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

It was a school year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, and now officials in Texas are struggling with how and when to reopen.

Campuses remained shuttered after spring break in March, and districts quickly shifted to distance learning to complete the 2019-20 school year, following orders from Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath to keep schools closed.

Teaching during a shutdown

Remote instruction was a big adjustment for students, families and especially teachers, many of whom had to try to teach and keep track of their students while also caring for their own children at home. Distance learning looked different in every district, with some more prepared than others to teach students remotely. 

In a mid-June survey of TCTA members, nearly 40% of respondents said they held virtual classes with students, using Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube and other video platforms to teach and stay connected until school ended in May. About 36% posted prerecorded videos and other lessons online for students to complete, and around 15% prepared paper packets for parents to pick up and give their children to complete at home. Others deployed a variety of methods to reach students, and many said email and phone became the primary means of communication.

Most teachers had access to reliable internet connections and the programs necessary to work from home and teach online. But many districts had to purchase tablets or laptops along with Wi-Fi hotspots to ensure students had access to the technology needed for remote learning. More than half of TCTA’s survey respondents said that while they were able to work from home, they spent more time working than they would have had the school year not been disrupted. And many lost contact with some of their students, with teachers also reporting trouble reaching parents and getting support needed to ensure students completed lessons at home.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic prompted some teachers to consider changing careers. Several respondents cited a lack of support, training and communication from administrators during distance learning as reasons they’re apprehensive about returning to teaching in the fall. Some are considering jobs that won’t put them at as much risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Others felt they couldn’t adequately teach students remotely. “Teaching my students in a self-contained classroom requires ‘hands-on’ methods,” one TCTA survey respondent said. “That’s difficult to do when not in the classroom.”

Most are concerned about the future and worry about the stress and anxiety of learning new ways of teaching during this pandemic, but plan to return in the fall. “I can’t imagine doing anything other than teaching,” one respondent wrote. Another said, “I could retire and thought it might be time, but I still love teaching and the kids so I will continue. I am willing to do what it takes even if it means lots of training for online teaching.”

To help districts implement remote instruction, the Texas Education Agency launched the Texas Home Learning Model (texashomelearning.org). The website provided comprehensive 8-week learning plans and instructional materials for grades Pre-K through 12, in digital and print versions. Each grade-level learning plan included weekly lesson plans with daily schedules identifying activities for each subject, student learning goals and digital and downloadable/printable instructional materials. The Home Learning Model was expanded to include summer lessons and will have new lessons in the fall to support districts that need distance learning options.

Serving students in special populations through remote learning was another challenge. TEA released guidance to help districts serve students with disabilities that included resources and adaptive online tools, but many special education teachers struggled to provide the same quality of services to students. 

Many respondents of TCTA’s COVID-19 survey said the special accommodations and modifications some students needed were not available online. Others said students could not be properly evaluated. Others said language barriers and a lack of parental support hindered their efforts to reach students.

“This was a very difficult time for all,” one member wrote. “Special ed students struggled with the limited support; even though options of assignments and virtual classes were available, they need the small group, one-on-one support to keep them on task and focused.”

Government response

Gov. Abbott canceled spring and summer STAAR testing and the U.S. Department of Education granted TEA’s request for waivers from 2019-20 testing and accountability ratings. TEA announced all districts and campuses would receive “Not Rated” accountability ratings for the 2019-20 school year, offering a temporary reprieve for low-performing schools facing the possibility of state intervention. Texas will have to reapply for waivers in 2020-21 should COVID-19 further disrupt learning. For now, TEA expects STAAR tests to still be administered in the new year. In mid-June, TEA announced an optional extended online testing window for 2020-21, but the paper test dates remain the same. (Find more details here.)

In addition to the state’s COVID-19 response, the federal government passed several relief bills. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act expanded emergency paid sick leave and the Family and Medical Leave Act, and extended unemployment aid and food stamp support. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability Act sent stimulus checks to households based on income tax returns, giving eligible adults $1,200 and children $500. The CARES Act also created a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to support schools. Included in that was a $13.5 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, which was awarded as grants to states based on their Title I allocations. 

As COVID-19 cases declined and the state began to reopen in late May, some districts decided to expand summer school, hoping to mitigate the summer slide and loss of learning experienced in the spring. Gov. Abbott allowed schools to reopen June 1, with restrictions on group gatherings and encouraging social distancing, hand washing and the wearing of face masks. A few schools reopened campuses to a limited number of students, but others chose to offer online classes during the summer to those who needed extra instruction.

