Teachers union: It’s appalling that Texas leaders are ignoring health guidance to open schools

Originally published in the Dallas Morning News, August 9, 2020

Dallas Morning News Caption: Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID19, elementary school students walk to class to begin their school day in Godley, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Three rural school districts in Johnson County were among the first in Texas to head back to school for in person classes for students. (AP Photo/LM Otero)(LM Otero)

Misty Griffin was the kind of teacher every student wants and every parent dreams their child will have. She was a 14-year middle-school English language arts teacher at Dan. F. Long Middle School in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD near Dallas. Kids adored her. She always knew just what it took to reach each child. She was good at her job. But Griffin resigned last month because she was forced to return to her school in August even though it was offering remote learning.

That’s right, she would be required to conduct distance learning, not from home, but from inside the school building, along with at least 100 other educators and school workers. Because Griffin is a single parent of a young child and has asthma and other high-risk factors for COVID-19, she couldn’t take the risk. Her painful decision to resign is just one of many that are piling up in Texas because of ridiculous policies.

It is appalling that state leaders continue to call for schools to reopen without ensuring safety for kids and their educators. COVID-19 is a very serious disease, even deadly, for people of all ages. Yes, kids get it. In Austin, children ages 10 to 19 represented the highest COVID-19 positivity rate during the last two weeks of July, according to health authorities.

Even worse, state leaders keep moving the goal posts for our school districts by changing the rules and holding state funding hostage. The latest directive from the Texas Education Agency — based on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s nonbinding counsel — tells districts they will not receive funding for remote instruction if they follow their county health department and close campuses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

This is just the latest in confusing and often contradictory guidance from TEA, leaving school districts struggling to answer a critical question: How do we provide education and necessary supports to our students without threatening the lives of our students and educators due to the rise in COVID-19 cases in our communities?

This is not an easy question to answer, even when the state actually does provide necessary resources, funding and support. To ask our districts to develop plans with changing edicts from Austin that threaten school funding at the local level is not only unfair but flies in the face of the realities our communities are facing.

On July 3, Gov. Greg Abbott said he wanted to start schools on schedule, as if times are normal. He said if COVID continues to spread, it might be necessary to employ flexibility and use online learning. But he’s not heeding his own advice or reality.

Throughout July, confirmed Texas COVID-19 cases grew, from 183,532 to 394,265, and the rise continues. The standard guidance for reopening is that the number of cases should show a decline for at least 14 consecutive days before starting these discussions.

Instead of focusing on controlling the virus, state leaders are ignoring science, playing politics, issuing guidance without stakeholder input, and holding funding hostage to force school leaders into unsafe decisions.

In this time of crisis, we need strong, thoughtful leadership to provide clear guidance that puts the health of the public first. Abbott should be doing everything in his power to slow the spread and reduce the threat to public health. He should not stand in the way of public health officials who are trying to control the spread within our communities. He should not allow the TEA to confuse and confound an already difficult situation.

No one wants to return to school more than educators. Misty Griffin wanted to but couldn’t in good conscience, choosing to keep her family and herself safe and well. “The policies are so illogical. And it’s knocked out all my passion for teaching,” she said.

Schools provide the education, support services and even meals that students need. However, keeping kids and teachers safe must be priority No. 1. Once we get the virus under control in Texas, we can get back to school, just like countries around the world have done.

When schools closed in March across Texas, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and all school employees turned on a dime to meet the needs of our kids and their families. Imagine what we could do working with our school districts to develop plans to meet the needs of our students without sacrificing the safety of our communities.

We must stop the foolishness, follow the science, stop the spread, and use the funding and tools we need to appropriately and safely educate our students. Public school employees are trusted members of our communities because we put our children first. We are telling you that the current course is not safe. There is no room for error here. We must get this right and we will do whatever we need to do to keep Texas safe.

Zeph Capo is president of Texas AFT public school employee union. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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