Jan. 22, 2021: Biden launches aid to schools, refreezes student loan payments; Share your story for the #TxLege; Lawmakers call on vaccine priorities for teachers

Biden immediately acts to support public education, workers facing impacts from the pandemic

Joe Biden. talking with Kamala Harris

President Joe Biden has hit the ground running with several executive actions to help public education, school employees, and all Americans hurting economically from the pandemic.

  • In the coming weeks, FEMA, in consultation with the U.S. Department of Education and CDC, will work with states and local governments to utilize disaster relief funds to address barriers to school reopening, including purchase of masks and sanitizing products, as well as necessary emergency changes to school ventilation.
  • The U.S. Department of Education approved an extension on freezing student loan payments. The freeze, which started last March, expired without congressional action in debates over the stimulus package passed in December. Borrowers would have had to start paying again this month without the extension, which will run through September. Biden is also supporting congressional action to cancel some level of student debt, at least $10,000 per borrower. It remains to be seen just how far Congress will go in canceling debt.
  • Biden directed federal officials to do everything in their power to protect the status of Dreamers, those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. His Presidential Memorandum also calls on Congress to “enact legislation providing permanent status and a path to citizenship for people who came to this country as children and have lived, worked, and contributed to our country for many years.” Many DACA recipients are members of our union, serving as teachers and school employees on our campuses.
  • Biden directed federal officials to extend moratoriums on evictions and mortgage foreclosure until at least March 31.

Biden has pledged to reopen all schools within the first 100 days in office by directing more federal aid to states and school districts, while also counting on the wide-scale vaccinations of school employees and more school-based rapid testing. Texas AFT stands by its position that the judgment of local health authorities and the actual safety of individual school employees and students should be the primary consideration for opening a particular school or district. However, it is clear that Biden is making federal support for clear, science-based guidelines—along with more federal aid—his top priority. Texas AFT is hopeful that significant progress will be made in getting more students and teachers back on campus safely.\

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Share your story for legislators

Crowd of people with bubble comment to share your storyAs we head into the 87th Legislative Session, we know it will be a difficult one for public education. Faced with an ongoing pandemic and a budget shortfall, legislators will be making difficult budgetary and policy decisions. We will have to fight to protect our public schools and the front-line workers like you who keep them running.

It is critical that lawmakers listen to Texas educators and school staff.

Tell us your story. What do legislators need to hear about your experience? Fill out our story tool and be heard.

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State senator calls on education commissioner to allow more remote teaching, earlier vaccinations for school employees

Jose Menendez on Senate Floor

Sen. José Menéndez, right, speaks on the state Senate floor last week

Earlier this week, Sen. José Menéndez sent a letter to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath regarding the unique challenges school districts and personnel have been facing during the pandemic.

In his letter, Sen. Menéndez urged Commissioner Morath to allow school districts to have flexibility in letting personnel work from home, given the surge in COVID-19 cases across the state. He also highlighted how vital school personnel are to our education system and our state. School employees’ commitment to providing excellent education for students and the high likelihood of transmission in in-person classes makes them high priority candidates for the COVID-19 vaccine, the letter states. This letter urges the same prioritization of school personnel that Texas AFT members have advocated for throughout the pandemic.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also sent a letter to the person in charge of vaccination allocation in Texas asking her to reconfigure the different subgroups for vaccine prioritization. Patrick suggested adding more subgroups to provide those seeking a vaccine with a clearer estimate of when the vaccine will be available to them. In his open letter, Lt. Gov. Patrick suggests that teachers and school staff that are 65 and older should be given higher priority in comparison to the general population of those 65 and older.

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Legislative Update: COVID-19 at the Capitol, and lawmakers release preliminary state budgets

Looking up at the spiraling floors of the Capitol dome.Last week the Texas Legislature officially gaveled in, marking the beginning of the 87th session. The House established rules for the session regarding COVID-19 protocols including the mandatory usage of masks on the floor and limits on virtual testimony from the public. Once the Legislature reconvenes, committee assignments will be finalized and committees will begin to hear bills. Texas House leadership expects to convene Tuesday and Wednesday, then leave until the next Tuesday, Feb 2.

On Thursday, lawmakers released House and Senate versions of a preliminary state budget, and unlike previous years, the figures were in complete agreement—spending $119.7 billion in general revenue for the next two fiscal years. That figure is $7 billion more than the revenue available to spend. It’s also 4% higher than the current budget, but 3% lower if you factor in the costs of inflation and population growth.

The Legislature also has to deal with a roughly $1 billion deficit in the current budget. Despite there being a general consensus between the House and Senate budget writers on what amount to spend, fitting together the pieces of additional money needed for the current and next budget still may take some wrangling between the two bodies. Uncertain are the possible additional waves of federal aid to states, along with how much lawmakers will agree to spend from the Rainy Day Fund, which has amassed $10 billion. How does our investment in public education fare with this news? It’s still too early to tell, although many lawmakers are continuing to signal support for maintaining funding levels.

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Good Bills of the Week

Gina Hinojosa HB 1192 Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin): This bill calls for the cancellation of STAAR during emergency declarations issued by the governor and/or president of the U.S. The state would have to apply for a federal waiver of testing requirements for a school or school district that is located in the area of the disaster, and the bill requires the state not to consider these assessments when it comes to possible district or campus takeovers. This would help to ensure that educators and students aren’t under additional stress to prepare for a standardized test during a crisis.

 

Jose Menendez SB 260 José Menéndez (D-San Antonio): Rep. Menendez’s bill would eliminate the requirement that end-of-course exams must be part of the criteria used for a student’s grade promotion or graduation. This would help to create more options for academic advancement for students who struggle with testing but otherwise satisfactorily complete their coursework.

 


Poster of Teacher looking a computer screen with young girlIDRA Bilingual Workshop

The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) will hold a webinar on the “Impact of the Pandemic on Bilingual Education” on January 26, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Texas educator Grace Delgado, executive director of multilingual services for Aldine ISD, will review programming and instructional considerations for bilingual education and serving emergent bilingual students, as well as relevant applications for virtual and remote learning. Register for free here.


Get your Google going

The Texas AFT Bridges Institute for Professional Development is sponsoring a webinar on Computer Screen with step chart of numbers“Applied Digital Skills: Google Suite Workshop” on January 27, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

This online digital literacy curriculum helps learners obtain new digital skills using G Suite. The training is intended to get you up and running with the online program to supplement your online instruction. Continuing Professional Education Credit will be offered, and you can register for free here.


Houston union hall explosion highlights need to support Disaster Relief Fund

The explosion this month at our Houston Federation of Teachers offices highlights how you never know when disaster will strike. HFT is suffering a tremendous loss after an apparent natural gas explosion crumbled a wall and collapsed part of the building. The exact cause is under investigation.

HFT Building aerial showing collapsed roof

Luckily the offices were empty because staff is working remotely during the pandemic. This union hall has served as a focal point for our members, providing them with a gathering space for advocacy meetings, press conferences, and professional development workshops. Our union brothers and sisters will build back their hall and make it even stronger to office our staff safely and host our members in their actions to improve Houston ISD.

Please help by donating to our Disaster Relief Fund. All proceeds are distributed directly to members and their unions during disasters. Any amount is welcome, but recurring donations keep the fund healthy. Donate now!


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