Through it all, TCTA remained in contact with state and local officials to advocate for our members, urging Gov. Abbott, Commissioner Morath and others to listen to the advice of medical professionals and to make decisions based on data, putting the health and safety of teachers and students ahead of political priorities. We also answered members’ questions and combed through guidance from federal, state and local officials to create and maintain a list of frequently asked questions on tcta.org with their answers, updating almost daily as new information was released. (You can access the FAQs here.)

What’s ahead

Even now, a few weeks ahead of the start of the 2020-21 school year, it is not certain what learning will look like. Beginning in late June, COVID-19 cases spiked in many areas across Texas, leaving district officials to wonder when campuses should reopen and how many students would return.

It will not be business as usual. Many districts are planning hybrid models and adjusting schedules to plan for another year of disruption. Experts predict another wave — maybe two — of COVID-19 cases before a vaccine is developed and distributed widely enough to eliminate the threat of the virus.

TEA encouraged districts to adopt a year-round model for learning, building in longer breaks to give flexibility in case schools need to be shut down again. A few districts opted to start classes earlier in August and extend into June, but most will attempt to follow a traditional schedule, even if some of the learning happens online.

Most teachers are looking forward to returning to the classroom (though it is important to note that the survey was taken before the late-June surge in coronavirus cases). In TCTA’s survey, nearly 50% expect students on campus five days a week, though nearly 60% hoped districts would make accommodations for employees at high risk of complications from COVID-19, allowing them to work remotely if they don’t feel safe returning to school. 

“My district is doing its best for employees and students, given the unprecedented nature of the virus,” one member wrote. “I hope we go back to our regular schedule … my students need face-to-face, hands-on, student/teacher involvement.”

Many teachers said they would wear masks when schools reopen and do their best to encourage social distancing, even though it will be a challenge, especially in elementary schools. TEA plans to help, providing personal protective equipment to schools for use by employees and students. TEA released health and safety guidelines on July 7 that included direction for faculty and students to follow Gov. Abbott’s July 2 order to wear face masks in public, with a few exceptions. (Click here for more.

TEA’s health and safety guidance leaves most of the decision-making to local school districts. Therefore, TCTA repeated our call for the use of scientific data and metrics developed by state and federal health officials in the reopening of schools. We argued that local officials should not have either the authority or the burden of making such life-and-death decisions, and the determinations regarding when and how schools reopen should be made free of political or social pressures.

TCTA’s stance is that schools should only open for in-person instruction when it is safe for students and employees, and in a manner that continues to protect their health. The state should provide data-driven benchmarks, developed by health care professionals, that a district/community must meet before schools are opened for in-person instruction. Districts should then be required to follow specific safety protocols that are appropriate based on the COVID-19 prevalence and trajectory in the community.

Due to the uncertainty in predicting the number of COVID-19 cases, many districts are planning hybrid models when the 2020-21 year begins in August. Fort Worth and Northside ISDs, for example, are giving parents the option of enrolling students in virtual school.

TEA’s July 7 guidance says all districts should allow parents to make the same choice, offering in-person and remote instruction for students. Other districts plan to keep classes smaller, staggering the days and times students attend, while others will do their best to isolate students, limiting interaction between different classes, even eating lunch in classrooms rather than the cafeteria. TCTA attorneys note that the law still ensures teachers have a 30-minute duty-free lunch period, with very limited exceptions.

Some districts, especially those in areas with fewer COVID-19 cases, are planning for a regular school year, with all students and educators on campus, but they’ll be prepared to shift to distance learning if cases climb and they need to close for extended periods to quarantine and disinfect classrooms. 

Hybrid approaches are supported by health experts, but they will undoubtedly impact teaching. Many TCTA members have reached out with concerns about being forced back to campus when they don’t feel safe, and we’ve encouraged state and local leaders to offer accommodations. “I know there are no easy solutions, but I do want to do what is best for kids,” one member said.

“Hybrid scheduling can work and save districts money on operational costs,” another member said, but “I am worried that my work schedule will not be aligned with the school district my children attend. Districts should work together for some commonality.”

Others have expressed concerns about how much more time they will be required to spend teaching classes in person and online. In our survey, nearly 75% of respondents said they worked longer hours at home during the spring and expect a similar situation in the coming year. 

Others worry about the impact distance learning has on their relationships with students. “If the beginning of the year is remote learning, there will be no way to have a relationship with students. We will not get to know their personalities. It will be very stressful, chaotic, and unsuccessful.”

Some contracts signed for the school year may not account for COVID-19 disruptions or the potential for an extended school year. TCTA urges members with concerns to call the Legal Department at 888-879-8282 for assistance. 

Impact on education and funding

No matter what 2020-21 looks like, one thing is certain: The impact of COVID-19 will be felt for years. Experts say students can lose up to 30% of what they learned during the summer, which makes it likely that coronavirus disruptions caused an even greater learning loss for some students, especially those in low-income households without access to technology. Many will struggle to catch up.

