The release of the official guidelines for re-opening schools in Texas hasn’t gone as smoothly as expected. On Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) decided to hold off in releasing its guidelines on navigating the upcoming school year, expected for that day. The hold up was due to the news of a spike in coronavirus cases.
Instead of the formal document, the TEA accidentally released draft guidelines online. The draft was taken down after a brief period of time. The one big takeaway from the guidelines is that state officials are leaving most of the decisions on carrying out health and safety decisions to local school officials. They do expect to re-open public schools for the upcoming 2020-21 academic year in August with in-person classes. The draft guidelines listed recommendations, but not requirements on health and safety protocols, yet there were some mandates.
In it, TEA officials recommend — but do not require — that local school leaders implement several health and safety protocols to fight the spread of the coronavirus. They include placing desks at least six feet apart, requiring students and staff to wear face masks, taking the temperature of teachers and other staff members at the start of each day and setting aside times for hand washing, among others.
The guidance does outline several mandates: people with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 must remain home while sick and meet three conditions before returning to school; school leaders must notify local health officials and school community members of individuals who were on-campus and tested positive; educators must provide instruction on hygiene practices on the first day of school.
“While it is not possible to eliminate all risk of furthering the spread of COVID-19, the current science suggests there are many steps schools can take to reduce the risk to students, teachers, staff and their families significantly,” the draft states.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath held a conference call Tuesday afternoon in which he laid out plans for how schools will receive funding. He noted that because of the “rapidly changing public health situation”, the agency was unable to deliver its formal guidelines. School funding is based on attendance. The attendance numbers will include both students on campus and those who choose to stick with the kind of online instruction and distance learning that went into place when the public schools were closed in March. The school year begins in August, with some districts scheduled to return early in the month and others waiting until the fourth week. No districts are holding in-person summer school classes.
The reactions to the draft document were mixed. Texas State Teachers Association wants a mask mandate for all people on campus. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association said that TEA “must provide clear, enforceable parameters” for reopening schools that are set by state health care professionals. Others want teachers to have more flexibility – one size doesn’t fit all in Texas.
Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said his organization wants to see more flexibility for teachers concerned about returning to in-person classes.
“We would simply urge the state and school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendation of medical experts as they start developing these plans,” Holmes said. “There’s not going to be any one-size-fits-all plan for every district in the state — and even if they did, it probably wouldn’t work for every pocket of Texas.”
Though the safety guidelines were delayed, Morath released an 11-page outline on plans for allocating money to schools. He said schools will receive the same amount of funding for each student, whether that child is learning virtually at home or in a classroom, as long as they “capture attendance in virtual learning spaces.”
To count at-home attendance, students must log onto live instructional videos each day or show progress on their school work without real-time instruction from a teacher.
Districts also will be given two grace periods. During the first 12 weeks of school, they will be funded no lower than the same level as the first 12 weeks of 2019-2020, even if enrollments drop. There will be an attendance grace period for funding students engaged in online learning for up to 18 weeks.
Later Tuesday, after 3:00 p.m., the formal guidelines were released. So, you see the confusion. The recommendation that staff and students wear masks, use hand sanitizer regularly, and social distancing still isn’t mandatory, though some teachers voiced criticism of that decision. The TEA will distribute PPE to school districts but it will be up to local officials to get it to the school.
Final documents show the TEA will be giving out personal equipment for in-school learning this fall. They also give guidance on two different types of virtual learning.
The TEA won’t require districts to make educators or students wear masks or do temperature checks, but the agency will provide equipment. The TEA plans to distribute more than 50 million disposable masks, 600,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and more than 40,0000 thermometers to Texas school districts.
In the document, the TEA states: “This PPE is being distributed to schools as a resource, but usage is not required.”
The equipment will be distributed depending on school district size.
An important part of the guidelines is the recognition that it is the child’s parents’ choice if that student returns to in-class learning or remains at home and continues learning online. As the state’s outbreak of the coronavirus is monitored, parents can make an informed decision on what is best for their family. It seems unrealistic to expect a student, especially the younger ones, to wear a mask all day or to stay six feet away from classmates. The handwashing is probably more manageable, but still not a small task with the younger ones.