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While we have a long way to go, the Texas Education Agency is finally beginning to listen to teachers. Probably the most significant provision of today’s updated guidance extends the transition period to four weeks, where districts may limit on-campus instruction. The guidance also allows school boards to vote to extend this transition period for another four weeks.
This effectively allows schools to operate remotely for up to eight weeks so long as the district can ensure all its students have access to the internet and/or devices. Otherwise, TEA states parents are entitled to on-campus instruction, even during this time period. Note that this provision requires the district to affirmatively make this decision, and TEA Commissioner Mike Morath continues to encourage districts to include as many kids on campus as possible.
Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said, “A tidal wave of teachers opposing dangerous reopening plans has knocked back the reckless push to open our schools. Today’s announcement giving additional time to phase-in with remote-only instruction is a good move in recognizing the legitimate fears of teachers and parents. But it’s not a question of how many weeks until on-site instruction is the norm. It’s making safety, and not politics or the economy, the top priority for our students and teachers in every decision.”
What is glaringly missing from this guidance is how to address the prevalence of COVID in the community. Based on current knowledge of COVID-19 and its spread, we need to follow the advice of health professionals and wait to open schools until we see a demonstrated decline in new cases and hospitalizations for at least 14 days. This needs to be the first step before thinking about anything else.
In addition to the extended time for transition other highlights of the updated guidance include:
- Tells districts to include stakeholders (teachers, staff, and parents) in developing guidance, but does not put any parameters on how to do this or how to make it happen. In addition, the guidance says these plans are not subject to approval by any government entity, removing the critical voice of a school board in these decisions.
- Continues to “encourage” safety practices, such as handwashing and having hand sanitizer at entrances, without requiring them.
- States that “Employees of school systems, like employees of any organization, must continue to meet the work expectations set by their employers, subject to any applicable employment contract terms or legal requirements. However, school systems should work with teachers and other staff to ensure the safety of students, teachers, and staff. This could include allowing those staff, including teachers, who may fulfill their work duties remotely to do so. It could include modification of schedules to ensure, where feasible, that staff members, including teachers, interact with smaller and/or more consistent cohorts of individuals to further mitigate risk. In addition, teachers and staff who are in high risk categories may be entitled to paid leave under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in addition to leave already accrued.”
- Allows school districts to establish a less-than-daily on-campus attendance option for high school students (grades 9-12) to reduce the number of individuals on a campus at any one time and increase the total number of students served in an on-campus setting.
The guidance also updated the rules for how districts will be held harmless during the 2020-2021 school year to reflect the same way districts were funded as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Texas AFT continues to review these changes with our coalition partners to determine the real-world impact on classrooms.
A reminder of hope: While we have many concerns about the TEA guidance, school districts still have the power to change their start date to later in the year. We strongly encourage all districts to take advantage of this option.