State officials provide little instruction to school districts during reopenings

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues on, the Texas Education Agency is providing conflicting instructions on reopening Texas schools next month, which is leaving many teachers, students and parents worried about school accommodations during the pandemic. 

The confusion stems from the battle between state and local officials on if—and when—schools are safe enough to open for in-person instruction. Concerned parties are worried that by attending school in person, the risk to catch and spread COVID-19 will increase, and therefore fully virtual classes will be a better option. Officials like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have requested halting in-person instruction for at least eight weeks due to the current status of the pandemic in Texas.

In early July, state education officials announced that districts must offer in-person instruction — in case parents preferred that method for their children — even going so far to say that districts should stay virtual for three weeks after the opening school day, but if they stay fully virtual for longer than that time frame, then they would lose state funding. The next week Gov. Greg Abbott stated the virtual time frame will be extended, at the discretion of local officials. Beyond this, Abbott has not provided any concrete deadlines for Texas schools, besides stating districts will be given “great latitude and flexibility provided at the local level.”

Organizations like the Texas AFT have called out this move from Abbott and TEA state officials as tricky: At the same time officials released their statement, another TEA document states that the extended virtual transition period “must include ‘some’ daily on-campus instruction”— an idea that Texas AFT suggests ignores science and puts everyone at risk.

Many Texas teachers, parents and staff even participated in a sit-in protest last week to urge TEA and the governor to reconsider opening schools for in-person instruction in the fall. Without proper precautions, teachers may also go on strike, according to the president of Texas AFT, Zech Capo.

School districts will also be facing heavy funding issues this semester. Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, billions of dollars were set aside for districts based on their attendance rates and income levels — up to $1.2 billion in federal aid. But when classes went virtual statewide in March, the money based on attendance was waived by TEA. Abbott and other Texas leaders have directed state agencies to cut their budgets by 5 percent as well. So now the state is suggesting that districts can apply for COVID-19 expense reimbursements for up to 75 percent.  

Besides Abbott, other major Texas GOP officials have suggested that Democrats are making much ado about nothing, like Sen. John Cornyn, who presented misleading claims earlier this month: “No one under the age of 20 has died of the coronavirus,” Cornyn stated. “We still don’t know whether children can get it and transmit it to others.” 

Another strong public denouncer has been GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who has repeatedly downplayed the risks of COVID-19, including the increase in hospitalizations and positive cases in the state, suggesting that longterm closures are “devastating for learning and health, and failed to take into account the scientific evidence of COVID-19 with children.”

But according to the latest data from Texas DSHS, nearly 2,100 children, between the ages of less than a year old to 19, have tested positive for the virus.

In a June poll from the Texas Politics Project, 65 percent of Texans responded it was unsafe to send their children to school. So far, children, in general, have been less likely to catch — or become very ill from — the coronavirus than adults, but they are still at risk of carrying the virus and passing it on to those around them. 

In the meantime, instructors from grade school to the university level are forced to plan for both in-person and virtual instruction. 

State and local officials must provide direction to schools so that they can be prepared for different scenarios, and most importantly, ensure the health safety of all the students, teachers and personnel in attendance. 

Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

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