AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Education Agency (TEA) issued new guidelines on July 17 for the fall semester as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state.
Among the new guidance includes school systems being able to temporarily limit access to on-campus instruction for the first four weeks of school. School systems can continue to limit access to on-campus classes for an additional four weeks, if needed, with a board-approved waiver request to the TEA. You can read the TEA's full list of new guidelines online here.
"The guidance that we've provided allows school systems to have that flexibility to serve their students effectively while also making sure that everyone remains safe during this time period, students and staff, especially," said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. "We obviously have a very dynamic public health situation in Texas. Our first priority is keeping keeping people safe, keeping students and teachers and staff safe."
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In an interview, Morath said the TEA knows on-campus learning is valuable. The state doesn't want to fully close schools unless its has to.
"The vast majority of school systems in the state of Texas will start with some amount of on-campus instruction on their normal schedules. Some school systems are delaying that and we're also starting to see some public health orders that are relevant," said Morath.
Parents who opted for their students to go to school in the fall will temporarily have to do virtual learning. However, any family that needs internet access and needs a device to learn virtually is still entitled to on-campus instruction every day during this transition period. We have yet to hear how Central Texas school districts will carry out this guideline.
Another takeaway from the guidelines, with school board approval, school systems also have the chance to convert high schools to a full-time hybrid model once students have transitioned back to on-campus instruction. A hybrid model would mean some students learn from home while others learn in school.
Morath said the state has constant communication with school leaders this whole time and this was a decision due to changing public health conditions.
"I think everyone has noticed we've made changes throughout this crisis because as coronavirus continues to affect the state and as the scientific understanding of the virus continues to change, as medical therapies continue to change, it obviously necessitates a flexible response, and we will continue to remain flexible throughout," said Morath.
"We'll be working really hard on making sure that as we start in-person instruction again, whenever that is, that we are able to do that safely for our students and for faculty," said Dr. Bruce Gearing, Leander ISD superintendent.
Gearing said they're grateful for the extra time to keep students home until schools can form a solid plan.
"The only tricky part for us is timing, but we know that in this rapidly changing environment, the timing is very challenging for everybody," said Gearing.
This is Leander ISD's 'Launch to Learning' plan for the 2020-21 school year.
The guidelines say one week before on-campus school starts, schools must post a summary of the plan for families and the general public. It must show how they plans to mitigate COVID-19 spread in their schools based on the requirements and recommendations outlined in the guidelines.
The TEA recommends that, within the school plan summary, school systems designate a staff person or group that is responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns and clearly communicate for all school staff and families who this person or group is and how to contact them.
Central Texas teachers have been speaking out against the guidelines released last week, which only gave schools a three-week transition period for virtual learning before going back to school. Some tell KVUE they're curious to know what their school boards will do next.
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In the guidelines, the TEA said, "School systems should work with teachers and other staff to ensure the safety of students, teachers, and staff. This could include allowing those eight 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."
Other new changes include:
- With some exceptions, on-campus instruction must be offered for all grades served by the campus every day for every student whose parents want them to access on-campus instruction for each day a campus is providing instruction given its instructional calendar.
- The TEA is implementing an ADA and student full-time equivalent (FTE) grace period (ADA hold harmless) under the limited circumstances.
- If the district/campus is ordered closed and does not provide remote instruction, then the district will need to make up the days later in the year or forego funding for the closed days.
- Updated guidelines for taking attendance for students receiving instruction at home.
- The 90/10 minimum attendance for class credit rule of TEC, §25.092, will be in effect for the 2020–2021 school year, and TEA will not be issuing waivers for LEAs to exempt themselves from the rule.
- Districts will be allowed to develop a hybrid instructional model that intentionally blends on-campus, remote asynchronous and remote synchronous experiences.
- Except for students in high school grades, LEAs cannot offer only an intermittent on-campus attendance option for any given grade.
- An LEA may request a waiver from the agency to receive funding while providing remote instruction during an LEA-determined closure that does not involve a confirmed case of COVID-19 on one of its campuses. Such waiver requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
- Schools are allowed to change school calendars to delay the start of the school year.
This is a statement from Round Rock ISD Superintendent Dr. Steve Flores on the TEA announcement:
"We appreciate the flexibility granted by the state to allow public school districts to make decisions guided by local circumstances and with guidance from local health authorities. In Round Rock ISD, our educators want nothing more than to welcome all 51,000 students back on our campuses. We know that being physically in school is the best place for students. Beyond academics, students need the social and emotional benefits of interacting with their peers and teachers and many of our students desperately need the support services they receive in schools. We're also concerned that in a virtual learning environment, we can't ensure equitable circumstances for all of our students. But, first and foremost, we must protect the health and safety of our students and staff, their families and our entire community. We can only do this by adhering to guidance based on data and medical evidence issued by our local health agencies. By doing everything we can to protect our community now, we will create a quicker route to all students and staff back in school safely."
The new guidelines give schools systems direction when there is a confirmed COVID-19 case in school. It says the school must notify its local health department, in accordance with applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations, including confidentiality requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
"Schools must close off areas that are heavily used by the individual with the lab-confirmed case (student, teacher or staff) until the non-porous surfaces in those areas can be disinfected, unless more than three days have already passed since that person was on campus.
"Consistent with school notification requirements for other communicable diseases, and consistent with legal confidentiality requirements, schools must notify all teachers, staff and families of all students in a school if a lab-confirmed COVID-19 case is identified among students, teachers or staff who participate on any on-campus activities."
Gov. Greg Abbott also announced Texas will allocate $200 million in funding to the TEA so school leaders can purchase eLearning devices and home internet solutions.
This comes two days after a TEA spokesperson confirmed Texas school districts can stay closed and won't lose state funding if local health officials order it. That same day, Texas teachers participated in a sit-in protest at the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Most teachers told KVUE they want classes to stay online until COVID-19 cases decrease.
Gov. Abbott told a Houston television station on July 14 that Texas will give school districts more flexibility to keep their schools closed to in-person learning in the fall.
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Dr. Mark Escott, with Austin Public Health, said on July 14 that opening schools could potentially lead to more than 1,300 student deaths in Travis County alone. On that same day, Dr. Escott ordered all school districts and private schools in Travis County to delay reopening on-campus instruction.
As for Austin and Round Rock school districts, leaders told KVUE classes will be 100% virtual for the first three weeks of the school year.
MORE SCHOOL COVERAGE:
- LIST: Which Central Texas school districts are shutting down sports, extra curricular activities due to COVID-19 and which aren't
- Texas PTA asks Gov. Abbott to apply for federal waiver, pause STAAR testing for 2020-21 year
- Travis County health authority orders schools to delay on-campus openings
- Teachers hold sit-in protest at Texas Capitol to demand changes on reopening schools
- Round Rock, Austin ISD among local districts suspending first three weeks of in-person classes
- How to help your kids adjust to a new school year amid the pandemic
- Cost of ensuring school safety complicates reopening plans
- Texas will extend time that schools will be allowed to stay online-only, Gov. Greg Abbott says
- Travis County health authority says opening schools could potentially lead to more than 1,300 student deaths