AUSTIN, Texas — Several teachers and education advocates have expressed concern after the Texas Education Agency released new guidelines on Tuesday. The state now said it will not fund schools if classrooms remain closed after the first eight weeks of the school year.
"It seems like every other day there's something new that they're throwing at school districts and our school employees," said Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina. "The plans have have just drastically changed."
The newer guidelines came as a surprise to many, including Molina.
"Now, TEA, who is supposed to be advocating and supporting public schools, is putting districts in a really tough situation," said Molina. "I consider it as another slap in the face to educators who worked very hard to talk to health officials and, given their concerns and look at the data, because that's what we were pushed to do."
What hasn't changed is the transition period the TEA announced recently. School districts still have the option of four weeks of online learning at the start of the school year. Then a school board can request four additional weeks after that to stay virtual.
Now, after that two-month transition period, if schools decide to stay off campus, they could jeopardize funding, even if local health authorities suggest to keep distance learning in place. This changed after Attorney General Ken Paxton released a letter of guidance on Tuesday.
Though Paxton said local health authorities have played an important role in protecting the health of students and school employees, they cannot issue sweeping orders on closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections. Instead, Paxton said their role is limited by statute to address specific and actual outbreaks.
Molina said educators trust health experts, not the attorney general, when students' lives are on the line.
"They keep talking about this local control and the local districts should be able to make the decision, but they're actually pushing us into opening our schools by their specific date," said Molina.
A Round Rock ISD spokesperson said, in part, it appreciates the flexibility, but they do believe relying on the expertise of local health authorities is critically important.
Full Round Rock ISD statement below:
"In Round Rock ISD we appreciate the flexibility granted by the attorney general, however we do believe relying on the expertise of local health authorities is critically important as we make decisions that could affect the health and wellbeing of our 51,000 students, 7,000 staff members and their families. As educators, we believe the best place for our students to learn is on campus, in our classrooms, and that the academic, social and emotional benefits of being with their peers and participating in all public schools have to offer is incalculable. But we must weigh that with the risk that now exists and we will do everything we can to prioritize the safety of our community. To do that, we must rely on the guidance of health experts to navigate these unprecedented conditions."
Hays CISD officials said something similar. The school district would never make a school closure decision alone, but with health expert opinion.
Full Hays CISD statement below:
"Hays CISD appreciates the guidance from the attorney general. We work very closely with our local health authorities and follow their expert advice regarding matters of health and safety on our campuses. It is appropriate that independently governed school districts have the authority whether school closings should occur. However, we would never make those types of decisions alone. Rather, we rely on experts whether the decision is to close because of weather, a pandemic or any other type of emergency. Ultimately, though, the decision to send children to school each day rests with our parents. They make the final decisions based on what is in the best interest of their families."
Molina said schools are already underfunded and gathering personal protective equipment will be hard enough.
"The threat of taking away funding is not helping our public schools," said Molina.
KVUE spoke with a spokesperson for the TEA on Tuesday who said it was important to note that Paxton's guidance letter is an opinion and not legally binding. They also said guidance could change at any time.
Here is a Wednesday release from Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on school funding for 2020-21 academic year:
“Over the past month, TEA announced a funding waiver framework that fully funds schools for remote instruction for the entire year for any family that requests remote instruction. To generate funding for remote instruction, school systems must also provide daily on-campus instruction for families that want to come on campus, with several critical exceptions designed to maximize the health of students, teachers, and staff:
- As part of an eight-week back-to-school transition period, school systems can offer a solely remote instructional setting, subject to some requirements;
- For up to five days if a school building is closed due to a confirmed COVID-19 case on campus, at any point during the school year, schools will be funded for providing remote-only instruction;
- Even beyond this five-day exception, any day a school building is closed as part of a legally authorized closure order, schools will be funded for providing remote-only instruction;
- High schools can offer an alternating on-campus/remote instructional experience in order to reduce the number of students in campus buildings at one time.
“Yesterday, the Texas attorney general issued guidance that indicated that blanket school building closures ordered by local public health authorities for preventative purposes are not lawful. School systems planning on starting the year with 100% remote instruction will still be fully funded in accordance with TEA’s previously announced eight-week back to school transition funding waiver. Lawful building closure orders will continue to enable a school system to be funded when providing remote-only instruction. Also, it’s important to note that the school start date remains at the discretion of local school boards.
“TEA continues to monitor the public health situation very closely, working in collaboration with school systems, and remains prepared to adjust or adapt its waiver framework as necessary to ensure we keep students, teachers, and staff safe.”
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