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Another hoax shooting situation

And this one shows another challenge for school districts and law enforcement to reckon with.

After a lockdown at Jefferson High School sent worried parents to the school, the San Antonio Independent School District says it will enhance communications with families in such situations.

On Tuesday, a report of a shooting at Jefferson High School caused the campus to lock down, sparking a chaotic scene outside the school as panicked parents waited for updates. As school district police officers and other law enforcement searched the campus and found the report to be unfounded, verbal disputes erupted between parents and officers. Some parents had to be physically restrained from entering the school. A few parents grappled with police.

The incident showed how parents of school-age children remain concerned about school safety — and law enforcement response — in the wake of the May 24 Uvalde mass school shooting that left 21 dead. School officials said it’s possible the report of a shooting was a hoax.

Superintendent Jaime Aquino sent a letter Wednesday to all district families praising local law enforcement for responding quickly to the shooting report and explaining the district’s lockdown procedures.

“Yesterday, our officers worked seamlessly with the officers from the San Antonio Police Department as part of our unified command protocol,” he wrote in the letter, adding that 29 district officers and 58 San Police Department officers quickly arrived at the scene.

But as the crowd of parents at the scene grew larger, resource officers informed parents they weren’t allowed to enter and that students could not be released because of the lockdown. Parents grew angry and frustrated as they waited for updates on the situation.

An hour and a half after the first notification to parents, the district informed them that no evidence of a shooting had been found, but by that time some physical altercations had broken out on the steps of the high school.

In his letter, Aquino stated that when a school is locked down, students and staff cannot be released “until officers determine that the threat has been resolved, give clearance, and lift the lockdown.”

To improve communication in such incidents, Aquino said the district will send staff to the campus to keep families on the scene informed of what is happening.

See here and here for some background. As before, I don’t blame any of the parents for their reactions. To me, the lesson here is that schools and police need to recalibrate their responses to take into account the level of anxiety parents are (justifiably!) feeling these days. They need to come up with a strategy that allows for quicker and more direct communication to parents, both those who are at the school that has had a (thankfully fake) report of a shooting, and to those who haven’t yet shown up at the school. It’s in everyone’s best interests to do so. I hope HISD is paying attention to this.

Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.

The one big question DPS still hasn’t answered about Uvalde

The Trib gets at something that I’ve mentioned a couple of times.

Ever since the Uvalde elementary school shooting left 19 students and two teachers dead, blame for the delayed response has been thrust on local law enforcement. The school police chief was fired and the city’s acting police chief was suspended.

But the only statewide law enforcement agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, has largely avoided scrutiny even though it had scores of officers on the scene. That’s in part because DPS leaders are controlling which records get released to the public and carefully shaping a narrative that casts local law enforcement as incompetent.

Now, in the wake of a critical legislative report and body camera footage released by local officials, law enforcement experts from across the country are questioning why DPS didn’t take a lead role in the response as it had done before during other mass shootings and public disasters.

The state police agency is tasked with helping all of Texas’ 254 counties respond to emergencies such as mass shootings, but it is particularly important in rural communities where smaller police departments lack the level of training and experience of larger metropolitan law enforcement agencies, experts say. That was the case in Uvalde, where the state agency’s 91 troopers at the scene dwarfed the school district’s five officers, the city police’s 25 emergency responders and the county’s 16 sheriff’s deputies.

The state police agency has been “totally intransparent in pointing out their own failures and inadequacies,” said Charles A. McClelland, who served as Houston police chief for six years before retiring in 2016. “I don’t know how the public, even in the state of Texas, would have confidence in the leadership of DPS after this.”

Instead of taking charge when it became clear that neither the school’s police chief nor the Uvalde Police Department had assumed command, DPS contributed to the 74-minute chaotic response that did not end until a Border Patrol tactical unit that arrived much later entered the classroom and killed the gunman.

“Here’s what DPS should have done as soon as they got there,” said Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and former DPS commander who retired in 2008. “They should have contacted [the school police chief] and said: ‘We’re here. We have people.’ They should have just organized everything, said, ‘What are all of our resources?’ And they should have organized the breach.”

[…]

[Despite testimony from DPS director Steve McCraw], DPS has sprung into action time and again when disaster strikes in Texas, which has proved key during mass shootings and public emergencies, local officials across the state said.

More than three decades ago, for example, state troopers helped local law enforcement confront a gunman after arriving within minutes of a shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, about 60 miles north of Austin. The shooter killed himself after a brief exchange of gunfire.

