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HISD

HISD needs a bond referendum

Easier said than done, though.

Houston ISD appeared to be on track in mid-February to put a bond election on the ballot this November, taking a critical step toward asking voters for the first time since 2012 to let it borrow money to finance major facility upgrades in the district.

Two weeks later, federal agents raided the district’s headquarters. Three weeks after that, campuses closed due to COVID-19.

Once again, an HISD bond would have to wait.

As voters in Dallas, San Antonio and parts of Fort Bend County decide in the coming weeks whether to back billions of dollars in school improvements, residents of the state’s largest district will not see a bond request on the ballot for the eighth straight year, the longest absence among Texas’ major urban districts.

Despite promising signs earlier this year that HISD finally may have weathered a cascade of embarrassments, the district remains unable to garner support needed to provide students with much-wanted improvements. After approving a facilities assessment in February, a precursor to a bond vote, HISD administrators and trustees never publicly discussed seeking an election following the raid and pandemic-induced shutdown.

In addition to grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic, HISD continues to face fallout from the abrupt departure of former Superintendent Richard Carranza, self-admitted dysfunction on the school board in 2018 and 2019, the Texas Education Agency’s ongoing effort to replace trustees and the raid tied to former high-ranking administrator Brian Busby.

“As a layperson on the outside looking in, with everything that was going on in the district, I personally would have had some reluctance supporting one,” said HISD trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, one of four new members on the nine-person board this year. “We’re not entangled in all that controversy now, and so it’s imperative that we look at trying to do a bond every five years. We’re way overdue.”

[…]

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who has conducted dozens of school bond polls and led a survey on voter attitudes toward HISD last year, said he would be “shocked” if the district could earn the needed majority support for a package. If a bond vote fails, HISD must cover costs associated with administering the election.

“There’s just no confidence in the district, and I have no reason to think that confidence has increased with remote learning,” Stein said. “My guess is they’re not going to pass a bond anytime soon.”

Here’s a scorching hot take: Maybe the best way to get a very necessary bond passed is to hand that responsibility to the board of managers that will (one presumes) eventually get installed by the TEA as part of its now-held-up-in-the-courts takeover. If there’s not enough faith that the elected Board members are up to the task (a proposition I’d question, but let’s go with it for now), then give the new Board a crack at it. It’s not clear to me that the appointed Board would have a net gain in public trust, since so many HISD parents and other stakeholders are deeply suspicious of (if not outright hostile to) the TEA takeover, but maybe they could earn some trust, or have a honeymoon period, or just be able to bring it up without other issues getting in the way. I’m just spitballing here. The fact remains, the schools need the capital investment. I’m open to any reasonable ideas for making it happen.

Back to the classroom for some

I sure hope this goes well, but I remain worried.

With the novel coronavirus still top of mind, HISD will welcome back an estimated 80,000-plus of its nearly 200,000 students to classrooms Monday, becoming the region’s final large district to reopen campuses for in-person instruction.

The return will come with new safety, scheduling and teaching protocols, some of which will vary across the district’s 280 campuses. All students returning to buildings must wear masks, while staff members will direct children to frequently use hand sanitizer and wash their hands. Many schools plan to stagger bell schedules, aiming to limit hallway traffic, while most teachers are preparing to provide in-person and online instruction at the same time.

The restart arrives as many districts across the state report only sporadic cases of students and staff stepping foot on campus while infected with COVID-19, a positive early sign amid the pandemic. As of Friday, seven Houston-area high schools had reported outbreaks involving more than 10 active cases at one time, with no elementary or middle schools reaching that threshold.

However, HISD’s return comes with some risks. About 85 percent of HISD students are Black or Hispanic, two demographic groups that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In addition, case counts and hospitalizations in Greater Houston have started creeping up in the past couple weeks after a major dip in the late summer.

“I’m a little nervous, because all of this with the virus is not good,” said Norma Vasquez Chavez, whose kindergartner and fifth-grader will attend in-person classes Monday at Brookline Elementary School on the district’s southeast side. “Every time my daughters go out, I’m telling them about using the masks, using the hand sanitizer. I’m trying to trust in them and all that the school is doing.”

The lingering concerns are reflected in the fact that about 60 percent of HISD students are expected to continue learning from home Monday, despite the district offering in-person classes to all families. Under state guidelines, HISD had until Nov. 2 to provide face-to-face instruction to all students who wanted it.

[…]

District leaders have not published metrics for when HISD will change its “gauge,” showing if and how in-person classes are held. HISD moved from “red,” which requires keeping campuses closed, to “orange,” which allows for in-person classes with mandatory social distancing, on Oct. 9, three days before staff were scheduled to return to buildings.

HISD also changed its desk distancing requirements from a mandatory 6 feet to “whenever possible,” citing “updated public health and educational guidelines.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended spacing desks 6 feet apart “when feasible” in early September.

Wheatley High School teacher Kendra Yarbrough, however, called on district leaders to reverse the switch.

“This will greatly help reduce teachers’ stress,” Yarbrough said. “Many of us are struggling currently, trying to make decisions, figuring out how do we keep ourselves safe, as well as ensure that we’re providing for our own families who are at high risk.”

Our kids are still doing remote learning for now, as are some but not all of their friends. The 13-year-old gave me a running commentary on Monday about how it was going – short answer, a little weird because the kids that were there in school were not also on the Teams session, so it wasn’t clear how they were going to answer questions since they weren’t loud enough to be heard by the teacher’s microphone; also, the between-class duration was confusing – but I figure they’ll work out the odd bits this week, as they did when this year’s remote learning started. The main concern, of course, is keeping everyone safe. As far as that goes, well

Five Houston ISD schools temporarily have closed due to a confirmed or presumed COVID-19 case on campus, swift shutdowns on the day after the state’s largest district resumed in-person classes.

Bellaire High School, Daily Elementary School and Foerster Elementary School canceled in-person classes and transitioned to virtual learning this week, according to HISD officials.

Emails sent by the leaders of Lanier Middle School and Westbury High School and reviewed by the Houston Chronicle also show those two schools were closed Tuesday. HISD administrators have not yet confirmed the shutdowns and initially reported only three closures Tuesday morning.

In confirming the closures of Ballaire, Daily and Foerster, district officials said they received notice of a single positive or presumed COVID-19 case at each campus. HISD’s COVID-19 protocols call for shutting down a campus for a “recommended number of days to allow for disinfection and sanitization” after learning of a positive or presumed case. Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has said district leaders would consult with city and county health officials, the district’s communicable disease plan task force and district operations staff to determine need actions and length of closures.

And there were still more school closures later in the day. Not great, Bob. It’s early, these were based on single test results, it’s been so far so good in other districts, but with more kids back in classes now, the risk is necessarily higher, and this is happening at a time when the infection rate is increasing. We need to be prepared for the possibility that this will be a short-lived experience. The Press has more.

Lots of HISD students will stay remote for now

The people have spoken.

If the state’s largest district follows through with reopening campuses to students on Oct. 19 — the tentative plan, still based on public health conditions — more than half of the district’s nearly 200,000 could remain at home for at least one grading period, HISD officials said this week.

Newly released data shows that 80 percent of the district’s families committed in recent days to a back-to-school option. Of those, about 40 percent chose in-person instruction and 60 percent opted to stay in virtual classes. HISD officials are unsure whether the remaining 20 percent of families will send their children back to classrooms, but district staff are planning as if they will show up on campus.

With those totals in hand, HISD officials are using the next few days to finalize arrangements for Oct. 19, which marks the start of the district’s second grading period. Key decisions are expected to land next week, including whether to limit attendance at some high school campuses and shuffle students’ already-assigned teachers.

“Based on the enrollment data breakdown, campus principals will create schedules to accommodate students returning for face-to-face instruction and those continuing remotely,” HISD’s administration said in a statement.

[…]

Nearly all of the Houston area’s largest districts resumed in-person classes for families that want it in recent weeks, though a few remain in the early stages of reopening, including Alief and Fort Bend ISDs.

To date, only Crosby ISD has reported more than 10 active cases of COVID-19 at a single campus. The district temporarily closed Crosby High School this week and Crosby Middle School last week for cleaning.

HISD will be the region’s last district to offer face-to-face instruction, though the district has operated learning centers at 36 campuses and churches for students without at-home technology access since the 2020-21 school year started virtually in early September.

If HISD reopens classrooms in mid-October, the district likely will bring back thousands of employees who remain fearful of returning to work.

A survey of roughly 7,400 teachers conducted between mid-June and early July found that 35 percent were more comfortable staying in online-only classes, while 14 percent were ready to return to the classroom. About half of respondents said they were open to a hybrid model, in which students wanting in-person instruction spent part of their week on campus and part in at-home classes.

“There have been numerous concerns about the size of the classrooms,” said Scott Parker, a science teacher at Navarro Middle School. “You have literally thousands of students coming back, and they’re all within a closed, confined area.”

Nearly all of the district’s 280 campuses are expected to host all students wanting in-person instruction for five days each week. HISD officials did not release a campus-by-campus breakdown of expected in-person attendance rates Friday.

Our girls will be among those who continue to do remote learning for the next six weeks. Both their schools will have the teachers do in-person and remote instruction simultaneously, which means they will stay with the same teachers and on the same schedule. We’ll figure it out for the next six weeks after that. I am hoping that the initial return to campus will be safe and successful, because I know we need to get students back into their schools. We’re getting by and making do for now, but this is not ideal, and there will be long-term negative effects for many students. As to what happens if the return of students (and teachers, and support staff, and whoever else) to campuses is not successful, I have no idea. I just hope HISD and the TEA do. If you have kids in HISD or other district’s schools, what decision have you made about in-person versus remote learning?

So far so good on school reopening

It’s still early, though.

For the first Houston-area school districts to resume in-person classes, the early results for COVID-19 on campus are in: so far, mostly so good.

Eight districts that brought children back to schools in August are reporting sporadic known cases of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, but they are avoiding the kind of outbreaks that stoked the most fear headed into the new school year.

The preliminary data offer signs of hope that many schools, under the right conditions, can hold face-to-face instruction and avoid widespread transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus within a campus.

