November 13, 2020: Take Action to help our districts with spiking COVID-19; Our Bill Watch for the #txlege; TEA waffles on rules allowing remote learning

You can find all news, updates and resources addressing COVID-19 here on our website.

Signpost for the next legislative session: Bill filing starts We’ll be watching bills of great importance to you

Monday was the first day for filing bills for the next legislative session starting January 12. It’s a Inside looking up into spiraling capitol domeday that serves as a signpost that it’s time to start focusing on the issues that matter most for improving public education in Texas. Keeping our communities safe in a pandemic and continuing our investment in our kids amidst an economic crisis will, of course, be our biggest push.

Heading into the next legislative session, we also will be focusing on bringing sanity back to our accountability system–most notably by stopping the unrealistic STAAR test that’s still scheduled–along with educating the public about the taxpayer money-drain from corrupt and unaccountable charter-school chains. We also need to keep the promise we’ve made to our retired school employees by protecting their pensions and healthcare.

Here are some initial bills of interest:

Community Schools
House Bill 81 from Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (House District 51, D-Austin) filed today would authorize districts to use the community school model as a turnaround plan under accountability laws. It also prohibits the commissioner of education from ordering a campus closure because of accountability sanctions without first giving the campus the opportunity to operate as a community school, and at least two years to implement its community school plan.

“We commend Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who has been a tireless supporter of community schools for a good reason–because they work,” said Zeph Capo, Texas AFT president. “Community schools are a common-sense way to address struggling campuses by addressing many of the root causes of low accountability scores—such as poverty, hunger, moving households, and healthcare issues. This bill would make sure we can create lasting partnerships with community-service providers, what we call wraparound services, to address these issues instead of just shuttering the neighborhood schools and turning them over the charter operators.”

Fairness and Responsibility with COVID-19
House Bill 47 by Rep. Terry Canales (House District 40, D-Hidalgo County) would allow school employees to make Workers Compensation claims for testing positive for COVID-19.

“Folks, let’s face the fact that if we’re going to demand putting school employees into unsafe working conditions, we need to take care of them if they do contract the virus instead of denying responsibility,” Texas AFT President Zeph Capo said.


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New state COVID-19 guidance and waffling on previous rules could force remote students back to campus

Prickly covid germTwo new troubling pieces of state COVID-19 guidance have emerged that could end up forcing remote students back to face-to-face instruction and endanger families susceptible to the Coronavirus. Last week, the Texas Education Agency amended its guidance on remote students to allow districts to set criteria on grades and attendance.

Districts may now enact policies that remove students from remote instruction, for example, if they don’t have a grade of 70 in a class or have three unexcused absences. (District can tweak numbers, such as setting the grade mark at 68.) Word from several big urban districts is that they will not be using this option, and it’s too early to know how many districts try to take that course. Parents can seek an exemption by getting a statement from a doctor outlining medical conditions that would put the student at risk.

The other disturbing trend is districts getting rid of remote instruction all together, usually for logistical and economical reasons (although some claim their students are in need of more intensive face-to-face instruction.) Districts can do this because the TEA guidance for returning to a new school year states parents have the right to remote instructions, with a caveat that only if the district offered that instruction. New guidance made it clear that offering remote was not required.

The problem with both of these decisions from the state is that it communicated to the public from the beginning that parents would have a right to keep their kids remote. Parent’s had a choice. Clearly, the state is eroding that choice, and an effort to preserve that choice for the safety of the student and their family will require a burden of proof in a medical attestation–possibly an expensive one for those without health insurance. Texas AFT will continue to monitor the impact of these two ill-advised policies from TEA.

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Education advocates raise red flag, question pitfalls of special education voucher program

Coalition LogoOver 40 organizations from The Coalition for Public Schools, including Texas AFT, signed onto a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott regarding the recent establishment of the Supplemental Special Education Services Program (SSES). While the program has good intentions, it is creating a special education voucher system by providing individual parents the sole discretion on spending taxpayer funds on private vendors.

The SSES is responsible for allocating money to families of eligible students with low incidence disabilities. This program allows these families to buy up to $1,500 per student of educational supplemental services from vendors approved by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Given that these students are among the most vulnerable of student populations, it is imperative that the problems this system is causing are addressed.

The letter cites these major deficiencies including determining if supplemental services are developmentally appropriate for students, the lack of efficiency in spending, circumventing the public school system, and the inadequacies of this program to fulfill the state’s legal responsibility to these children. The coalition offers these recommendations to address these pitfalls: deliver all COVID-19 relief funding spent to assist children receiving special education services through an appropriate public manner, include the Local Education Agencies (LEA) in the decision-making process for how funds are allocated and spent, move to a future system of public education funding that more fully provides LEAs with the necessary funds.

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Tell your legislators we need their help pushing the state to ensure safety in our schools, communities

Covid Germ and message that TEA is not a health authority
Send your online letter now!

This month, Texas became the first state to surpass 1 million COVID-19 cases. Yet many of our educators, school staff, and students are in classrooms on school campuses with varying levels of safety precautions.

The Texas Education Agency continues to make school funding contingent on in-person instruction, with little regard for data indicating the continuing spread of COVID-19 in communities throughout Texas and the dangers posed to students and school employees.

The TEA has given an inch here or there but still wields its school-funding cudgel, tying the hands of districts trying to make responsible, science-based decisions about providing in-person or virtual instruction.

We need our state legislators to use their position and influence to put pressure on TEA Commissioner Mike Morath to allow districts to choose what is best for their community, without fear their funding will be cut.

Write your state representatives and senators now and demand action!

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Know Your COVID-19 Antibody Status!

The Texas Coronavirus Antibody Response Survey (Texas CARES) led by the UTHealth School of Public Health and the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) will conduct about 31,500 antibody tests for the Texas education workforce, in addition to thousands more for other populations. The antibody tests—which are designed to detect a past infection or one that has been present for a significant amount of time—are administered free of charge, and participants will receive their individual results after each sample is taken. Participation is voluntary and will be handled on a first-come, first-served basis, and all results are completely confidential. For more information about participating in the study see the Texas CARES site.

Protect Students GraphicOn Wednesdays, we wear red!

Turn your social media channels red each Wednesday in support of educators and students. Our goal is to show our numbers across platforms and to push local leaders and elected officials to show their support too.

While we’ve seen some districts and counties delay start dates for in-person instruction and move closer to our common sense plan for safe school reopenings, there’s still work to do this back-to-school season.

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Texas American Federation of Teachers represents more than 65,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, support personnel, and higher-education employees across the state. Texas AFT is affiliated with the 1.6-million-member American Federation of Teachers.