“They knew that people were dying, and so they acted,” said Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican state representative whose parents died during the 1991 Luby’s massacre. She said that didn’t happen in Uvalde, adding that “clearly there was a command breakdown there.”

In a 2013 chemical explosion in West, about 70 miles south of Dallas, state troopers immediately took control of the law enforcement response at the request of the county’s emergency management coordinator. And in the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles south of Houston, state troopers quickly fired at the gunman, according to local law enforcement officials who initially responded. The rapid engagement by school police and DPS was key to the gunman surrendering, district and county officials said.

“DPS had a tremendous role in Santa Fe of stopping the killing because they were among the first to arrive and they actually did what they were supposed to,” said Texas City Independent School District trustee Mike Matranga, the district’s security chief at the time of the shooting. He added that, in Uvalde, DPS supervisors “should have essentially asked [Arredondo] to stand down due to his ineffectiveness and taken over.”

Police experts and lawmakers pointed to clear signs that they believe should have alerted emergency responders that no one was in control. Arredondo, who resigned from his elected City Council seat in July and was fired from the school district on Aug. 24, remained inside the hallway on the phone during the shooting. He said he was trying to find a key to the classroom that the gunman was in. Investigators later determined that the door was likely unlocked. The school police chief did not identify himself as the incident commander and told The Texas Tribune he never issued any orders; his lawyer later said his firing was unjust. In a letter, Arredondo’s attorneys said the police chief “could not have served as the incident commander and did not attempt to take that role” because he was on the front lines.

Separately, no command post was set up outside of the school, which lawmakers noted should have been an indicator to responding officers that no one was in charge.

[…]

The disconnect over who should take charge and when exemplifies a need for detailed planning and frequent training between larger law enforcement agencies and smaller departments, police experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Larger agencies with more personnel, equipment and training should have agreements with school districts that clearly state that they will assume command upon arriving at critical incidents that include active shooters, hostage situations and explosive devices, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief and CBP commissioner until 2017. He and other experts said that even if school police are designated as the lead, the role of every law enforcement agency in the region should be specified.

San Antonio, one of the state’s biggest police departments, has such agreements with local school districts and universities that name the bigger city police agency as the incident commander in the event of a mass shooting. After the Uvalde shooting, San Antonio police Chief William McManus met with school officials in his city and reminded them that his agency would take charge in an active shooter situation.

McManus, whose officers arrived in Uvalde after the gunman was killed, said in an interview that because of the confusion at the scene, he felt the need to emphasize how his department would respond to such an incident in San Antonio.

It is unclear what, if any, involvement DPS or another law enforcement agency had with the Uvalde school district’s mass shooting plan because those governmental bodies declined to release such documents or answer questions. The state police did not have a written memorandum of agreement with the school district outlining its role in such situations, according to DPS records.

Who’s in charge in these situations is a question I’ve raised a few times in writing about this, when the legislative report was released and when the HISD board addressed the question. This is an area where I believe the Lege can and should take action, by requiring school districts (and hell, colleges and universities and community colleges) to have some kind of agreement with either local or state law enforcement agencies and ensuring some minimum standards are met. It’s also a big question for DPS to answer: Why didn’t you take over at Uvalde? Steve McCraw has addressed that already, but I don’t think we should believe him. Certainly, not as long as DPS is being sued over its refusal to release its information to the public about their actions, anything McCraw says should be taken as self-serving first and foremost. And those same questions also go to Greg Abbott, who is McCraw’s boss and patron. Both of them have gotten away with doing nothing for a long time. We need to make sure that time runs out.

The proposed HISD charter partnership policy change

I don’t have a lot of time to dig into this, but there are a couple of things I wanted to touch on.

Parents, education advocates and a group of Houston elected officials including three Houston ISD trustees on Monday blasted a proposal by other school board members that would change the district’s policy surrounding charters, calling the measure dangerous to public schools and imploring it be taken off an agenda days before its first reading.

Revisions to the policy, which was initially issued in April 2018, would grant parents or guardians the authority to approve or turn down a partnership with a charter, or other entities permissible under the state’s education code, that is initiated by the district’s administration.

A detail of the proposed changes that garnered opposition would create a pathway for 60 percent of parents or guardians of an HISD school “to be served by a new or existing school,” according to a draft of the proposal, allowing them to initiate such a partnership.

The board of education is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal on Thursday morning, which has also drawn criticism as it will occur during working hours. While nearly 60 other policies will have a first reading this week it appeared the charter one was the only to have been presented by trustees; it included a line that called the proposed changes “boardmember-proposed revisions.”