With three to four weeks in the books, those districts reported about 80 active COVID-19 cases as of Friday among the roughly 112,000 students and 29,000 staff members regularly traveling to campuses. While the source of those infections is not known, none of the eight districts are reporting several active cases at a single campus.

Most districts consider a case active if an individual spent time on district premises, later tested positive for COVID-19 and remains in recovery.

[…]

Michael Chang, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School, said COVID-19 spread among students and staff will become more clear in the next few weeks, though rapid outbreaks have occurred in settings with large gatherings of children.

“Particularly in high school and maybe middle school, I think you’d anticipate a relatively quick signal and fast outbreak,” Chang said. “Not too many districts have had a lot of face-to-face students for that long yet. It might be a little early, especially if we have asymptomatic kids.”

The possibility of a school-based outbreak also could increase as more districts resume in-person classes.

Several districts that serve large numbers of Black, Hispanic and lower-income families — who are testing positive for COVID-19 and dying from the disease at higher rates than wealthier and white families — are just starting face-to-face classes or returning to campuses in the coming weeks. Houston ISD, the region’s largest school district, is tentatively scheduled to offer in-person classes beginning Oct. 19.

Still, the lack of immediate outbreaks suggests the use of masks, social distancing and handwashing could be helping to limit the spread on campuses.

“I firmly believe we can open up schools pretty safely,” said Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics who specializes in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Is it going to be perfect? No. Are there going to be cases? Sure. But I think the impact on the community can be minimal if we do it safely.”

I sure hope so. The potential for schools to be a huge vector for COVID spread is real, and it will only take one or two outbreaks to have a big effect. My own kids are going to be back on campus in a couple of weeks, so I’m keeping a very close eye on this. The optimistic take on this is that it may finally convince some mask skeptics that wearing the damn things really does matter. The pessimistic view is more gruesome than I care to write down. Let’s hope that what we’re seeing now is what we will continue to get.

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

Here’s the local view.

Students in Klein and about nine districts throughout the region will get their real first taste of the new learning environment on Tuesday as those districts welcome back those who opted to come to school rather than attend online. Among them are Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch, La Porte, Magnolia and Santa Fe ISDs.

It marks the biggest return of students to school campuses in six months, after schools were closed in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, students in Lamar CISD and Humble, Alvin, Dickinson, Galveston and Barbers Hill ISDs have brought some of their students back in recent weeks.

The districts are forging ahead with plans to reopen campuses despite warnings from regional health authorities and some local leaders who say it still is too early. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah recommended in August that schools remain closed until there are fewer cases of COVID-19 and less community spread. The two set benchmarks for schools to begin reopening, but with current statistics, it would take weeks to reach them.

Hidalgo and Shah only can offer recommendations, after Gov. Greg Abbott said local government officials do not have the legal authority to preemptively close campuses. Instead, he said, those decisions should be left to school districts. In some Houston-area districts, school boards, parents and some educators have argued that the benefits of face-to-face instruction, especially after such a long hiatus, outweigh potential health risks.

“We can provide a schooling online, but we can’t provide an education online,” Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said at a July board meeting.

Others have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the foreseeable future, including Fort Bend and Alief ISDs. In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, students will return Tuesday to online-only classes, which are scheduled to remain in place until mid-October.

District officials estimate that about 18,000 students still lack the computer or internet access needed for online classes. As a result, HISD is directing those students to 36 “learning centers” with adult supervision and available technology. HISD officials said they are not publicizing the learning center locations.

“It just can’t be everyone showing up,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “It’s truly assigned locations for students and staff.”

[…]

For those that already have opened classrooms, teachers and students still are adapting.

In Humble ISD, middle and high school students are coming into the buildings in alternating groups, with an A group coming on some days and a B group on others.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said she has been surprised the elementary schoolers have not had as many issues with face masks and social distancing as some had feared.

“We’re starting to get our arms around it pretty well,” Fagen said. “Every day there are new metrics to monitor, and we hope we can get to a place for (more) in person in near future.”

For students at Klein ISD’s Mahaffey Elementary who chose in-person instruction, last Wednesday served as a crash course for their new school realities.

Staff practiced funneling students through entrances assigned by grade rather than the main doors in the front. They showed students how to keep their distance in hallways and spent class periods juggling between in-person students and those learning remotely on Zoom calls. They adjusted their cameras, helped parents troubleshoot technology problems and made sure the kids in their classrooms knew the new procedures.

It was a strange day here, as my girls started with remote learning. We’re used to that, in that we had done it before, but it was still strange to just transition from “no school” to “distance learning school”. Didn’t have that usual “first day of school” feel, you know? There were some connection issues on the HISD hub that affected Olivia’s school, but students were redirected to an alternate site that seemed to work, so no big deal. Ask me again in a week how it’s going.

For the schools that are reopening for in person instruction, I sure hope it all goes well. I hope the mask-wearing and social distancing and other protocols that are being adopted to (hopefully) keep virus spread to a minimum works as planned, not just for them but for the rest of us, who will be in the same position in six weeks. Unless it doesn’t go well, of course, in which case they’ll be in the same position as us. I absolutely want everyone to get back to school. I also absolutely want everyone to literally survive the year, with no adverse health effects lingering on. I don’t know that we can do both of those things just yet. I’m glad it’s not my kids’ schools that are the guinea pigs for that experiment, and I sincerely hope that experiment is a ringing success. I figure we’ll know, more or less, by the time it’s our turn to go back.

HISD may do remote learning on Election Day

Makes sense to me.

Houston ISD’s administration wants to hold online-only classes on Election Day this November, citing safety concerns at more than 100 campuses that are expected to be used as polling locations.

“While it is not unusual for our school sites to be used as polling locations, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the safety of our students and staff more challenging when significant numbers of voters would be entering the schools throughout the day,” district officials wrote in documents provided to the school board.

HISD trustees are expected to vote Sept. 10 on the request.

[…]

It is not immediately clear whether the Texas Education Agency will penalize HISD for not offering in-person classes on Election Day, which is Nov. 3.

Under current TEA guidelines, public school districts can keep campuses closed up to eight weeks at the outset of the school year, though they must start to offer some in-person classes after the fourth week. Election Day falls on HISD’s ninth week of classes.

Districts that violate TEA guidelines risk losing state funding. However, TEA officials have said they plan to remain flexible amid the pandemic on safety matters.

As we know there will be 808 voting locations in Harris County on Election Day, which is nearly one per precinct. Schools have always been used as polling places – the elementary (Travis) and middle (Hogg) schools in my neighborhood are voting locations, as are nearby Crockett and Field elementaries. It is completely sensible to keep the kids home on a day when these schools will be full of strangers, in this time of pandemic. I would very much hope that the TEA will see it that way, but given some of the desperate shenanigans that are being pulled right now, I will need to hear it from them before I believe it. I hope HISD has been checking in with the TEA on this, and I hope the trustees are fully informed on this when they vote. We’ll find out next week.

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

HISD also spending more money on mobile technology

Also good.

Houston ISD officials anticipate receiving a chunk of the $32 million that Harris County leaders allocated this week for helping school districts buy sought-after computers and wireless Internet hotspots.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Glenn Reed said early conversations with county officials suggest the district could get about $4 million for technology — an amount that the Texas Education Agency could match to lessen the district’s financial burden.

Trustees voted Thursday to approve spending an additional $31 million on computers and hotspots this fiscal year, which would help outfit students needing technology while learning from home. HISD plans to remain online-only from early September through at least mid-October, and all families have the option to continue virtual classes throughout the year.

“No one has said ($4 million) is the number that’s been agreed to, but right now, we think that’s potentially where it is,” Reed said.

[…]

HISD officials have stopped short of guaranteeing all students will have access to computers and hotspots by their Sept. 8 start date. Surveys taken in July showed about 22,750 students lacked a computer, while district officials did not receive responses for about 37,200 students. HISD expects to receive about 25,000 devices in August and another 40,000 in September or October.

Reed said the combination of county and federal funds has “allowed us to actually increase the number of devices we can purchase,” though the final tally remains in flux.

See here for the background. Given that the start of school has been pushed back to September 8, I hope that the vast majority of students who need this equipment can get it in time. It really is a shame we didn’t address this sooner, but here we are. Let’s make sure every kid has what they need to succeed.

Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

They can’t issue mandates, so this will have to do.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday unveiled the county’s guidance for school reopenings, recommending based on a handful of COVID-19 metrics that schools offer only virtual instruction in the coming weeks until the virus is further curbed.

County officials are issuing the guidance as families and education officials continue to grapple with the idea of resuming in-person classes in the coming weeks, and after Gov. Greg Abbott barred local officials from ordering campus shutdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the non-binding guidance, Hidalgo and county health officials recommended that school districts offer only virtual instruction as long as Harris County, across a 14-day span, records more than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day, remains above a 5 percent test positivity rate or continues to devote more than 15 percent of hospital beds to COVID-19 patients.

School districts are advised to reopen with reduced capacity as those metrics improve and Harris County hospitals see a 14-day average flattening or decrease in their general and intensive care unit bed populations. At that point, school officials can consult with Harris County Public Health officials on their plans to reopen.

“We simply cannot responsibly reopen schools to in-person instruction right now,” Hidalgo said, acknowledging the frustration of parents, teachers and others. “But we can’t ignore this. We can’t tap our heels together and wish the current numbers away.”

Harris County officials are recommending schools remain closed longer than some other organizations.

[…]

County officials have not yet publicly released the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, though Umair Shah, the director of Harris County’s public health department, announced Tuesday that the rate is between 15 and 16 percent. The Houston Health Department and Texas Medical Center on Monday reported positivity rates of 14.6 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. The city’s 14-day average has continued to decline since peaking at nearly 30 percent in early July, but remains above the county roadmap’s 5 percent threshold.

Hidalgo and Shah lack the authority to order compliance with the roadmap before the school year begins. Abbott said July 31 that local school boards and state education officials can limit the reopening of buildings in the first eight weeks of the school year, but county officials may not shut down campuses preemptively.

The governor said local health authorities may shut down campuses in response to confirmed outbreaks in a building, but Texas Education Agency leaders said public school districts risk losing state funding if schools remain closed for longer than five days.

