This week, the Texas Education Agency posted new documents to address how schools may reopen this fall. Commissioner Mike Morath spoke to Texas school officials in a Zoom call to review the materials. Morath made clear that a document laying out health and safety standards and protocols is still a work in progress, but that the second document addressing funding policies is not likely to change when it is formally adopted.

The health and safety guidance leaves most of the decision-making to local school districts. TCTA responded to the documents by repeating our call for the use of scientific data and metrics developed by health officials in the reopening of schools. Local officials should not have either the authority or the burden of making such life-and-death decisions, and the determinations regarding when schools reopen should be made free of political or social pressures.

TCTA’s stance is that schools should only open 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 to be opened to 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. ( Click here to read our full statement.)

Here are the new documents from TEA:
The documents are extensive, so TCTA is excerpting some of the information that may be of the most interest to our members.

Funding and Attendance
  • The state will generally fund remote instruction at the same levels as in-person instruction.
  • To the extent that remote instruction is provided throughout the year, it can be synchronous or asynchronous.
  • 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. NOTE: The state will not fund synchronous instruction for grades K-2. Students in grades 3-5 must receive at least 180 minutes of instruction; those in grades 6-12 must receive at least 240 minutes.
  • 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 their 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.

Health and Safety
As noted, this document does not represent final guidance. The commissioner emphasized in his discussion with school leaders that the agency is not yet able to provide final guidelines, given the changing conditions of the virus in Texas.

For the most part, health and safety decisions are left up to school officials. The draft guidelines include few “musts”, instead providing suggestions and recommendations. We have highlighted where the draft guidance makes recommendations (“should” or “may”) vs. requirements (“must”).

  • The document does not specifically address accommodations for employees in high-risk categories.
  • The document notes that 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 systems should attempt to reduce in-person staff meetings or other opportunities for adults to congregate in close settings. When those meetings are necessary, consider the use of masks or dividers.
  • Any parent may request that their student be offered virtual instruction from any school system that offers such instruction.
  • School systems should require teachers and staff to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before coming onto campus each day.
  • At the beginning of the year and at the start of every week, school systems should screen all students for symptoms or to determine if they have had close contact with COVID-positive individual.
  • Regular temperature checks of students are neither recommended nor prohibited.
  • School systems are permitted to prevent any individual who fails the screening criteria from being admitted to the campus or a bus.
  • Any individuals who are lab-confirmed to have COVID-19 or experience the symptoms of COVID-19 must stay at home throughout the infection period, and cannot return to campus until the school system screens the individual to determine if conditions for campus re-entry have been met.
  • If an individual tests positive for COVID-19, the individual may return to school when all three of the following criteria are met: at least three days have passed since recovery (resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications); the individual has improvement in symptoms; and at least ten days have passed since symptoms first appeared.
  • If an individual has symptoms but has not been tested, such individual is assumed to have COVID-19, and may not return to the campus until the individual has completed the same three-step set of criteria listed above. If the individual has symptoms that could be COVID-19 and wants to return to school before completing the above stay at home period, the individual must either (a) obtain a medical professional’s note clearing the individual for return or (b) receive two separate confirmations via testing at least 24 hours apart that they are free of COVID.
  • Schools must immediately separate any student who shows COVID-19 symptoms while at school until the student can be picked up by a parent or guardian. Students who report feeling feverish should be given an immediate temperature check to determine if they are symptomatic for COVID-19.
  • If an individual who has been in a school is lab-confirmed to have COVID-19, the school must notify its local health department.
  • Schools must close off areas that are heavily used by the individual with the lab-confirmed case 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.
  • 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.
  • Schools should attempt to have hand sanitizer and/or hand washing stations with soap and water at each entrance and in every classroom. School systems are encouraged to have students engage in supervised hand washing for at least 20 seconds at least two times each day, in addition to being encouraged to wash hands after using the restroom and before eating.
  • Whenever possible, schools should open windows or otherwise work to improve air flow by allowing outside air to circulate in the building.
  • Schools should consider having all employees and visitors wear masks or face shields, and should consider having students for whom it is developmentally appropriate wear masks or face shields at times when they will be in close proximity to other students for an extended period.
  • Young children and persons who are unable to adjust or remove masks should not be regarded as suitable candidates for wearing masks or face shields. It is not developmentally appropriate for students in kindergarten and below to wear masks. It may not be developmentally appropriate for some other students, including some students with disabilities, to wear masks. For students in first grade and above, the determination of whether wearing a mask is developmentally appropriate is up to the student’s parent or guardian.
  • Where feasible without disrupting the educational experience, encourage students to practice social distancing. 1. In classroom spaces that allow it, consider placing student desks a minimum of six feet apart when possible. 2. In classrooms where students are regularly within six feet of one another, schools should plan for more frequent hand washing and/or hand sanitizing and should consider whether increased airflow from the outdoors is possible.
  • Participation in extracurricular activities on campus must align with UIL and non-UIL activities guidance.
  • Campuses should plan for entry, exit, and transition procedures that reduce large group gatherings (of students and/or adults) in close proximity. Consider staggering school start and end times, assigning students to entries to ensure even distribution of students entering/exiting at each door, providing guidance to students to enter one at a time and wait six feet apart outside the entrance, and, where appropriate, encouraging parents to remain outside during drop-off and pick-up.
  • Consider adding dividers between bathroom sinks, especially when students cannot be at least six feet apart while using the sinks.
  • School systems should consider practices that reduce the likelihood that students meet the close contact definition at lunch. This could include having students eat lunch at their desks. It could include the use of seats that are spaced at least 6 feet apart. It could include the use of dividers on cafeteria tables.
  • School systems should consider requiring students and staff to use hand sanitizer upon boarding the bus. For bus routes where students need to sit in close proximity within the bus, consider having all students for whom it is developmentally appropriate wear masks or face shields while on a bus. School systems should encourage families to drop students off, carpool, or walk with their student to school to reduce possible virus exposure on buses.

TCTA will continue to advocate for our members and provide you with the latest information. Visit our website for updates and related topics, and follow us on social media to be alerted when we post new information.