Trustees Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Elizabeth Santos and Myrna Guidry stood with a group of parents and elected officials — including Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and various state representatives — at a Monday afternoon news conference opposing the proposed policy.

“This is not about giving parents voice in our school,” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education that organized the event. “Charter operators will promise the sun, the sky and the moon to get parent buy-in.”

Trustee Sue Deigaard, who represents HISD schools from parts of Montrose to southwest Houston, said the proposed changes could help the district with its deficit, and declining enrollment, as the partnerships give schools systems additional funds through a state law. The policy as it is gives the board and administration discretion over the decisions on such partnerships — and not much say to parents, she said.

HISD, the state’s largest school system, has about 195,000 students and is not projected to increase its enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, administrators told trustees during budget workshops. In 2015, for instance, HISD had about 215,000 students.

“We know from the budget conversations in the spring that we are going to have some really tough decisions ahead, possibly close schools,” Deigaard said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that the superintendent had that tool if he wanted to use that tool.

She added, “Here’s a sort of grounding value that I had in the process, really multiple grounding values: One was — how do we make sure we open up opportunities but make sure that we’re not doing anything that would be harmful. The other grounding principle was when we make these big decisions, such as a school closure or partnership, how do we ensure that we’re doing it with families and not to them.”

[…]

Deigaard said concerns about the policy were valid but in her view the proposal empowered parents to approve or disapprove such a change.

“I think it’s a very real fear for families to think, ‘Oh, my school is going to get partnered off,” Deigaard said. “If that’s not what they want, this policy says they don’t have to have that.”

This all bubbled up after a tweet on Saturday, which made a reference to this change but didn’t have anything specific. I wound up having a conversation with Sue Deigaard, who has always been very generous with her time when I have questions about complicated school stuff. There are a number of things that motivated this, including the possibility of utilizing underused space in existing schools and giving parents who aren’t currently sending their kids to HISD a reason to do so – she mentioned conversations with parents who want a particular type of program or school option that doesn’t currently exist. Countering the enrollment decline, and taking steps to keep HISD as a primary option for parents were a main message I took away from my conversation with her.

At a fundamental level, I trust Sue Deigaard – who, as I have said in previous posts, is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to when we were both at Rice – and I don’t believe there’s any appetite within HISD to give a bunch of power and money to charter schools. Your mileage may vary on these points. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about this proposal, as would be the case for any big proposal. The story notes that Superintendent House may not end up supporting it, if there isn’t sufficient public support for it. If so, then so be it. This is a first reading – it may not make it to second reading. I want to hear more about it. From there, we’ll see where it goes.

(Today is “move kid #1 into her college dorm day”, so I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’ll try to know more about this next time.)

First school ratings since 2019 released

All in all, not too bad. But for poorer schools and school districts, it remains a very hard go.

The Texas Education Agency on Monday released its first public school ratings in three years and despite pandemic interruptions, the number of schools that received the highest rating increased.

This year, 27.9% of 8,451 schools evaluated received an A rating. Another 46.1% received a B, 19.4% received a rating of C and 6.7% received “Not Rated” labels. Not all schools and districts are rated because some are alternative education programs and treatment facilities.

The state agency’s ratings — tied in large part to results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test — are the latest metrics used to grade how well Texas public schools are performing as students emerge from the worst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Even though students returned to classroom instruction last year, surges in COVID-19 infections both last fall and winter forced some schools to close and revert back to remote instruction.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath credited local educators with the increases seen, despite those interruptions, in each of the A and B categories and a reduction in the number of schools that received below-average grades, those in the “Not Rated” category.

“These results show our state’s significant investment in the post-pandemic academic recovery of Texas public school students is bearing fruit,” Morath said. “I’m grateful for the driving force behind this year’s success: our teachers and local school leaders.”

The TEA’s ratings are determined by scores in three categories: how students perform on the STAAR test, which is given each spring; improvement in those scores; and how well schools are educating disadvantaged students. Students are tested on different subjects: reading, math, science and social students.

Districts also get an overall rating. There are a total of 1,207 school districts in Texas, and 1,195 were evaluated. Out of the districts evaluated, 33.1% got an A, 54% got a B, 9.4% got a C and 3.5% got a “Not Rated” label.

[…]

In 2019, the last time that TEA put out these ratings, 8,302 schools were rated, and 21.1% received an A, 39.5% received a B, 26.1% received a C and 13.3% received failing grades. In 2019, 1,189 districts were rated. Of those, 25.3% received an A, 56.9% received a B, 13% received a C and 4.8% received failing grades.