You know how I feel about this, so I’m mostly going to peace out here. Judge Hidalgo had ordered schools closed for in-person instruction until at least September 8, back when that was a thing the locals could do. HISD is beginning remote learning only on that date now, and even as a parent of two HISD students, I have no freaking idea when they will be ordered back to the classroom. You can see the Ready Harris roadmap here and the metrics for success here. Maybe if Greg Abbott took this stuff half as seriously as Judge Hidalgo does, we’d be in a better position to reopen schools with some confidence.

An analysis of that Paxton opinion about schools and county health authorities

Short version: That’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Best mugshot ever

The law should mean what it says. Rule §97.6(h) of the Texas Administrative Code says: “The health authority is empowered to close any public or private child-care facility, school or other place of public or private assembly when in his or her opinion such closing is necessary to protect the public health; and such school or other place of public or private assembly shall not reopen until permitted by the health authority who caused its closure.” This law was invoked by the Harris County Health Authority this month , directing that K-12 schools in the county start operations entirely online until at least Sept. 7.

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote an opinion that effectively invalidated Harris County’s control order and others. The Texas Education Agency accepted the opinion, and said it will defund schools that follow the orders. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott added his backing.

While the attorney general’s opinions are non-binding, they are entitled to some respect. So too, though, is the plain language of the law. I believe Paxton has it wrong and that his opinion is likely to kill people.

[…]

The law appears to be clear. The provision of the administrative code cited above gives the power to local health authorities. Despite this, Paxton concludes the law doesn’t mean what it says. He argues if read literally, the law would undercut limitations on the power of local health authorities he believes exist elsewhere in Texas law .

I wouldn’t give that argument a high grade. The “limitations” he cites would cripple local health authority’s power to effectively manage dangerous diseases that cannot survive on surfaces. More importantly, Paxton really can’t explain why Texas couldn’t give local health authorities, who have the authority to take steps such as quarantining an entire county, the (supposedly) limited powers that exist elsewhere and, just as the law says, the explicit power to close schools.

The factual assumptions underlying Paxton’s reading of Texas law are flawed. He writes before closing schools as a form of “area quarantine” (which isn’t the part of the statute the Harris County order relied on), the local health authority must demonstrate “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.”

That condition will exist the instant schools reopen.

See here, here, and here for the background. This too is one person’s opinion, in this case a law professor named Seth Chandler. What any of it actually means is uncertain until either someone sues or the counties and school districts all concede. Given his track record and the political stakes here, it’s quite rational to believe that Paxton is not the most trustworthy authority on this, but until a court gets involved he’s what we have. I hope the various county attorneys, as well as the counsel for the affected school districts, are reviewing this carefully and considering all their options.

Abbott finally speaks about schools

Of course, he mostly says weasel words.

Gov. Greg Abbott clarified Friday that Texas schools will be required to provide in-person instruction this fall, but that some districts may be eligible for extended waivers on a “case-by-case basis.”

In a letter signed jointly with fellow Republican state leaders, the governor said local health authorities do not have the power to shut down schools solely to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The guidance, which does not appear to be legally binding, is the first detailed instruction from Abbott in the reopening plans. Earlier this week, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Education Commissioner Mike Morath said districts would not be able to close campuses for prevention purposes alone, and in fact could lose state funding should they try.

Currently, districts are allowed to delay in-person instruction for up to eight weeks.

“If any school district believes they need an extension beyond eight weeks due to COVID-19 related issues, the (Texas Education Agency) will review that request on a case-by-case basis,” the statement says.

The remarks do not give details about the requirements school districts must meet in order to suspend in-school learning. Even if districts reopen campuses, children in public schools across the state can remain at home, continue online-only classes and still receive course credit.

See here and here for the background. Basically, we don’t know anything today that we didn’t already know. Counties and school districts maybe have some flexibility to make their own decisions, but there are no objective criteria by which those decisions can be judged. Paxton’s opinion still doesn’t have the force of law, because Abbott still hasn’t updated his executive order, but it will take either a lawsuit or open defiance of the opinion to test that proposition. In the meantime, we have this deluded fantasy that in person classroom learning will be like it has been before while the pandemic is still raging. Meanwhile, other school employees fear for their health and safety, with no assurances that anyone is looking out for them. And oh yeah, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that people will die as a result of this. Good luck sorting it all out, fellow parents.

One more thing:

An Abbott spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the governor plans to follow-up with an executive order.

That should be carved into his goddam tombstone some day. What a feckless coward. The Trib has more.

The school situation remains a big ol’ mess

You can blame Greg Abbott for all this confusion.

After weeks of confusion and conflicting signals, Texas has settled into policies that effectively compel schools to reopen their classrooms this fall no later than eight weeks after the academic year begins, whether they want to or not.

Teachers, parents, school administrators and public health officials have been seeking clarity for weeks on how the state will approach reopening schools safely as coronavirus infections and deaths rise across Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott has not responded directly to questions from reporters about who has the authority to order schools closed in areas hard-hit by the virus, and the Texas Education Agency has sent mixed messages on reopening guidelines.

But despite the lack of any formal announcement from the governor, the die was cast in in a rapid two-step process Tuesday. First, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released nonbinding legal guidance saying local public health officials do not have the power to preemptively require all schools in their jurisdictions to remain closed, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in many Texas hotspots.

Then, state education officials reversed an earlier decision by announcing they will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed for longer than the state allows even if ordered to do so by a local health mandate. Taken together, the actions put school districts in the position of reopening classrooms on the state’s timetable or losing funds and risking potential litigation.

Educators and families must now once again rethink their back-to-school plans this fall. The education agency has given school districts up to eight weeks to limit the number of students permitted on their campuses, after which they must open classrooms to all students who want to attend.

That ninth week is looming large for superintendents who are not sure what the public health landscape will look like at that point. Now, they can’t depend on their local health officials to give them more time, without losing money.

“Starting in the ninth week of our respective school years, regardless of the status of the virus in our communities, as the guidance is written today, we would be faced with two options,” said Northside Superintendent Brian Woods in an interview with the San Antonio Express News editorial board Wednesday. “One would be to ignore a local health order, and in doing so likely put our students and staff and families at risk, or lose funding, which is essential to teaching and serving our families.”

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Woods indicated he and other superintendents would consider filing a lawsuit seeking to keep their classrooms closed longer if necessary. Paxton’s decision to step into the fray weeks before the school year begins has prompted more questions than answers, including whether a deluge of lawsuits is expected to hit Texas courts demanding health mandates be revoked or enforced.

Emphasis mine, and see here for the background. The Chron’s Jacob Carpenter tries to make sense of this hash.

What is the impact of Paxton’s letter?

Paxton’s letter is not legally binding. The only way the local health authority orders can be negated is through an executive order issued by the governor or a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit.

As of now, Abbott has not issued an executive order declaring that local health authorities cannot mandate school closures, and nobody has filed a lawsuit challenging the local closure orders.

As a result, at this time the school closure mandates issued by local health authorities are legally valid and enforceable.

What did Morath do Tuesday?

Hours after Paxton published his letter, Morath issued new guidance saying public school districts risk losing state funding if they keep campuses shuttered solely as a result of a local health authority closure order.

Districts still can require students with at-home technology access to remain in online-only classes for up to the first eight weeks of the school year. School boards also can push back their school start dates.

If local school closure orders are legally valid, why did Morath say districts risk losing state funding if they follow closure orders?

Morath cited Paxton’s letter in issuing the new guidance on school funding.

“As a state agency, we will follow the Attorney General’s guidance,” Morath said in a statement. “Consequently, a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction for an indefinite period of time.

However, another section of TEA guidance says the agency will continue to provide funding to districts that are forced to close campuses by an entity “authorized to issue such an order under state law” — and as of now, local health authorities have issued legal orders.

Essentially, the TEA has provided two potentially conflicting pieces of guidance.

Who can clear up this conflict?

The simplest answer: Abbott.

At any time, Abbott could issue an executive order that negates all local health orders, or he could announce he will allow the orders to stand.

Abbott has made no move in either direction.

Asked multiple times by the Houston Chronicle earlier this month whether he planned to allow local health officials to order school closures, the governor’s office never directly answered the question. Abbott’s staff also did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday following the release of Paxton’s letter.

Yes, our Governor continues to be basically useless. At this point, the best advice seems to be just wait and see what happens. Maybe Abbott revises his executive order. Maybe all the school districts and county health authorities cave. Maybe someone (or multiple someones) files a lawsuit – unfortunately, one of those someones is gonna be Jared Woodfill, so prepare yourself for the stupid – and a judge makes a ruling that forces the issue one way or another. It’s still the case that schools don’t have to open till September 8, which is what HISD is doing, and the first six weeks after that can be online-only. It’s after that it gets dicey. So sit tight and wait to see how it gets sorted out.

Paxton overrides county health orders on schools

So much concern for the children here.

Best mugshot ever

Local health officials do not have the authority to shut down all schools in their vicinity while COVID-19 cases rise, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in nonbinding guidance Tuesday that contradicts what the Texas Education Agency has told school officials.

Shortly after Paxton’s announcement, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidance to say it will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed because of a local health mandate, citing the attorney general’s letter. Districts can receive state funding if they obtain TEA’s permission to stay closed, as allowed for up to eight weeks with some restrictions.

The change represents an about-face for the agency, which previously said it would fund districts that remained closed under a mandate. It will impact schools in at least 16 local authorities, many in the most populous counties, that have issued school closure mandates in the past month.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, whose county is among those with a mandate to close schools, said local officials will continue to make decisions to keep students safe “regardless of what opinion General Paxton comes up with.”

“The only way that it would really screw things up is if Abbott tried to take away the control from the local groups,” Jenkins said.

The guidance is non-binding, but local health authorities could face lawsuits especially now that Paxton has weighed in. Paxton’s office declined to comment on whether it would sue local health officials that don’t retract mandates, saying it could not comment on hypothetical or potential litigation.

[…]

The governor’s executive order allowing all school districts to operate overrules local mandates to close, Paxton said. Local health officials have some authority to order schools closed if people in it are infected by COVID-19, but not as a preventive measure.