TEA created optional end-of-year and beginning-of-year assessments to help teachers determine how student learning was impacted. While similar to STAAR tests, the student performance data from the optional assessments is not intended to be used for purposes such as accountability, staff performance, compensation measures or student placement decisions. The hope is that they will provide benchmarks and help identify where remediation is needed, but it will take time to overcome the learning loss. 

School budgets are also being impacted by COVID-19. Although Texas was awarded $1.28 billion in ESSER funds, TEA chose to use 95% of the funding allocated to school districts to supplant state funds that would have been used for districts with reduced average daily attendance due to school closures, instead of providing additional funding to schools for any costs incurred in rapidly switching to distance learning. TCTA brought this issue to the attention of Texas Congressional representatives and joined other efforts to redirect the funds to supplement state funds that had already been built into the state budget.

Many districts spent funds on technology to help students learn remotely and say further closures or reductions in state funding could mean cuts in the years ahead. 

In late June, Austin ISD approved a $1.65 billion budget that dips heavily into district reserves to cover a $47.6 million shortfall, despite uncertainties about how much funding it will receive from the state in the coming year.

Though there had been concerns that the state would not fully fund remote learning, providing a financial incentive for districts to insist on bringing students and employee on campus, TEA announced in late June that it would generally fund remote instruction at the same rate as in-person attendance. In releasing guidance on funding and attendance, TEA distinguished between two types of remote instruction, synchronous and asynchronous.

2021 legislative session

When the Texas Legislature reconvenes in January, we expect budget cuts for the 2021-23 biennium since the spring shutdown had a huge impact on the state’s economy. 

Gov. Abbott has ordered state agencies to identify a minimum of 5% budget cuts, but some lawmakers say the cuts could be deeper based on how quickly the economy rebounds in the months ahead. For now, school funding and TRS contributions are exempt from those cuts, but TEA’s budget will be affected. 

House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty said protecting and building on the accomplishments of House Bill 3 would be a priority in 2021, but as was seen in 2011, state budget woes can bring big cuts to education. 

TCTA will continue working with state and federal lawmakers to prioritize public education funding and to protect the rights and needs of teachers and their students.

PUBLIC HEALTH PLANNING GUIDANCE

On July 7, TEA released its 2020-21 public health planning guidance to help schools reopen safely for in-person instruction. TEA recommends four sets of practices for districts to follow to slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

PROVIDE NOTICE: School systems must post for parents and the general public, one week prior to the start of on-campus activities and instruction, a summary of the plan they will follow to mitigate COVID-19 spread in their schools based on the requirements and recommendations outlined by TEA.

PREVENT: School systems must require teachers and staff to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before coming onto campus each day. This involves self-temperature checks and reporting any contact with people who have COVID-19. Those who have symptoms or who have had close contact with someone with symptoms should stay home until conditions for re-entry are met.

RESPOND: If an individual who has been in a school is lab-confirmed to have COVID-19, 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 3 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.

MITIGATE: TEA’s recommendations include:

  • Districts should set up hand washing/sanitizing stations at school entrances, and when possible, in each classroom. Students, teachers, staff, and campus visitors should be encouraged to sanitize and/or wash hands frequently. 
  • Campuses should institute more frequent cleaning practices, including additional cleaning by janitorial staff, as well as provide the opportunity for children to clean their own spaces before and after they are used, in ways that are safe and developmentally appropriate. 
  • Whenever possible, schools should open windows or otherwise work to improve air flow by allowing outside air to circulate in the building. 
  • Schools are required to comply with the governor’s executive order regarding the wearing of masks. 
  • Where feasible without disrupting the educational experience, encourage students to practice social distancing. 
  • Employees of school systems, like employees of any organization, must continue to meet the work expectations set by their employers, subject to any applicable employment contract terms. 
  • School teachers and staff should be trained specifically on the protocols outlined in this document and the practices adopted by their school system.

TEA says: “There will almost certainly be situations that necessitate temporary school closure due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools. Parents, educators, and school administrators should be prepared for this in the event that it occurs, while actively working to prevent it through prevention and mitigation practices.”

View the complete document here

MAINTAINING HEALTHY OPERATIONS

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says schools may consider implementing several strategies to maintain healthy operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Suggestions include:

  • Limit any nonessential visitors, volunteers, and activities involving external groups or organizations as possible — especially with individuals who are not from the local geographic area (e.g., community, town, city, county).
  • Pursue virtual activities and events in lieu of field trips, student assemblies, special performances, school-wide parent meetings, and spirit nights, as possible.
  • Identify small groups and keep them together. Ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible by having the same group of children stay with the same staff (all day for young children, and as much as possible for older children).
  • Designate a staff person to be responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns (e.g., school nurse). All school staff and families should know who this person is and how to contact them.
  • Develop policies for return-to-school after illness.
  • Encourage employees and students to talk with people they trust about their concerns and how they are feeling.