Texas continues to show some struggle with getting “high-poverty” schools an A grade. Data shows that only 18% of those campuses in Texas were rated an A. The TEA labels schools as “high-poverty” if their number of economically disadvantaged students surpasses 80%. Of the schools that received a “Not Rated” label, over half of them were “high-poverty” schools.

Texas has about 5.4 million students in its public schools, and 60% of them are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch. Out of the 8,451 schools rated this year, 564 campuses received the “Not Rated” label. Most of these “Not Rated” campuses — 499 — serve students who live in some of the state’s poorest communities.

While there is work to be done with Texas’ poorer schools, Morath said, the increase among the A-rated schools — a rise seen after the pandemic interrupted classroom instruction — means the state is on the right track to catch students up to pre-pandemic levels.

This spring’s STAAR results showed big gains in reading. While math scores did increase from the dips seen in 2021, they revealed that Texas students still have work to do to catch up to their pre-pandemic test score levels.

You can see all the results here. The Chron complied results for area schools; HISD overall got a B, but some schools such as Kashmere and Yates high schools were Not Rated, which is the grade given in place of a D or F this year. Those grades will return next year. As I said, all things considered this isn’t bad, but there remains a lot of work to do. We need the Lege to not do anything to screw it all up next spring. Reform Austin has more.

The book ban requests are coming from inside the house

Typical “grassroots” campaign.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

The wave of book reviews and removals that swept across Texas in the last year was driven more by politicians than parents, a Houston Chronicle analysis found, contradicting claims that recent book bans were the result of a nationwide parental rights movement to have more control over learning materials.

The findings, drawn from public information act requests sent to nearly 600 Texas school districts that teach more than 90 percent of the state’s 5.4 million public school students, show there were at least 2,080 book reviews of more than 880 unique titles since the 2018-19 school year. Of those, at least 1,740 reviews occurred during the 2021-22 school year.

Nearly two thirds of those reviews — 1,057 — occurred after state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, asked districts last fall to check their shelves for books on a list he circulated. The books on Krause’s list of roughly 850 titles, predominantly feature LGBTQ+ characters and people of color in main character roles, as well as mentions of racism, the Holocaust, sexual violence, sexuality and abortion.

About a dozen districts account for more than 1,500 of the book reviews, the Chronicle found. Most of the reviewed works remained on shelves, with 269 books removed entirely and 174 instances in which access to titles was made available only to older students. In some cases, districts removed books they deemed out of date but replaced them with more recent titles on similar subjects.

Most districts in the Houston region largely ignored the Krause list or did not conduct reviews because of it.

Krause did not respond to emails requesting an interview, and has refused to reveal whether he and his office created the list or if it came from a third party. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News last November, he called his letter and the list “an inquiry used for fact gathering to see if anything needs to be done,” and said he did not anticipate they would be leaked to the news media.

“We could decide there’s nothing here, let’s move on. And nobody even knows about it. Or it could be we’ve got a pervasive problem,” he said. “It certainly raised the consciousness of parents needing to be involved in their schools. We’ve had some school districts thank us and say, ‘We don’t want inappropriate materials for our kids.’ We wanted to give schools an idea of what books they had in their library so they don’t get caught off guard.”

The Chronicle’s findings, likely an under-count of book reviews because 292 districts did not respond, represent one of the clearest assessments to date of the extent of an escalating, national assault — mostly led by politicians, elected officials and conservative activists — on literature that explores race, LGBTQ+ issues and sexuality.

“It’s a malign campaign to create a moral panic around information young people want and need,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “It’s resulted in really tragic consequences, not only for young people being denied access to information, but also for people who are made to understand they don’t belong in their communities, at least in the eyes of the individuals who raise these claims.”

The library association registered challenges or removals of 1,597 individuals books across the country in 2021, a record number since the nonprofit began keeping a tally 20 years ago.

See here, here, and here for some background. I would bet that Krause had help from one or more under-the-radar billionaire-funded right wing groups. Why do the work when it’s so easily outsourced? To be fair, some of the book-banning energy does come from deeply committed bigots from the private sector. There’s never an escape from those people. Sadly, it’s the school librarians who are on the sharp end of the stick here. I don’t know what we can do about that. Read the rest of the story and get involved with your neighborhood schools to help them deal with this crap.

It’s not a teacher shortage yet

But you can see one on the horizon.

School districts across the Houston region are trying to fill thousands of teacher vacancies before most will be welcoming students back to classrooms in the coming weeks.