See here and here for the background. I don’t know what happens next – maybe the counties fold and rescind their orders, maybe someone files a lawsuit to force the issue, maybe we wait and see what happens when schools are supposed to start in a non-pandemic world – but it is clear that one person could end the confusion. The head of the TEA is hand-picked by Greg Abbott, after all, and one presumes Mike Morath would not have let the TEA issue that directive if Abbott was not aware of it. Plus, as noted in the story, Abbott’s own executive order is part of the reason the counties don’t have this authority, at least according to Ken Paxton. So we just need Greg Abbott to come forward and clarify things and

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to a request to clarify this earlier this month.

Yeah. You know, whoever runs against Abbott in 2022, they need to make a video montage of all of the “Abbott did not respond to a request for comment” lines in every damn story about coronavirus. If there’s a single defining trait of his reign of error, that’s it. Reform Austin has more.

UPDATE: This says a lot:

Truly, we have a weak and feckless Governor.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

Facing growing backlash from teachers, parents and health officials, Texas education officials Friday relaxed a previous order that would have given public schools just three weeks from the start of the fall semester to reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction.

School districts will be allowed to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks, and ask for waivers to continue remote instruction for up to four additional weeks in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. During those second four weeks, districts must educate at least a small number of students on campus, and tell the state what public health conditions would allow them to bring more students into classrooms.

Local school boards in areas with a lot of community spread can also delay the start of the school year.

“Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with school superintendents Friday afternoon.”But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”

The revised guidance offers school districts more options on reopening their schools. Last week, the Texas Education Agency had released more stringent guidelines requiring all school districts to offer on-campus instruction daily for all students who want it, except for a transition period of three weeks at the start of the school year.

Educator associations still say Texas isn’t going far enough to protect educators and parents. The Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement calling the revision “insufficient” and lacking in “science-based metrics,” since it still requires schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need and want it daily.

Specifically, the guidance says districts that limit in-person instruction must provide devices and WiFi hotspots to students who need them. Students who do not have reliable access to technology must be allowed to learn in school every day. And during the second four weeks of state-allowed remote learning, districts must educate at least some students on campus, though they can restrict that number as they see fit.

“We demand that Gov. Abbott issue a statewide order that all school buildings remain closed and all instruction be provided remotely until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and it is safe to reopen school buildings under strict safety standards,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement Friday.

[…]

School districts may also, with permission from the state, choose high schools where students will receive part of their instruction on campus and part remotely at home for the entire school year. Students must learn on-campus for at least 40% of the days in each grading period, usually six or nine weeks long.

That option would be best for districts “if your health conditions are such where you really need to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time,” Morath said Friday. Some districts have already proposed bringing different groups of students into classrooms on alternating days or even weeks, and otherwise educating them remotely.

See here and here. The state is going to allocate more money for school districts to buy equipment for remote learning, which is a huge barrier for a lot of kids. Some counties like Dallas have issued local health advisories that would require schools to remain closed, which the TEA guidance is allowing for at this time. The AG’s office has released an opinion saying that local governments can’t force private religious schools to close. So there’s still a lot of moving parts.

The Chron covers the local angle.

In anticipation of a change in guidance, Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it plans to remain online-only for its first grading period, which lasts six weeks. District officials also said they plan to delay the start of school by two weeks, moving the first day of classes to Sept. 8.

HISD officials hope to reopen campuses Oct. 19, but Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said public health circumstances will dictate whether that happens.

Officials in Aldine and Alief ISDs said they would start in all-virtual classes for the first three weeks, while Fort Bend ISD leaders said they will stay online-only indefinitely, with exceptions for a small percentage of students.

Several other school districts have released plans for reopening campuses that, for now, do not include online-only plans in August. However, superintendents in Conroe, Humble and Spring Branch ISDs, among others, said they are monitoring public health conditions and could decide in the coming days to keep campuses closed.

Spring Branch Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, whose district released a reopening plan Wednesday, said she plans to make a closure decision no later than the end of the month. Blaine said she first wants to see results of a survey sent to parents this week asking whether they want in-person classes or online-only instruction for their children.

“We don’t want to string this out,” Blaine said. “People are anxious and nervous. People want to know what the plans are going to be for August.”

The about-face on hybrid models in high schools, however, likely will cause some districts to re-evaluate their plans.

We’ll see what happens with HISD. One criticism that has been levied by teachers’ organizations about the TEA plan at this time – and to be fair, I think the TEA plan is still a work in progress, they have already changed it in response to public feedback – is that there isn’t yet a set of objective, scientific metrics that will govern how and when schools will reopen. I agree that this is a major oversight, but I will also point out that having metrics isn’t enough. We had a set of objective, scientific metrics that most people thought were pretty decent that were supposed to guide how and when the state reopened, and look what happened there. It’s necessary to have these metrics, but it is very much not sufficient. You have to actually follow them, and to be willing to slow down, stop, or even reverse course if the metrics aren’t being met. And given the nature of this pandemic, and the by now completely well-known lag between the case rate, the hospitalization rate, and the death rate, you have to be willing to do those things before we get into a crisis situation. You have to be willing to do them at the first sign of trouble, not at the point where things have already gotten bad ans now you need to try to catch up. If we haven’t learned that lesson by now, then we really are a bunch of idiots who will let many people suffer and die for no good reason.

Anyway. If you want a broader perspective from teachers about the upcoming school year and what we can and should be doing, give a listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast, which is usually about parenting but this week talked to four teachers from different parts of the country. As one of them puts it, if we move ahead with opening schools before we have this virus under control, some number of kids, and some number of teachers – and I would add, some number of parents – are going to die as a result. Do we really want to do that?

Schools get an in person opening reprieve

It started with this.

Texas will give school districts more flexibility to keep their school buildings closed to in-person instruction this fall as coronavirus cases continue to rise, Gov. Greg Abbott told a Houston television station Tuesday.

Public health guidance released last week indicated that school districts had to stay virtual for up to three weeks after their start dates, so they could get their safety protocols ironed out before bringing more students to campus. If they stayed closed longer than that, they would lose state funding.

Abbott on Tuesday said that time would be extended. His comment comes on the heels of a tumultuous week, after state education officials released guidance last Tuesday requiring districts to offer in-person instruction for five days a week to all parents who want it.

“I think Mike Morath, the commissioner of education, is expected to announce a longer period of time for online learning at the beginning of the school year, up to the flexibility at the local level,” Abbott said to KTRK. “This is going to have to be a local-level decision, but there will be great latitude and flexibility provided at the local level.”

The news, which Abbott said would be finalized in the next few days, will likely come as a relief to superintendents and educators asking the state for more flexibility on when and how they reopen school buildings. Some local health officials, including in El Paso and Laredo, had already demanded that schools in their areas start the year with virtual learning until cases go down.

And some larger, urban school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are planning to push their start dates later and keep all students online for three weeks, in order to avoid reopening school buildings as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge.

See here for the background. Bowing to reality, we got this yesterday.

Local public health officials will be able to keep Texas schools closed for in-person instruction this fall without risking state education funding, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson confirmed to The Texas Tribune Wednesday.

Last week, the state’s education agency released an order requiring schools to open their buildings to in-person instruction five days a week for all students who want it. The order gives districts a transition period of just three weeks at the start of the year to hold classes virtually and get their safety plans in place before allowing students back on campuses. After the three-week transition, districts that stay entirely virtual would risk losing funding.

But TEA officials confirmed Wednesday they would continue to fund school districts if local health officials order them to stay closed, as long as they offer remote instruction for all students.

[…]

A TEA spokesperson told the Tribune that school superintendents and school boards cannot make the decision to stay entirely virtual for longer than three weeks without a mandate from public health officials.

Some school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are moving their start dates to later in August and then starting their school years entirely virtually for three weeks.

And later in the day, HISD followed suit.

Houston ISD plans to delay the start of its school year until Sept. 8, and remain in online-only classes for at least the first six weeks of school, keeping students and teachers home during that time, district officials said Wednesday.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking to a group of parent-teacher organization leaders, said decisions about returning to in-person instruction “will be based on what the health threat level is” in the area. While district leaders hope to reopen facilities on Oct. 19, that decision could depend on orders issued by local health authorities or Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Right now, it is just not possible for us to do (reopen campuses), and I’m sorry that’s the situation,” Lathan said. “We moved too fast in the city and state as it relates to reopening.”

For now, the district’s 200,000-plus students will receive a mix of live instruction delivered via video conferencing and online coursework they can complete on their own time. Daily attendance will be tracked, with students considered present if they participate in live instruction, use the district’s online learning platform or submit completed assignments.

The district’s school board still must vote on delaying the start of the school year. HISD’s current 2020-21 calendar calls for resuming classes on Aug. 24. No school board meetings are scheduled for this month.

Six weeks is longer than three weeks, but as the story notes the forthcoming updated guidelines from the TEA are expected to allow for that. I can’t find it now, but there was a graphic some folks were sharing on Twitter that showed how we had closed all the schools when the COVID-19 case rate was way lower than it is now. I know we need to get the kids back into school for a whole range of reasons, and I certainly want my own kids to go back, but it doesn’t make any sense to do that until it’s safe. At this point, we’re doing what we had already done in March, kicking the can down the road and hoping things will be better in the future. That was briefly true at the time, but then, well, you know. Still better than sending kids into schools that aren’t ready to have them there in a safe fashion. We’ll see where it goes from here.

HISD being investigated over special education

Flagging this for later discussion.

Texas Education Agency officials are deep into a wide-ranging investigation of Houston ISD’s special education department, examining whether district staff violated numerous federal laws and state rules that help ensure students with disabilities get vital support while in school, the Houston Chronicle has learned.

Records reviewed by the Chronicle show state investigators have spent the past 8 1/2 months reviewing whether the state’s largest school district failed to follow about 20 special education regulations, such as properly identifying students with disabilities, delivering legally entitled services, re-evaluating students’ needs and involving parents in key decisions.

The inquiry, known as a special accreditation investigation, is the same type of review launched by the TEA in early 2019 following allegations that some trustees had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, interfered with district contracts and failed to follow their governance role.

TEA officials substantiated those allegations and Education Commissioner Mike Morath moved in late 2019 to replace HISD’s governing board. However, the district’s elected trustees remain in power pending the outcome of a lawsuit they filed to stop their ouster.

While state officials typically handle several individual special education complaints brought by HISD families each year, the current investigation dives into HISD’s district-wide performance and could produce far more serious consequences.

