Texas public schools will be required to provide in-person instruction for students this fall, but state education officials have delayed releasing final public health guidelines for keeping them safe on campuses during the pandemic.
"We are unable to give final guidance today on on-campus instruction. We are actively monitoring the situation, and we will try to get out final information as quickly as possible," Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said during a Tuesday briefing of school superintendents who had been expecting him to outline the agency's reopening guidelines.
A draft document found on the Texas Education Agency's website Tuesday showed agency officials are envisioning a largely hands-off approach to helping school districts bring students back to campus this fall, imposing few mandatory safety precautions but recommending that staff and students wear masks, sanitize their hands regularly and stay 6 feet away from one another.
The light-handed oversight role parallels the state's overall approach to the coronavirus pandemic under Gov. Greg Abbott, with local officials, parents and students expected to devise their own strategies for protecting their health.
"These are draft documents. They were posted in the staging portion of the TEA website by mistake as part of an internal document review," the agency said in a statement. "As we continue to closely monitor the public health situation, we are, in fact, still soliciting feedback on this guidance. No final decisions have yet been made. Additional guidance will be provided soon.”
Local school officials have been waiting on state guidance so they can begin making decisions as they plan for the start of a new school year. "I understand the pause in releasing those guidelines considering what's going on with what seems to be a resurgence, particularly in our large, urban areas," HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief Independent School District, told the Texas Tribune. "At some point, we gotta know because we have to make decisions."
And state Democrats have excoriated Abbott for deciding to reopen schools amid rises in COVID-19 cases. "The decision to reopen comes despite severe concerns from students, teachers, and parents that returning to school may not be safe in the fall," a working group of state House Democrats said in a statement Tuesday. "The announcements also coincide with an outbreak of COVID-19 that has led to nearly two weeks of record hospitalizations and rising cases that even Gov. Abbott decreed 'unacceptable.'"
Education officials did release final guidelines Tuesday afternoon saying that after campuses reopen, they will count students taking virtual classes in the attendance figures used to determine state funding. Districts can choose to provide live virtual instruction or instruction that is not delivered in real time, including prerecorded video lessons or paper assignments. The state will not penalize school districts for major decreases in student attendance for the first 12 weeks of the year.
State funding is typically based on classroom attendance, and many districts feared they might see dramatic drops in state money with parents saying they will not feel comfortable sending their children to school in person, especially as cases continue to rise in Texas.
Reopening schools is a large part of Abbott's plan to jumpstart the economy, as Texans returning to their workplaces seek safe places to leave their children. But since Abbott first allowed businesses to reopen, the numbers of new cases and Texans hospitalized have reached record heights.
Abbott has urged Texans to wear masks and practice social distancing but has declined to issue a statewide requirement or shut down businesses again. He told lawmakers last week that masks and testing would not be required in schools in the fall.
Many of the public health guidelines in the TEA's draft document are suggestions and not mandates for how school districts can keep communities safe during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the draft, Texas will require school districts to publicly post summaries of their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19, based on the guidance, though the plans are not subject to government approval. And school districts are required to separate students who show COVID-19 symptoms at school until they can be picked up by a guardian, and clean the areas used by anyone potentially infected.
According to the draft guidance, school districts should require staff and students to "self-screen" for COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their own temperatures, before going to school each day. And school leaders should ask students at the beginning of each week whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone who tested positive.
"Regularly performing a forehead temperature check of otherwise asymptomatic students in school is not recommended, but the practice is also not prohibited by this guidance," the draft document states.
Some school districts, especially larger ones in urban and suburban Texas, have already decided to offer hybrid programs, teaching some students in person and some remotely.
Texas will continue to fund school districts serving students remotely. School districts providing live virtual instruction to students must track how many students are engaged each day and will not receive funding for students who do not participate remotely.
Those that choose to offer remote instruction through worksheets and prerecorded videos must first get state approval of their instructional plans, due on a rolling basis starting July 15. They must track students' daily progress through their interactions with their teachers or completion of assignments. Districts can also choose to offer a combination of both types of remote instruction in order to meet more students' needs. They must keep the grading policies for students learning remotely the same as those for students learning on campus.
This year, school districts scrambled to get computers and Wi-Fi hotspots out to the students who needed them most and lost track of thousands of students, including the most vulnerable. Texas required districts to sign a form saying they were providing remote instruction in order to continue receiving funding — much less stringent than the plan in the finalized guidance.
Texas is working to help school districts provide more technology for students who don't have it at home, Morath said Tuesday.