A review of about 18 area school districts’ job listings, including Alvin, Deer Park, Fort Bend, Galena Park, Goose Creek, Katy, Magnolia, Pasadena, Galveston, Humble, Spring Branch and Spring ISDs, as well as Lamar CISD, showed a need for more than 3,400 educators to fill a variety of vacancies as of Monday.

The Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest system scheduled to kick off its year Aug. 22, had about 870 openings for certified teachers listed on its career portal Monday.

Aldine ISD, which serves nearly 67,000 students and employs more than 4,000 educators, currently has 370 teacher vacancies. That number is “way up” from previous years, according to administrators, despite recruiting efforts that include signing bonuses, increased salaries and looking for applicants internationally. Klein ISD is searching for 120 teachers, according to its website. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the state’s third-largest system, is trying to fill 472 teaching vacancies.

It is a nationwide problem as low pay, long hours and the politicization of education have taken their toll on the beleaguered profession.

“You look across the state and across the country, there are districts even smaller than us with even more vacancies,” HISD chief talent officer Jeremy Grant-Skinner said. “We’re all feeling the challenge together of staffing during this very unique time. We’re feeling like we’re going to get as close as we can.”

HISD, with roughly 195,000 students and 27,000 full- and part-time employees, had about the same number of vacancies at this time a year ago, Grant-Skinner said, before reducing it to about 400 by the time schools opened. To fill those openings until certified educators could be hired, the district sent central administration staffers who held teacher certifications into classrooms. Grant-Skinner said there have been no conversations about doing that again this year.

The 870 openings represent about 8 percent of the 11,000 teachers included in the upcoming year’s budget.

Since then, the district has raised teacher pay, hoping it will help recruit and retain educators. Several other districts, including Katy and Cypress-Fair ISDs, also have boosted teacher salaries.

Emphasis mine. I highlighted that to note that this problem, at least for HISD, is not unprecedented. The gap was more than cut in half least year, HISD was able to fill in other vacancies from within, and they have raised their pay as a way to attract new job seekers. There are obviously a lot of major challenges facing teachers now, most of which are the result of actions taken by Republicans, but it’s too soon to say for this year that the problem is getting worse. That may end up being the case, and it’s good to draw attention to this now, I just want to be a little cautious about getting ahead of ourselves.

That said, there are other danger signs out there that should be taken seriously.

More Texas teachers are considering leaving the profession than at any point in the last 40 years, according to new polling from the Texas State Teachers Assocation.

The survey found that 70 percent of teachers were seriously considering quitting this year, a substantial jump from the 53 percent who said so in 2018, the last time the typically biennial survey was conducted. Teachers attributed their grim outlook to pandemic-related stress, political pressure from state lawmakers, less support from parents and stretched finances.

The survey represented all grade levels and regions of the states. It was skipped in 2020 amid of the pandemic.

[…]

In the survey, which was completed by 688 Texas teachers, 94 percent said the pandemic increased their professional stress, and 82 percent said financial stress was exacerbated. Experts have pointed to better pay as a key way to recruit and retain teachers. Respondents taught for about 16 years on average, and their average salary was around $59,000. That’s about $7,000 below the national trend, according to the teachers association.

Besides salary, Texas teachers on average also receive some of the worst retirement benefits of those in any state, a separate study from June found. Teachers who have retired since 2004 have not received a cost-of-living adjustment, although the Legislature has routinely passed “13th check” bills that send extra annuity payments.

In addition to pay, 85 percent said they felt state lawmakers held a negative view of teachers, 65 percent said the public held a negative view and 70 percent said support from parents had decreased over the last several years.

If your job is more stressful than before, if you don’t feel respected by the powers that be or your stakeholders, and if on top of that you could make more money doing something else, well, that’s a pretty powerful combination. We can take this feedback seriously and try to do something about it, or we can ignore it and risk having to deal with a crisis situation later. Seems like a straightforward choice to me.

Fifth Circuit tosses mask mandate lawsuit filed by disability rights activists

Par for the course.

A federal appeals court on Monday tossed out a lower-court injunction, issued in November, that would have allowed public schools in Texas to ignore Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin had blocked Abbott’s order as it pertained to schools, ruling that a ban on mandatory face masks improperly endangered students with disabilities and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying them the opportunity to participate equally in school.

Texas appealed, and a month later the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of Yeakel’s injunction while it considered the state’s case.

On Monday, in a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court sided with state officials, tossing out Yeakel’s injunction and dismissing the lawsuit by the students. The court said the students did not prove that the ban on mask mandates put them at imminent and concrete risk of contracting COVID-19.