If state investigators find evidence of systemic special education issues in HISD, Morath could appoint an official to oversee changes in the district or try again to replace the school board. TEA officials declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.

In a statement, HISD’s administration said it is “fully cooperating” with the investigation, directing additional questions to the TEA. HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said she is “looking forward to seeing the results.”

“If there’s a problem, and it’s taken a third-party to identify the problem, then we can fix it,” Deigaard said.

The investigation marks the latest development in HISD’s troubled history with providing special education services to children in the 210,000-student district.

The inquiry also renews the spotlight on TEA’s handling of special education, which remains under intense local and federal scrutiny after the Chronicle revealed in 2016 that the agency’s arbitrary cap on the number of children receiving services led to the denial of support to tens of thousands of students with disabilities across Texas.

You should read the rest for the particulars, but that’s a pretty good summary. It is certainly the case that the TEA has dirty hands when it comes to overseeing special education in Texas, but that doesn’t mean that HISD doesn’t have its own particular problems that require a deep-dive investigation and a detailed report of the issues and how to repair them. I would hope that if the TEA is to embark on such an investigation that they would be up front about the places where they have been complicit, or at least negligent, in enabling HISD’s shortfalls. If it’s more about assigning blame and pointing fingers, it won’t be worth the effort and won’t do anything to help the kids and families that have been harmed. The goal here needs to be making the system serve the people it needs to serve. With that, let’s see what happens. You can see my previous blogging about that earlier special ed report and related matters here.

HISD will not change its calendar

Not for this year, anyway.

Houston ISD’s calendar for 2020-21 will remain largely unchanged, district officials said Thursday, bringing an end to nearly two weeks of debate over whether to extend the school year as a way to increase flexibility and instructional time amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

HISD’s school year will begin on Aug. 24, as originally planned, and end in late May 2021.

District officials earlier this month floated the possibility of resuming classes in mid-August and ending the year in mid-June, with 10 added instructional days and longer mid-year breaks built into the calendar.

In a letter to parents, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the later start date gives the district “an opportunity to monitor the pattern of COVID-19 cases and make necessary adjustments.”

“We also want to be responsive to feedback received regarding week-long (mid-year) breaks during the school year being a difficult option for many parents,” Lathan wrote.

Instead of adding 10 instructional days for all students, HISD will host 10 “academic boot camp” days for children “who may have fallen behind academically due to COVID-19,” Lathan said. Those classes will be hosted Aug. 18, 19 and 20, and during unspecified days over the Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks.

HISD officials have not specified who would be eligible to attend the boot camp days.

See here for the background, and here for the official announcement. I like the calendar fine as it is, but I can understand the reasons for the proposed alternative. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to really discuss the pros and cons of such a change if we wanted to do it for this year, but if HISD still thinks it’s a good idea and there’s enough support in the community for it, then let’s start that longer discussion now so there would be an opportunity to try it in the future with a broad consensus behind it. Like I said, I’m fine with letting it go, but if it really makes sense then let’s work our way through it.

We’re about to find out what school might look like this fall

Brace yourselves.

Education leaders across Houston say they are working to welcome students like Alexis and Jayden back in the fall, but if guidelines released by the Texas Education Agency for in-person summer school are any indication of what’s to come, little will feel familiar.

Strict limits on class sizes and the number of students on school buses could mean children come to campus in shifts, with some days dedicated to online-only learning from home. Students may start their days in school with temperature checks and handwashing. Lunch may have to be eaten in classrooms instead of cafeterias to maintain physical distancing.

The full contours of safety mandates could become clearer Tuesday, when Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is expected to unveil state guidance to superintendents for the 2020-21 school year.

The new rules likely will look different than those issued for hosting in-person summer school, which initially included a mandate of no more than 11 students in a typical classroom and a recommendation that districts consider the use of face masks for students and staff. TEA officials relaxed the classroom size limit this week to allow 22 people in a classroom, provided each person has 45 square feet of space and desks remain 6 feet apart.

Still, many questions remain unanswered: What will daily and weekly schedules look like? What happens if a teacher or a student tests positive? What will it take for restrictions to ease? How will districts afford some potentially costly changes to meet the new safety rules.

In Spring ISD, Superintendent Rodney Watson is planning four scenarios for the upcoming school year: campuses reopening with minimal social distancing; in-person classes resuming with stringent social distancing; returning to school with rolling closures in the event of an outbreak; and hosting all learning remotely.

[…]

If classrooms reopen in August, school schedules also could look much different.

Amid the push for social distancing, many districts are considering a “hybrid model,” in which some students attend in-person classes for part of the week while remaining home for the rest.

In Spring Branch ISD, district officials are considering three hybrid scenarios: bringing in the youngest students in each school daily while limiting face-to-face instruction to one or two days for other students; hosting in-person classes for half of the students two days per week, with the other half attending two different days; and bringing half the students into school for four consecutive days, with the other half rotating in for four days the following week.

Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre also is examining how to provide as much in-person instruction as possible to students transitioning to new campuses, who he said need a solid foundation before they move on to higher grades. Under one scenario, those students would be on campus every day, while older students would go to campuses only two or three times a week.

My workplace is moving towards a hybrid-style return to the office, with some people remaining at home, and others alternating days or weeks in order to limit the number of people present. A longer school year with more breaks built in, to allow for some schedule flexibility in the event school has to be closed for a period of time due to an outbreak is possible. I suspect something like a model where only about half of the students are present any given day, and which ones they are depends on the day or the week, is likely, but this is a situation where one side won’t fit all. We’re going to have to live with a higher level of uncertainty than we like, and as one person quoted at the end notes, we will probably be doing something similar in the 2021-22 school year as well. Hang in there, y’all.

HISD passes its budget

And had their own debate about police funding.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday approved a $2 billion spending plan for the 2020-21 school year that includes small raises and bonuses for nearly all employees, a compromise between board members and the district’s administration amid a back-and-forth over staff compensation.

Trustees smoothly shepherded through the budget in a 7-2 vote, ending a run of three consecutive years with last-minute changes, drawn-out debate and occasional bitterness before the approval of spending proposals. While the budget contains few major overhauls to HISD operations, it lays the groundwork for an unprecedented school year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and difficult financial decisions looming in 2021.

“This has been a challenging year with all of the unknowns,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “We’re also going into a challenging time economically, and we’ve got some really hard work ahead of us.”

[…]

Under the new budget, HISD also plans to restructure police officers’ pay and increase their salaries by about $3.5 million — a significant boost for a department with combined annual salaries totaling about $11 million. Lathan said the raises would reduce turnover, which fuels high overtime costs, by bringing officer salaries closer in line with neighboring departments.

The increase drew added scrutiny in recent days after the death of former Houston resident George Floyd, which sparked calls nationwide from some advocates seeking to reduce or eliminate spending on police. About 15 members of the public urged trustees to reject the increase or disband the district’s police department ahead of the budget vote.

“I just don’t know about spending an additional $4 million on police officers when we can spend it on kids,” said Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who joined Trustee Dani Hernandez in voting against the budget.

See here for the background. The Press adds some details.

A number of speakers including several HISD students — fighting continued technical and human error problems with the new call-in, social distancing system — called for the district to pull its police force from schools and instead direct the money to counseling, mental health assistance and libraries. Several said black students are particularly targeted by campus police out of all proportion to their share of the student body.

Ironically enough, the new budget approved an additional $3.5 million for an increase in HISD police officers’ pay, which Lathan said was lower than other police departments in the area.

Lekha Sunder, a student who said she represents a coalition of more than 950 members of the Lamar High School community who signed a letter urging HISD and Lamar to remove police officers from campuses, spoke to the board saying “When schools place police officers on their grounds, they’re agreeing to send some of their students to juvenile court for behavior they would never otherwise be prosecuted for.

“When we criminalize our students, they begin to see themselves as criminals.”

Karina Barbosa, a graduate of HISD schools, said at her high school “We had a cop but no full-time nurse. We had a cop but no on-campus library. We had a cop but no mental health counselors.”

Larsen Tosch a senior from Bellaire High School said the use of police officers in schools instills “paranoia among students, especially students of color.

“I do not see why we need to pay for bullets at a school that routinely runs out of paper.”

Board President Sue Deigaard said she was putting together an ad hoc committee of trustees to discuss the police in schools issue. In addition she said there will be a board meeting on September 1 to discuss the issue with a report from the administration. The call to defund police departments has risen nationally following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers who have been charged in his death.

As with the city of Houston, this is a starting point. The goal is to shift spending away from police and towards other services and resources. HISD’s expenditures on police is a much smaller percentage of their budget than Houston’s is, but the principle that this is not the best use of those dollars is the same. I’m glad to see HISD is discussing this – I hope they will solicit community feedback as well – and I look forward to the report in September.

Tell HISD what you think about their proposed school year calendar

It’s different.

Students in Houston ISD would return to campus in mid-August, spend up to 10 additional days in the classroom and end their school year in mid-June under a 2020-21 calendar option published by the district Monday.

HISD officials are seeking feedback on the potential changes as the district debates how to add more flexibility to its calendar and increase instructional time amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some Texas districts are approving extended calendars with more mid-year breaks, which could be used as make-up days if campuses are forced to close due to COVID-19, while others are standing pat.

HISD leaders are not yet formally proposing an extended calendar, which must be approved by the district’s school board.

Under the option unveiled Monday, HISD’s school year would start on Aug. 13 for students, about a week and a half earlier than normal, and end on June 15, about 2 1/2 weeks later than usual. The district would add two week-long breaks, in early October and mid-February.

[…]

The option also includes extending the school day by five minutes, which would help the district exceed the 75,600-minute state requirement for the academic year.

“This would ensure the district has a bank of minutes to use for emergency weather events or closures, in lieu of make-up days and further adjustments of our calendar in the future,” district officials wrote in the survey.

That survey is here. As the story notes, some other area districts have already adopted this schedule, which is designed to allow for disruptions in the calendar due to flooding or (god forbid) coronavirus. It’s easier and less likely to result in high absenteeism if weather days have to be made up in October or February rather than on actual holidays or in June. I don’t know how much of a disruption the week-long holidays in the middle of the semesters would be, and I know some people (I raise my hand here) will lament the head start HISD’s early summer vacations have given us on trip planning, but you can’t have everything. Plus, all of this is still open to debate, because no one really knows yet what the fall will look like, let alone the winter and spring. Take the survey, give HISD your honest feedback, and we’ll keep the discussion going.

