This article appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

By Jeri Stone | TCTA Executive Director

Let me begin with a disclaimer. This column was written on June 29, and I am acutely aware that some of its content may well be laughably inaccurate or dated by the time you receive it. Further, let it be known that I have no special skills or expertise in this area, though I once wanted to be a doctor before I encountered calculus and physics.

There is growing frustration in all corners regarding the lack of actionable information about what’s going to happen, how, and what everyone’s role will be when the new school year begins. That frustration is entirely understandable as, to some extent, is the lack of guidance. There are so many competing interests and the options and potential consequences seem to change weekly. 

With regard to competing interests, our members have been very divided, or at least those who responded to our survey in mid-June were before the recent spike in cases. Some of you can’t wait to get back to school and re-establish direct contact with your students.

Some of you fear for your own health due to underlying conditions, or for members of your household. Some parents want their children back on campus as soon as possible; others are voicing concerns about how safe it is or isn’t. Some students seem to have adapted well to distance learning; others still don’t have the technology available to even give it a try.

One of the things the global pandemic, as it has been declared by the World Health Organization, has magnified is the vast role Texas public schools have been playing and the near-miracles that educators are expected to perform. No longer are schools just a place for learning the curriculum; for many, they are a safe place for child care, a place for a reliable supply of food, a nurturing environment that has gradually been tasked with providing social and emotional learning as well as being alert to mental health issues, whether a child’s weight is a concern, and a host of other items once addressed by communities, families, churches, social services, etc., that are now largely left to the schools.

Anybody who didn’t fully appreciate teachers and aides previously should certainly do so now. I recently read one letter to the editor from a parent of two children, one of whom had special needs, in which he was essentially venting that the child with special needs required full day one-on-one attention. His point was largely to note the level of care and instruction that all children, but some especially, require. My hope is that when on-campus instruction begins again, he’ll check to be sure his child’s teachers have that level of support when his child is in their classrooms.

With regard to how and when school resumes, I don’t have any answers. However, I don’t think your local school board and superintendent do either. Nor does this seem to be a matter for “local control,” which is often over-rated and should be limited to local issues primarily of consequence to your particular community, not big issues like whether you have rights and protections provided to you (those are a matter of state law, though Districts of Innovation are chipping away at them), and certainly not matters of public health. I feel sorry for school administrators when they have to decide whether or not to call a snow day; you hate to waste a day if the weather doesn’t turn foul, but you also don’t want to be the person whose decision strands a bunch of students at school or, worse yet, results in an accident. COVID-19 is way bigger than a snow day, and local school boards and administrators lack the expertise to determine what is safe and for whom.

We need to be relying on doctors, public health experts, and data to set some clear parameters for how open campuses should be and when. Once those parameters are in place, districts will have expert guidance with regard to how and when it is safe to deliver educational services in a variety of manners, including remote learning, on-campus learning, or a hybrid model. This is our first global pandemic in a while, so the experts may not get everything right; some districts may open too quickly, and some too late. There are consequences for any decisions made, whether it’s in the form of learning losses, the loss of life, or a potentially severe illness that may have lingering effects. But by relying on experts, instead of opinions or what works best for some people, we will have done the best we can to protect students, school employees, families, and the community. Lessons will be learned, and some of them are likely to be hard. We’re in a situation akin to the old joke where the bandit holds a guy up and says, “Your money or your life.” None of us wants the economy to suffer, people to be unemployed or lives to be lost, but it’s easier to recover from some consequences than others.

So, what is TCTA doing? First and foremost, we are absolutely in your corner and will continue to be there for you. Most of our staff is working remotely, but someone will still answer the phones during business hours, members can still talk to a lawyer, and we are working every avenue we can find to represent your interests. If supported by public health guidelines, we are urging as much flexibility and ability to pivot as can be made available to everyone — so that parents who want their children on campus can send them to school, so that teachers who are not comfortable returning to campus can teach remotely, and all manners of combinations thereof. We are urging the suspension of the current accountability system and STAAR testing; this is not the time to be ranking and sorting districts and campuses in an A-F rubric. This is the time to focus on individual students, where they are in their learning trajectory, and what they need to catch up and succeed; and to refocus on individual students and their learning instead of complex systems.

We have asked the commissioner and the governor to have qualified public health experts establish the parameters that districts should follow with regard to when they reopen and what safety protocols are followed. We have asked the commissioner to inform school districts that teachers may resign from their positions due to a good-faith belief that their continued employment will subject themselves or their family members to infection, without fear that their certificate will be sanctioned for contract abandonment. We worked extensively with the other teacher groups and State Sen. Royce West to come up with a consensus list of concerns and recommendations to be submitted to the legislative leadership and TEA. We have posted virtual reams of information on our website at tcta.org/covid19 about all of the issues members are encountering, like whether you’re eligible for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, whether you’re eligible for unemployment compensation and for how long, what your district can ask of you, and the hundreds of permutations of issues that are arising or anticipated. Our lawyers talk with many members daily, and we respond to Ask-a-Lawyer questions from members online.

All of the decisions made won’t be right, and there will be fresh issues to confront, especially if many educators and even more students don’t return when schools reopen. We promise you our best efforts on an ongoing basis to inform you, to be your ally, and to serve as a reliable resource when you need us. I keep chanting to myself that this is a pandemic, it won’t last forever, and we’ll get through this.

Early in my lengthy career at TCTA, you taught me that teachers can stand strong like an oak, but also bend like a willow. Together, we’ll get through this.