“In light of widely available vaccines and the schools’ other mitigation efforts, the odds of any particular plaintiff contracting COVID-19 and subsequently suffering complications are speculative,” Judge Andrew Oldham wrote in an opinion joined by Judge Don Willett. Both were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

In addition, Oldham wrote, the Americans with Disabilities Act only ensures that students have access to school, not that they have access to their desired accommodation of universal masking.

“Schools, in turn, have numerous alternatives for mitigating the risks of COVID-19 so plaintiffs have such access. The schools can adopt policies regarding vaccines, plexiglass, hand sanitizer, social distancing, and more,” Oldham wrote. “Plaintiffs have not even attempted to show that one or any combination of these accommodations is insufficient to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 to a level low enough that plaintiffs can attend school.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Eugene Davis complained that Oldham mischaracterized the students’ argument by saying they merely feared an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Instead, the students argued that state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s dogged defense of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, including lawsuits against school districts and threats of additional litigation, amounted to disability discrimination.

The students also proved that they had been, or will be, harmed by a ban on all mask mandates, even at schools that determine that limited mask orders were a reasonable accommodation for student health, he wrote.

“While all students bear some health risks by attending school in person during the ongoing pandemic, the district court found, and it is undisputed, that these plaintiffs face a much higher risk to their health because of their disabilities,” said Davis, appointed by former President Ronald Reagan.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the opinion. There are still a lot of state lawsuits over the Abbott executive order that banned mask mandates in school, which largely turn on the question of what the Governor’s authority under the 1975 Texas Disaster Act is; the San Antonio ISD vaccine mandate lawsuit is in that same bucket. This was a federal lawsuit that claimed discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I still think they had a pretty good argument, but it’s the Fifth Circuit, what are you gonna do? I suppose an appeal to SCOTUS is possible, but perhaps not advisable, as it’s probably not a good idea to give them a chance to mess with that law. Texas Public Radio and the ABA Journal have more.

Cornyn-Murphy gun bill gets final passage

What great timing, huh?

Exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in a Uvalde elementary school, the most significant new gun laws in decades were headed to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday after the U.S. House cleared a bipartisan package of reforms requiring greater scrutiny of young buyers, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and more.

The gun laws, authored by a group of senators including John Cornyn of Texas, easily passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 234-193 vote, just hours after 15 Senate Republicans joined every Democrat in approving the bill in the Senate late Thursday night. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

“When I met with families from Uvalde, they asked me how it was possible for the man who murdered their loved ones to get a dangerous weapon so easily,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement. “Today, Congress has voted to pass historic gun safety reforms that will save lives and keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people who present a clear danger to their communities. We need to make more progress on gun safety, but today’s vote is an important step forward.”

It is the first tightening of federal gun laws since 1994. It bolsters background checks on buyers under 21 years old and restricts access to firearms for dating partners convicted of domestic abuse. The bill creates stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and “straw” purchasing, in which someone buys a firearm for someone prohibited from owning one.

The legislation also provides funding for mental health programs, school security and for states to enact red flag laws or other intervention methods meant to stop shootings before they happen.

Just 14 Republicans voted for the bill in the House, where GOP leaders had urged members to oppose the legislation. Only one Texan was among them: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde. The rest opposed the legislation.

See here for the background. It would be nice to feel good about this, even as watered down as this bill is, but with SCOTUS on a rampage, it’s hard to feel good about anything. The fact that this got initial passage in the Senate on the same day that SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal was the kind of irony none of us needed. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a federal lawsuit is filed to invalidate even this modest effort, and who would take a bet on those plaintiffs losing? But here we are anyway. If we can ever find our way to fixing the courts, we can improve on this and do a lot more besides. One step at a time. The Trib has more.

Cornyn’s gun control bill passes the Senate

Happy to have had my cynicism proven wrong.

Exactly four weeks after a teenage gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle massacred 19 elementary schoolers and two teachers in Uvalde, the U.S. Senate voted 64-34 Tuesday night to advance a bipartisan compromise that, if enacted, would become the first major legislation on gun safety since 1994.

The legislation does not restrict any rights of existing gun owners — a nonstarter for Senate Republicans. Instead, it would enhance background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21; make it easier to remove guns from people threatening to kill themselves or others, as well as people who have committed domestic violence; clarify who needs to register as a federal firearms dealer; and crack down on illegal gun trafficking, including so-called straw purchases, which occur when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person to execute the paperwork to buy on their behalf.