Don’t forget about school police

Maybe we can take another crack at breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.

Several social justice organizations called Monday for Houston ISD to eliminate its police department and contract with local law enforcement agencies, whose officers would respond only to emergency situations on campuses.

In a letter to HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, the organizations’ leaders argued police officers make students feel less safe in school and drain funds that could be better spent on mental health counselors and social workers. The organizations are Disability Rights Texas, ONE Houston, Texas Appleseed, Children’s Defense Fund Texas and the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University.

“All children have a right to feel safe and supported at a school, and the police officer’s presence makes some kids feel less safe,” said Karmel Willis, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. “I don’t think people always look at that.”

The effort follows the death last month of Houston native George Floyd, who stopped breathing after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death has triggered nationwide calls for police reform.

School districts throughout the U.S. have increased the presence of police in schools and installed more security measures in recent years following numerous on-campus mass shootings. About 30 miles southeast of HISD, a student is accused of fatally shooting 10 people at Santa Fe High School in 2018.

In a statement Monday, HISD’s administration said its leadership “requires time to thoroughly examine this proposal.

Lathan is proposing to spend an additional $3.5 million in 2020-21 on raises for HISD police officers, whose salaries trail those of Houston Police Department officers. Trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday on the 2020-21 budget.

HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said she has talked to Lathan in recent days about evaluating the district police department’s policies, practices and patterns. However, she said a “bigger conversation” is needed before making major changes to HISD’s police force.

“That is something that should be open for discussion as a board,” Deigaard said. “But we need to balance that conversation, especially in a world we live in with outside threats to our students.”

[…]

HISD Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents some campuses with the area’s highest disciplinary rates, said she would not support eliminating the district’s police department this month or in the future.

“I can’t emphasize enough that the most important thing we can think about as board members is to ensure our children get to school safely and return home safely,” Blueford-Daniels said. “Heaven forbid that something should happen like it did in Santa Fe and there’s no one there to protect them.”

Clearly, there’s a need to discuss this at some length. Similar proposals are being made at other school districts as well. The problem with having police officers inside schools is that they tend to do the things that police officers do, which is write tickets and make arrests for things that would have been handled as internal school disciplinary matters had they not been there (*). Note the bit in that report about “the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force” inside schools, and the lack of transparency about same. That was from 2011. Now here’s a quote from the Houston Public Media story about this same proposal:

“They have tear gas, rubber bullets, battering rams,” said Sarah Guidry, director of the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University. “They started getting this equipment, as if they were going to war. And if that’s your philosophy — ‘we’re ready to go to war’ — then it’s going to be easier for you to go to war as opposed to helping somebody.”

It’s almost as if these problems have been around for a long time, without anything being done about it. Note also that the number of armed police officers in schools increased in 2018 following the Santa Fe school shooting.

I doubt that the HISD Board will support cutting out their police department, but now is an excellent time to bring the subject up and make a plan to start drastically reducing police presence in our schools. I look at it this way: I attended public middle and high school in New York City between 1978 and 1984, when the crime rate was way, way higher than it is now. Neither of those schools had any police presence in them. Schools are for learning, not for policing. This is a great time to push for real reform here as well.

(*) To be fair, internal school disciplinary processes are often quite problematic on their own. But one step at a time. Grits has more.

Our students need laptops

The pandemic has made this clear.

Houston ISD officials hope to provide every student with a district-issued laptop in 2020-21 and beyond, an ambitious target that would deliver much-needed technology to children but require voters to approve a bond package in the next several months.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said HISD officials are “working toward a goal” of buying computers throughout the upcoming school year for all 150,000-plus elementary and middle school students. HISD high school students already get computers under an initiative, known as PowerUp, started in 2014.

The laptops would assist families struggling with a lack of at-home technology amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, which pushed most instruction online for the last 10 weeks of this school year and likely will cause some classes to remain virtual into 2020-21.

Once the pandemic subsides, the laptops also would help bridge the so-called “digital divide,” providing more opportunities for students from lower-income families to access the internet and other educational programs.

“The goal is, as soon as we get them in is deploy them out,” Lathan said. “It will just take time to get the devices in. As we get them in, we’ll look to see if they’ll be given to middle school students first or elementary school students, or some at both levels.”

The initiative, however, would carry enormous costs that are not accounted for in HISD’s $2 billion spending plan for 2020-21.

District officials said they would have to spend $65 million on laptop hardware — not counting warranties, repairs, carts and replacement devices — to outfit HISD’s elementary and middle school students.

HISD leaders also would have to hire dozens or hundreds of staff members to maintain the laptops and eventually pay to replace older technology in the years to come.

District administrators still are calculating the price tag for supporting 150,000-plus additional students with laptops, but Chief Information Officer Scott Gilhousen told board members Thursday that early estimates put the bill at $90 million over five years for middle school students alone.

“The part we’re working on right now is the elementary schools and what it would take to outfit those students,” Gilhousen said.

In a statement Friday, HISD administrators acknowledged the district “would need to have a bond program” to pay for the laptops and recurring costs — a potentially tall task given multiple headwinds.

The HISD Board has been talking about a bond referendum for awhile, in the vicinity of $2 billion. That would mostly be for facilities. I don’t know if they might simply scrap that and substitute in a much smaller bond for the laptops and related equipment. A smaller bond would be easier to sell, but the facilities need would still be there. I’ll leave that to them to decide. I’ll just say, we all agree that this is a necessity now, right? Not just because of the current pandemic and any future ones we may face, but also because of weather-related disruptions and just the fact that a lot of the curriculum is done online now. However this proceeds, we need to support this initiative. It’s what the students need.

We still don’t know what the upcoming school year will look like

Lots of possibilities, no clear answer yet.

Houston ISD officials are planning for the possibility that some — if not all — students will continue to take virtual classes at home to start the upcoming school year, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said Friday.

Leaders of the state’s largest school district are preparing multiple contingency plans for August, many of which involve a continuation of online learning, amid uncertainty about their ability to safely re-open campuses as the novel coronavirus pandemic lingers.

District administrators remain weeks away from finalizing key decisions about the upcoming school year, but Lathan said during a wide-ranging press conference that she hopes to announce within the next month whether some form of in-person classes can resume by August.

Under one potential plan floated Friday by Lathan, some or all of the district’s 209,000 students would spend part of the school week on campus and the remainder of the week in online classes — a method aimed at increasing social distancing in crowded buildings. Numerous education leaders across the state and country have suggested similar structure in recent weeks.

“We’re also looking at some students being virtually online the entire first semester or, possibly, the entire school year,” Lathan said.

Superintendents across Texas are grappling with how to structure their school calendars and daily schedules to best accommodate students while balancing public health concerns. Although children suffer medical complications from COVID-19 at far lower rates than adults, public health officials remain concerned about their ability to spread the virus to school staff and family members at home.

[…]

Beyond this summer, superintendents and school boards are evaluating major changes for the 2020-21 school year given the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and the need to support students falling behind during the current shutdown.

In HISD, administrators are starting to discuss with staff and families whether to start the school year earlier and build in longer breaks that could be used as make-up days if in-person classes are canceled due to COVID-19. Texas Education Agency officials are pushing the benefits of this model across the state, though decisions about academic calendars rest with local school boards.

HISD officials also are evaluating whether to extend the school day by 30 minutes, giving teachers and staff more time to help students recover from the disruptions. Lathan said such a move would come with additional pay for employees and could involve structural changes to campus operations.

“We have to look at the emotional toll it’s taken on our teachers to prepare and keep students engaged,” Lathan said.

See here, here, and here for some background. There are just too many variables to say with any confidence what may happen, so just try to keep up with the possibilities so you can make plans. We’ll be fine no matter what – both of us can work from home as needed – but a lot of people will have it much harder. None of this is easy. The best we can hope for is a treatment regimen for COVID-19, and eventually a vaccine. If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a better President next year and can maybe finally get a halfway decent federal response to this mess. In the meantime, this is where we are.

HISD may seek earlier school year start in the future

No earlier than the 2021-2022 school year, if they can qualify for it.

Students in Houston ISD could start their school year several days earlier beginning in 2021-22, joining peers in other districts who return to class in mid-August, under a plan in the early stages of development.

HISD officials this week said they want to seek a “District of Innovation” status that would grant them flexibility on four state education laws, including one that requires schools to begin their academic year no earlier than the fourth Monday in August. All of the region’s largest traditional public school districts, with the exception of Cy-Fair ISD and Lamar CISD, sought the status in the past few years and changed their start dates to mid-August.

In a presentation to board members Monday, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said her administration wanted to request two exemptions, which would allow HISD to start its year earlier and hire more non-certified teachers in hard-to-staff vocational and technical fields.

The switch to a mid-August start date would create a more balanced schedule between the first semester, which runs 77 days from August until winter break, and the second semester, which lasts 96 days.

HISD students also stand at a disadvantage on state standardized tests, as well as some college-centered tests, such as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, because they spend fewer days in the classroom before the tests are administered, Lathan said.

“They’re already 10 days ahead of us academically and structurally because they’re starting 10 days in advance, but we’re all required to take the state assessments at the same time,” Lathan said.

Note that this has nothing to do with when schools may reopen this fall, for which the answer right now is “no one can say for sure”. The proposed change seems reasonable enough, and would likely mean a slightly earlier end to the school year as well. The story doesn’t say what HISD has to do to qualify for this status, nor how long it would take to know if it has qualified. I think as long as there’s enough time to let parents make plans for the summer of 2021, it should be fine.

The rough fiscal road for school districts

It’s gonna be bad. How bad remains the question.

Coronavirus already has wreaked havoc on school districts — closing campuses for the remainder of the school year, shifting learning online, and exposing a wide digital divide between students who have ready access to the internet and those who do not. And that is only this year.

Next year, even if the restrictions are lifted, the coronavirus still could spark a budget crisis for traditional and charter school districts across Texas.

School finance officials and state leaders already are warning that the economic disruption caused by the pandemic, coupled with the ongoing oil slump, could result in a plunge in state revenues as sales taxes drop and commercial property values slip. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hagar already has said the state is in a recession.

