Agency came out the next day with updated guidelines keeping mask requirements but also noting that “the governing board of a school system may modify or eliminate by formal action the above mask-related requirements.” Texas AFT is urging all districts to keep mask requirements, and early indications are that most will do so.
  • After spending Tuesday afternoon answering media calls on the governor lifting the mask mandate, Texas AFT heard the great news that President Joe Biden had directed all states to vaccinate all school employees at pharmacies—with the goal of vaccinating all educators by March 31. CDC guidelines put school employees in the first tier for vaccinations, but Texas opted not to. AFT’s insistent advocacy on the issue led to Biden’s directive. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo outlines the details of this incredible victory in a letter to members.
  • More good news came Thursday as Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that the state would hold harmless districts for attendance for the entire school year. The hold harmless provision allows districts to be funded by projected enrollment for the year rather than attendance, which has dropped because of the pandemic. Without the provision, many schools could have suffered significant funding losses while still incurring significant additional expenses because of the pandemic. One concerning requirement is that districts must maintain or exceed their existing levels of on-campus students. While we are relieved to see the hold harmless, it makes no sense to hold districts responsible for whether students are on campus or remote, when the decision is entirely up to parents.
  • The U.S. House passed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package of funding meant to come to the aid of Americans, schools, and businesses hurt by the pandemic. In addition to giving many Americans $1,400 checks, the plan would send $130 billion to schools nationwide. AFT has launched an intensive campaign to help the act clear the Senate, which is currently debating the bill. You can send an online letter to your congressional representatives urging them to support the plan.
  • By a vote of 64-33, the U.S. Senate on March 1 confirmed Dr. Miguel A. Cardona as education secretary. After four long years of a billionaire lobbyist undermining our public education system at the expense of students and teachers alike, Cardona will usher in a new perspective as both a former public school teacher and a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
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