The legislation includes $11 billion for mental health services and $2 billion for community-based antiviolence programs. It also includes money to help young people access mental health services via telemedicine, money for more school-based mental health centers and support for suicide hotlines.

Republican John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who was formally rebuked by the Republican Party of Texas on Saturday evening for taking part in the bipartisan negotiations, said he felt confident that senators would see the deal as a reasonable compromise. If it holds up, that would itself be an extraordinary achievement after years in which mass shootings have devastated American communities with numbing reality.

“This is an issue that divides much of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe divides people living in the same household. But I think we have found some areas where there’s space for compromise and we’ve also found that there are some red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said on the floor of the Senate. “We’ve talked, we’ve debated, we’ve disagreed and finally we’ve reached an agreement among the four of us but obviously this is not something that is going to become law or fail to become law because of a small group of senators. The truth is we had a larger group of 20 senators, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, come together and sign on to an agreed set of principles, and I believe that as the senators see the text that supports those principles, they will see we’ve tried our best to be true to what those agreed principles should be.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the bill. It still has to pass the House, but I expect that will happen. This bill started out as modest and got watered down further – I mean seriously, we couldn’t just raise the minimum age for buying gun to the same as it is for buying a beer? – and yet it’s the first real advance in a long time. It remains the definition of “better than nothing”, but we’re so used to nothing it feels like more.

To be sure, there are issues.

There’s still a fundamental problem on the Democrats’ part in getting here: They ceded to Republican arguments that the problem is mental health and school safety and not simply the fact that the country is awash in deadly weapons. The extra funding in the bill for mental health support is a good thing, but a good thing that could have been achieved through Medicaid expansion to the hold-out states without pushing the myth that mental illness is intrinsically tied to violence and further stigmatizing it. It accepts school massacres as inevitable by beefing up school security—which does not make Black and brown students safer, since they’re often targets of abuse from cops at school—and creating programs for trauma support in schools for after the attacks occur.

There are some improvements, though none is without a downside. It enhances background checks for 18 to 21 year olds seeking to buy assault weapons. That imposes a waiting period on them from three to 10 days,  which could prevent some impulse massacres. But that provision sunsets in 10 years, ending in 2032.

The bill includes $750 million that could help states that don’t have red flag or crisis intervention laws implement them. These laws allow for courts to order weapons removed from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The grant money, however, is in the form of Byrne JAG grants and can be used for a variety of law enforcement and judicial programs, including mental heath courts, drug courts, and veteran courts. This is a win for Republicans whose states don’t have and won’t pass red flag laws. They want their states to still be able to access the money, so other “crisis intervention” programs will receive it and guns don’t necessarily have to be removed from people in crisis.

The loophole that allows dating partners convicted of domestic violence to keep their guns is partially closed. Current law only bars individuals who have committed violence against a spouse, live-in partner, or someone with whom they share children from owning guns. The ban has been expanded to anyone convicted of domestic violence against someone they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with, including “recent former” dating partners. It does not stipulate what “recent” means. It is not retroactive, so survivors from past attacks can’t petition to have their abuser’s weapons taken away. It also allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to get their guns back in five years if they don’t commit other crimes.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls it “partially closing” the loophole, and a “significant step,” but advocates warn that there’s still a loophole in the “recent” language. “He doesn’t need to be ‘recent’ to cause harm,” Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies family violence, told The Washington Post. “Feelings, not all of them positive, live on long after a relationship has ended.”

One of the more significant parts of this bill just flat won’t mean anything in a lot of states.

But even if it passes, federal funding for the bill’s most-discussed provision is unlikely to persuade many of the 30 states that don’t have red flag laws—most of them Republican-led—to adopt them. Some of these states have repeatedly voted down red flag legislation; at least one has formally outlawed their implementation. This means the federal gun control bill, aimed at reining in the epidemic of mass shootings, could have limited impact in a large swath of the country.

[…]

In a deadlocked Congress that has struggled to pass bills to keep kids fed and local governments running, the Uvalde shooting spurred momentum for this package to come together, though it falls short of many Democrats’ goals. The House, with its stronger Democratic majority, was able to pass a slate of gun control measures immediately after the Texas shooting that would have blocked semiautomatic rifle sales to people under the age of 21, created stricter gun storage regulations, and outlawed the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition. That package stood no chance in the evenly divided Senate, where most bills have to garner the support of at least 60 senators because of the filibuster. An idea to create a national red flag law emerged in the hours immediately following the Uvalde shooting, but Democratic lawmakers saw both logistical challenges to that proposal and political ones.