As districts work to finish their 2020-2021 budgets for approval this summer, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said it would be prudent for them to squirrel away some money, even if it is too early to tell how much of an impact the pandemic will have on funding next year.

“Talking to superintendents, my message to everybody is, let’s get through this year, let’s get to summer time, and next session we’ll need to watch things very closely,” Huberty said.

[…]

[2019 school finance reform bill HB3] requires districts to base their upcoming budget on current year property values, instead of the previous year’s values. Districts receive a larger infusion of state money too, but the rate at which they can tax local property owners effectively will be capped by the state, said Catherine Knepp, an associate at the Moak, Casey & Associates school finance consulting group. How much local tax rates have to be lowered depends on the rate local property values rise and several other factors.

“Districts were still figuring out how to do that,” Knepp said, “Then enter coronavirus.”

For local revenues, Knepp said districts most likely to be impacted by the coronavirus closures will be those in which a larger share of their tax bases are commercial or industrial property rather than residential. About 60 percent of Deer Park ISD’s tax base, for example, comes from industrial properties that could suffer if the oil slump continues or if businesses there shut down entirely.

[…]

Huberty said the Legislature plans to save $1 billion of federal stimulus money for the next session to help fund schools and other parts of the state’s budget. Although it is too early to tell how much damage could be done as businesses and much of public life remains closed, he said money could be tight next session and said superintendents should begin looking where they could trim their budgets.

“The bones of what we put together with HB 3 remain intact, and we got some stimulus money from the feds to help us out with next year,” Huberty said. “But we’re going to have to look at everything.”

It’s a whammy from multiple fronts, as state revenue as well as local property tax revenues will be down, and the deep drop in oil prices will mean the Rainy Day Fund isn’t as topped up as it has been lately. On top of all that, when local revenues do start to recover, they will have to deal with the cap imposed by HB3. Which, as I understand it, does have an exception for things like epidemics, though who knows how that will play out. Even if everyone agrees to waive the restricting revenue cap, even the previously existing one could force tax cuts at a time when the districts are starved for funds. This will be an issue for multiple Legislatures, not just the 2021 Lege. It’ll also be a fine how-do-you-do for the TEA-appointed Board of Managers in HISD, whose first task (assuming they eventually get seated) will be dealing with the expected ginormous budget hole. Bet all those people who applied for the position a couple of months ago are having second thoughts now.

The next school year is going to be different, too

As with many things, just how different remains an open question for now.

When Houston campuses finally re-open in 2020-21, at a date very much to-be-determined, the region’s million-plus children will experience a school year unlike any other.

Some students may spend more time in the classroom, arriving weeks earlier than usual or staying later in the day. Others may receive added attention from teachers, counselors and social workers. Many will get lessons typically delivered the prior spring.

“They’re going to have so much work to make up that I don’t know how they’re going to do it,” said Angie Tyler, the grandmother of a high school junior in Aldine ISD. “She’s so used to having her teacher on hand, teaching her math or physics she doesn’t get. Is she going to get to learn what she’s missed?”

Amid enormous uncertainty about the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Houston-area school leaders have started mapping out contingency plans for the upcoming school year, one in which students will arrive with learning gaps and significant health needs.

[…]

“We have to look ahead,” Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “We’re looking at instructional time as it relates to programming in the summer, possibly an extended calendar, maybe an extended school day.”

None of the region’s superintendents have suggested wholesale changes in the way students are taught. Rather, multiple district leaders have discussed increasing the amount of time spent in the classroom and adding more mental health support for vulnerable students.

If buildings can re-open in the coming weeks, Lathan said her district may allow more children to enroll in summer school, which normally runs from early June to early July. Typically, HISD only opens summer school to students at risk of failing to advance grade levels or who need to pass state standardized tests to earn promotion.

In Fort Bend ISD, the region’s fourth-largest district, Superintendent Charles Dupre said district leaders will have “serious conversations” about beginning the 2020-21 school year before the planned Aug. 12 start date. Under one possible scenario, Fort Bend students would spend August catching up on missed instruction from the prior year, then start their new grade-level classes after Labor Day.

Aldine ISD Superintendent LaTonya Goffney, who leads the Houston area’s fifth-largest district, also said her district’s calendar “cannot be August to May.”

There’s more, and you should read it with an understanding that this is all contingency planning, with lots of things likely to change between now and whenever. School districts are limited by law in how early they can open, but it’s possible that could get worked around or waived. Basically, if you have a kid in the public schools, pay attention to the communication you get from your district and your schools. This is not going to be back-to-school as usual, and you’ll want to make sure you know what is going on.

Fort Bend ISD will remain closed through the end of the school year

They will not be alone in making this decision.

Fort Bend ISD campuses will remain closed for the rest of the school year, Superintendent Charles Dupre said Tuesday, becoming the region’s first traditional district to declare its facilities will not re-open this spring.

Dupre’s announcement comes one week after two of the Houston area’s largest charter school networks, KIPP Texas Public Schools and YES Prep Public Schools, made the same decision. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he expects to decide this week whether to extend his statewide school closure mandate, which currently lasts until May 4.

Fort Bend is the region’s fourth-largest school district, with an enrollment of 77,800 students.

“There are several factors we took into consideration, with safety and security being our top priority,” Dupre wrote in a letter to the district community.

“We know that, even if Governor Abbott allows schools to reopen as of May 4, many families and staff members will be reluctant to return to school and work to avoid potential exposure to the virus. Additionally, because there are only three weeks remaining of instruction after May 4, we believe it will be even more disruptive to our students, staff and teachers to ask them to pivot back into our buildings and the traditional classroom environment.”

[…]

Several of the region’s largest school districts, including Houston, Aldine and Spring ISDs, announced in recent weeks that they will remain closed “until further notice.”

Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said last week that district officials are building multiple contingency plans based on when schools could safety re-open, which remains far from known.

I’ve been operating on the assumption that schools will not reopen until the fall, despite the restarting the economy nattering that’s happening right now. Doesn’t seem worth the effort or risk for another three weeks of classes or so. Hell, at this point, I’m not sure schools will fully reopen in August. It would not surprise me at all if there’s some kind of modified in-school/remote learning plan that tries to give students the hands-on experiences that are truly needed like science labs, combined with minimizing exposure to the general population. The main thing I know at this point is that no one really knows what to expect.

The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

The lack of access to technology among students — commonly referred to as the “digital divide” — has come into sharper focus in recent weeks as school districts across Houston transition to online-based learning amid widespread school shutdowns.

Districts throughout the region are scrambling to equip tens of thousands of children with computers and internet access, jockeying with each other to secure coveted devices in high demand during the pandemic. In the meantime, many districts are providing those students with rudimentary paper materials, asking families to return completed coursework to their schools or take pictures of completed worksheets and send them to teachers.

“This has been on the education docket for, gosh, probably at least 20 years,” said Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K-12 CTO Council, an association that supports school district chief technology officers. “It’s been a struggle for people to realize that this is an important piece of learning for students if we want to keep them competitive on a global scale.”

Educators and advocates long have warned about the digital divide facing American children, with the nation’s most impoverished children suffering most. The ubiquity and declining cost of computers and internet access has helped shrink the gap, but stark disparities remain.

In the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts, about 9 percent of households — nearly 142,650 — do not have a computer, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Nearly twice that number — about 267,250 households — lack broadband internet access.

Three of the region’s largest and most impoverished districts — Alief, Aldine and Houston ISDs — face the greatest shortages, according to Census data and estimates from district leaders.

[…]

Despite extensive warnings about the digital divide, state and federal legislators have not allocated nearly enough funding to schools to cover costs associated with providing laptops, wireless internet devices and broadband services to all students at home.

Districts can obtain some technology and internet access at steep discounts through a federal program known as E-Rate, but the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“If we want our kids to be competitive and stay up-to-date with tech, we need to be investing in our students for the future,” Owen said. “We’ve got to get over the way school used to be run, and we need to think about the ways that schools are run in the future.”

In a letter sent last week to the top four ranking members of Congress, 35 Democratic senators called for providing $2 billion in E-Rate funds that would allow schools and libraries to deliver wireless internet devices to students without connectivity at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” the senators wrote. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Maybe addressing this could be part of Infrastructure Week, or maybe it can be its own item. As the story notes, HISD and some other districts issue laptops to high school students – my daughter has one – which helps with those students, but obviously only goes so far. Charters are not exempt – KIPP reports a similar issue with its students. This is, plain and simple, an issue of poverty. If fixing the underlying issue is too hard, then maybe we can agree that all students need to have the equipment required for an education, and provide them all with laptops and Internet access. The choice is ours – are we going to learn from this crisis, or are we going to face the same problems the next time, without the excuse that we didn’t know any better?

No school accountability ratings this year

No surprise.

Texas public school districts and campuses will not receive accountability ratings in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, state education officials said late Thursday.

The announcement is a mere formality after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month canceled the state’s annual standardized tests, commonly known as STAAR, which largely serve as the basis for calculating accountability ratings issued in an A-through-F grade format. All Texas public schools will be labeled “not rated: declared state of disaster” for 2020.

“While we continuously work to ensure our ‘A-F’ accountability system paints an accurate picture of school performance, these unprecedented circumstances have forced all of us to change and adapt,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement.

[…]

State officials have not yet decided if or how state accountability ratings will be issued in 2021.

Under Texas’ current accountability system, many ratings are partially based on students’ year-over-year growth, as measured by performance on state standardized tests. With no tests administered in 2020, the Texas Education Agency cannot use its current method of evaluating academic growth.

Districts and high schools also are partially rated on measures of college, career and military readiness from the prior year’s graduating class. Many exams used to measure post-secondary readiness have been canceled or changed for the Class of 2020, which would significantly impact academic accountability ratings in 2021.

Terry Faucheux, an associate with the Austin-based education consulting firm Moak, Casey & Associates, said state officials likely would need to make several tweaks to the current accountability system before ratings could be issued in 2021. If state leaders move forward with an accountability framework next school year, she expects to see a proposed system no later than February or March 2021.

“It would be a very difficult lift to get that past the Legislature and federal government to scrap STAAR altogether and not do accountability for another year,” Faucheux said.