Find more CDC tips about health and safety during the pandemic at cdc.gov/coronavirus.

TEA PROVIDING PPE FOR SCHOOLS

The Texas Education Agency, in collaboration with the Governor’s Strike Force and the Texas Department of Emergency Management, is distributing personal protective equipment to help school systems reopen for the 2020-21 school year. PPE includes:

  • Disposable masks: 53 million for students and staff
  • Reusable masks: 18 million for students and staff
  • Thermometers (infrared and no-contact): 42,500 for students and staff
  • Gloves: 12 million sets for staff
  • Hand sanitizer: 600,000 gallons for students and staff
  • Face shields: 1 million for staff

PPE allotments were calculated by using 2019-20 student and on-campus staff counts and were allotted on a per pupil, district basis. On-campus staff includes teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals and auxiliary staff. 

PPE is expected to arrive between mid-July and early August. Districts maintain the discretion and responsibility for distributing the PPE according to their local needs.

Remote instruction models

To meet attendance requirements for state funding, TEA describes the following models for remote instruction.

Synchronous — Similar to regular classroom instruction, where students are taught at a particular time in a (remote) group setting. For example, the entire classroom may be on a videoconference call. Students must participate in the group session to be counted present and to count for average daily attendance (ADA) funding. Students in grades 3-5 must receive at least 180 minutes of instruction; those in grades 6-12 must receive at least 240 minutes. The synchronous method for recording attendance is not allowed for grades PK-2. (School systems could support these grades via the asynchronous method).

Asynchronous — Students may have individual time with a teacher, and/or may work at their own pace through pre-recorded videos or instructional packets. Attendance is determined through daily “engagement” which can include remote meetings with the teacher, making progress in the learning management system, or turning in assignments. A student is only counted present if the daily engagement standard is met. If, for example, the student does not complete the engagement measure on Monday, but then completes it on a subsequent day, the student is still considered to be absent on Monday.

Students are required to attend at least 90% of classes (with some exceptions) to receive credit and be promoted. Remote attendance will count in the same manner as on-campus attendance in satisfying this requirement.

A district cannot move to pass/fail grading for students in remote instruction; the grading policies must be consistent with the district’s policies for on-campus instruction.

Source: TEA

A NOTE OF CAUTION ABOUT THE TEXAS VIRTUAL SCHOOLS NETWORK

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath gave schools more flexibility to implement online learning in the spring of 2020 and in the upcoming 2020-21 school year, but momentum is building among supporters of school choice to expand the Texas Virtual Schools Network.

The TXVSN, created in 2007, includes TEA approved online courses for eligible students through either the course catalog or the full-time online schools. The TXVSN course catalog can be used by Texas public schools to provide their students opportunities to enroll in high school, Advanced Placement, and dual credit courses offered by catalog course providers. However, the TXVSN Online Schools program circumvents the traditional school system entirely by providing full-time virtual instruction to eligible Texas public school students in grades 3-12 who enroll in one of their online schools. Student enrollment in the online schools has grown by 292% in the past decade from 5,133 students in 2010 to 20,022 in 2020. 

In the 2020-21 school year, Texas students have the opportunity to learn remotely through their school district by way of synchronous or asynchronous instruction (see above), or through the state’s Texas Virtual School Network. The TXVSN alternatives are different from the remote learning options for districts as they are not led by the student’s teachers but by teachers employed by the TXVSN or a provider. Research from the National Education Policy Center and Raise Your Hand Texas shows lower academic performance among virtual schools. The TXVSN Online Schools program is essentially a virtual voucher system, and it is failing Texas students, with 38 percent of the schools rated as unacceptable under the standard accountability system in 2018-19, the most recent year with ratings available. By comparison, only 14 percent of public school campuses were rated as unacceptable in 2018-19.

Proponents of private vouchers are using the pandemic to urge Texas lawmakers to reduce the requirements and expectations for virtual schools, overturning years of legislative action. Expanding virtual voucher school systems represents a shift of taxpayer dollars from public to private interests. Moreover, efforts to expand TXVSN at a time when districts are implementing remote learning systems that are tailored to the specific needs of the district and its students are duplicative and disruptive. Private school vouchers are a failed experiment in educational autonomy. Despite a long history, research shows school vouchers do not deliver improved outcomes or educational innovation at scale. TCTA believes funds should remain with the public school system, given its proven results, and we will continue to push against inferior schooling options billed as school choice.