STAAR tests were waived three weeks ago, and at this point it seems likely that schools will not reopen till the fall, so this was just acceding to reality. The Lege will have the task of figuring out how to do accountability ratings in 2021, given that 2020 was basically a wash. Depending on how big a fight that turns into, it could have a ripple effect on other business the Lege needs to attend to, not least of which is redistricting. Expect the next session to be quite the whirlwind.

If you’re wondering what effect the cancellation of accountability ratings for 2020 might have on the ongoing takeover of HISD by the TEA, which is currently held up in court, the answer is basically none, though if Wheatley had made standard this year it might have increased the level of skepticism that a takeover was called for. Any districts that were in peril of the same fate will get a one-year reprieve, as HISD did to a limited extent following Harvey.

School could be out for awhile

We got the news on Thursday that HISD schools were going to be closed until March 31 due to coronavirus. (This week is spring break, so the kids got an extra day off before the start of break, then a week and a day after it.) But there’s a very real possibility that schools will remain closed well after that.

Houston schools could remain closed well beyond the end of March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, requiring unprecedented efforts to deliver meals and educational materials to hundreds of thousands of children, several local superintendents said Friday.

One day after nearly all Houston-area districts canceled classes through at least next week, local education leaders said their staffs were crafting contingency plans under the assumption that schools will remain closed long-term. Public health experts have said the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is expected to last months with the potential to infect millions of Americans.

“We’re planning as if we’re going to have to do school remotely for the remainder of this (school) year,” said Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, whose district serves about 78,400 children.

For now, no area school districts have canceled classes past March 30, the date when Houston and Fort Bend ISDs are scheduled to return to school. Many district leaders said they plan to reassess their calendars next week, when updates about the virus are available.

However, several education officials said they expect the continued spread of COVID-19 and growing public awareness about its potentially devastating effects likely will prompt extended cancellations.

“If we’d had this discussion two days ago, I think we’d have said (school closures) would last a couple weeks, maybe to the first week of April,” said Curtis Culwell, executive director of Texas School Alliance. “I think the reality that’s beginning to sink in is, this could be longer than that.”

[…]

The Texas Department of Agriculture received a federal waiver Friday allowing districts to serve school meals off-site and to small groups, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.

On the academic front, districts are grappling with multiple challenges in providing high-quality instruction, including lack of access to technology among lower-income and rural students, inexperience with remote learning tools, concerns about attentiveness among elementary-age children and the delivery of special education services.

The Texas Education Agency told district leaders Thursday evening that they must commit to “supporting students instructionally while at home” to avoid extending the school year.

Here’s the HISD announcement, in case you missed it. I have to say, I have no idea what to expect at this point. I don’t see any way that the overall coronavirus situation is better or noticeably under control by March 31, so I do believe schools will be closed longer than that. How much longer, and what the schools do about it, that’s the big question. This could wind up being a mostly lost year from an educational perspective, which is another scary thing to contemplate. And with all this disruption, does it make sense to proceed with STAAR testing as if nothing else were happening? State Rep. Jon Rosenthal thinks we should cancel the STAAR for this year, and I’m hard pressed to see the argument against that. How can that test mean anything in this context? Again, I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a super bumpy ride, and we’ll have to do it in our own spaces. Hang in there.

The other TEA takeover

A preview of things to come, perhaps.

The Texas Education Agency announced a new appointed board and a new superintendent Friday for a tiny East Texas school district with two schools that had failed to perform well for years.

Although the state’s takeover of its largest school district, Houston Independent School District, is tied up in court, no such roadblocks existed preventing the takeover of Shepherd ISD, about 60 miles northeast. Shepherd ISD’s elementary and intermediate schools had failed to meet state academic standards for five years, which required the state to either close the schools or seize power from the school board, under Texas law.

“The Board of Managers is comprised of members of the Shepherd ISD community who are committed to service on behalf of the students of the district and the community,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a letter Friday.

He also appointed Jason Hewitt, the director of the Texas Education Agency’s Special Investigations Unit, as superintendent over the district, replacing Rick Hartley, who had headed Shepherd ISD for just over three years.

[…]

The new appointed board — which includes a former Shepherd ISD school board president as well as members of the community — will have power to make hiring and budgetary decisions for the school district; the elected board will still be in place but will no longer have control over Shepherd’s schools. Eventually, the state will transition power back to the elected school board, once the schools improve.

Charles Minton, Shepherd’s mayor, heard the news late Friday afternoon. He has one child in the high school and another in the middle school, which is a target of the state’s intervention.

The tiny East Texas town has been split in half by the news, with some angry at the loss of local control and others open to giving the state a chance to turn the schools around, Minton said.

Shepherd ISD had also sued to stop the takeover, but they were not successful. The new Board of Managers was to be officially seated at a meeting on Monday. Their task in this small, rural ISD is going to be a lot different than it is in HISD, but it’s still in its way a test of how it might work (or not) here. The past track record of state takeovers isn’t great, but maybe this time there will be more focus and more resources and the results will reflect that. Or maybe it will be another idea that doesn’t actually address the real causes of the poor performance and we’ll find ourselves back where we started, with more kids having gone through the system in the meantime. Not much to do but see how it turns out.

UPDATE: Hold that takeover!

State officials planned Monday night to swear in a board of managers, appointed by the Texas Education Agency, that would take control of hiring, budgeting and operations — a penalty for years of poor academic performance in two schools. The elected school board would lose all its power, until the state decided otherwise.

Board members and community members strolled into the district administration building Monday night planning to watch the transfer of power. Instead, they were notified that a court order had come down in Austin that afternoon temporarily stopping the state from taking any action.

The news was a surprise to nearly everyone in the building Monday night. State education officials waited for guidance from their lawyers. District employees waited for guidance from state officials. And two sets of school boards stood in the entryway to the board room wondering which would be allowed to gavel in: the one elected by residents or the one appointed by state officials.

[…]

Back in November, Jeff Cottrill, the TEA’s representative in Shepherd, had gripped the edges of a wooden podium and explained to an audience of more than 100 people that a state takeover was a necessary and prudent result of prolonged failing ratings in multiple schools. He answered hours of questions about what the loss of local control would mean for students and teachers in the small community.

Shepherd ISD sued the state over its plans, but after a Travis County state district court judge denied the district’s request to temporarily stop the state takeover, the school board decided not to appeal that decision. Still, lawyers for the state appealed the suit to the Third Court of Appeals to try and prevent it from moving forward in a lower court.

But Shepherd ISD lawyers, though many people didn’t know it, had decided to continue the case pro bono. And on Monday, they informed the appeals court of a “current emergency” since the state planned on installing a board of managers that night, an action that would be legally irreversible.

“The Court must act now,” wrote David Campbell, who is also representing Houston ISD as it fights a pending state takeover.

The court agreed and temporarily stopped the state from installing its chosen board.

No one is exactly sure what’s happening in Shepherd ISD right now. I’ll keep an eye on it.

FBI raids HISD official’s home and office

Well, this is never good.

Agents with the FBI and IRS spent hours Thursday searching the administrative offices of the Houston Independent School District and the Cypress-area house of its chief operating officer, but they remained tight-lipped about what they were seeking.

At least a dozen federal agents made their way in and out of HISD’s Hattie Mae White building on 4400 West 18th Street Thursday morning, at one point carrying several boxes and containers to vehicles parked nearby.

The bureau called the search a “court authorized law enforcement activity,” but did not elaborate.

The district issued a statement saying it was fully cooperating with the FBI, adding there was no danger to students or staff.

Federal agents also were at a Cypress-area home listed in county property tax records as the residence of HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby and his wife, HISD Officer of Special Populations Courtney Busby. Security refused to allow news media inside the gated neighborhood.

A voicemail and text message left on Busby’s phone, as well as a message sent via Twitter, were not returned Thursday. It was unclear whether Busby still had access to the phone, which may have been issued by HISD.

An Internal Revenue Service spokesman, in response to questions, said the agency could neither confirm nor deny any involvement, citing federal privacy laws. Agents with “IRS” on the backs their jackets were visible at the administration building and Busby’s home.

“We were notified first thing this morning of the FBI’s presence by the administration,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “I don’t have any additional information at this time, but I certainly share the community’s concerns.”

Not much to do but wait and see what happens. If there’s something there, we’ll know about it soon enough.

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

Just a step. If there’s to be a bond referendum on the ballot, this year or later, they’ll have to vote again to authorize that.

Houston ISD trustees kept hopes alive for a November bond election during Thursday night’s board meeting, voting to approve spending on a facilities assessment that must be completed before asking residents to provide tax dollars for campus and security upgrades.

Board members voted 6-3 to spend up to $5 million on the assessment, which will document the conditions of HISD’s aging schools, space needs for campuses and demographic trends in the district. District officials said they will use the assessment to guide the creation of any bond proposals, which remain in the early stages of development.

[…]

Trustees and administrators who backed the assessment argued the analysis will provide vital information needed to create an accurate and updated picture of the district’s facilities needs. HISD last commissioned a facilities assessment in 2016, but the work only documented building conditions, with no alignment to academic and space needs.

Three trustees voted against the bond — Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Elizabeth Santos — amid questions about timing of the assessment.

Board members and Lathan have not held extensive discussions about their detailed vision for the district since January, when four new trustees joined the nine-member board.

In addition, public trust in the district has waned over the past two years following extensive in-fighting, as well as the possible ouster of elected trustees due to multiple findings of misconduct by board members and chronically low ratings of Wheatley High School.

“It feels rushed, and I want to make sure we’re doing this the best way possible,” Cruz said.

The vote came after nearly 20 students, parents and educators spoke in favor of rebuilding crumbling schools, describing outdated facilities that disappoint children and scare away prospective families.

See here for some background, and here for a preview story from Thursday, when the vote was taken. The last bond was in 2012, and it’s getting to be time to do some more capital spending. Previous bonds have passed without too much commotion, and even with HISD’s current issues I think they’d be able to get one passed this year, if they do a decent enough job presenting what it would do and get sufficient buy-in from the community. The looming TEA takeover may work in their favor, as I for one have no idea whether a board of managers could or would attempt to authorize a bond, and waiting around for another four or five years seems like a terrible idea. Let’s see what the assessment says and we’ll go from there.