Thus, optional funding for states to create their own red flag laws seemed like the safest bet to get anything across the finish line with Republicans wary of taking any action on guns, lest they lose their re-elections. Tellingly, several of the GOP senators in the bipartisan Uvalde-response contingent are retiring.

But while the incentive money could be used to help states that already have red flag laws, half a dozen state lawmakers and experts tell Mother Jones it is unlikely federal funding will persuade states that don’t already have red flag laws to create them.

This includes the state where tragedy prompted the bipartisan legislative framework in the first place: Texas. “I don’t believe any federal requirements or incentive would get Texas to move on this,” says Texas state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat in favor of stricter gun control.

He draws a comparison to Texas, joined by 11 other historically red states, opting not to take federal funds in order to expand Medicaid healthcare access to more poor residents: “If we’re not willing to take tremendous amounts of federal money, at no expense to us, in order to insure our uninsured residents, then I don’t see any daylight for financial incentives to get us to adopt a red flag law.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of what kind of legal challenges might get filed against this bill, assuming it does pass as now I believe it will. You know the NRA, which opposes the Cornyn/Murphy bill, will not sit quietly, and there are plenty of wingnut Attorneys General and Trump judges out there. That’s an issue for another day, I suppose. For now, be glad we got what we got, and let’s keep working to make it possible to get more in the future. The Chron has more.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, HISD.

Social media monitoring is not a solution to school shootings

While current Republican “solutions” for gun violence include door control and arming teachers, one “solution” that has been in place for the past few years has been monitoring social media for signs of gun-related threats. That was in place in Uvalde, and it was not effective.

After a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the United States is yet again confronting the devastating impact of gun violence. While lawmakers have so far failed to pass meaningful reform, schools are searching for ways to prevent a similar tragedy on their own campuses. Recent history, as well as government spending records, indicate that one of the most common responses from education officials is to invest in more surveillance technology.

In recent years, schools have installed everything from facial recognition software to AI-based tech, including programs that purportedly detect signs of brandished weapons and online screening tools that scan students’ communications for mentions of potential violence. The startups selling this tech have claimed that these systems can help school officials intervene before a crisis happens or respond more quickly when one is occurring. Pro-gun politicians have also advocated for this kind of technology, and argued that if schools implement enough monitoring, they can prevent mass shootings.

The problem is that there’s very little evidence that surveillance technology effectively stops these kinds of tragedies. Experts even warn that these systems can create a culture of surveillance at schools that harms students. At many schools, networks of cameras running AI-based software would join other forms of surveillance that schools already have, like metal detectors and on-campus police officers.

“In an attempt to stop, let’s say, a shooter like what happened at Uvalde, those schools have actually extended a cost to the students that attend them,” Odis Johnson Jr, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told Recode. “There are other things we now have to consider when we seek to fortify our schools, which makes them feel like prisons and the students themselves feel like suspects.”

[…]

Even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, many schools in Texas had already installed some form of surveillance tech. In 2019, the state passed a law to “harden” schools, and within the US, Texas has the most contracts with digital surveillance companies, according to an analysis of government spending data conducted by the Dallas Morning News. The state’s investment in “security and monitoring” services has grown from $68 per student to $113 per student over the past decade, according to Chelsea Barabas, an MIT researcher studying the security systems deployed at Texas schools. Spending on social work services, however, grew from $25 per student to just $32 per student during the same time period. The gap between these two areas of spending is widest in the state’s most racially diverse school districts.

The Uvalde school district had already acquired various forms of security tech. One of those surveillance tools is a visitor management service sold by a company called Raptor Technologies. Another is a social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel, which is supposed to “identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” according to a document from the 2019-2020 school year.

It’s so far unclear exactly which surveillance tools may have been in use at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting. JP Guilbault, the CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent company, Navigate360, told Recode that the tool plays “an important role as an early warning system beyond shootings.” He claimed that Social Sentinel can detect “suicidal, homicidal, bullying, and other harmful language that is public and connected to district-, school-, or staff-identified names as well as social media handles and hashtags associated with school-identified pages.”

“We are not currently aware of any specific links connecting the gunman to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District or Robb Elementary on any public social media sites,” Guilbault added. The Uvalde gunman did post ominous photos of two rifles on his Instagram account before the shooting, but there’s no evidence that he publicly threatened any of the schools in the district. He privately messaged a girl he did not know that he planned to shoot an elementary school.

Any kind of surveillance involves a tradeoff between privacy and security. So far, the security gains from software like this are small, while the loss of privacy – which to be clear here is the privacy of children – is significant.

For privacy advocates, the lack of evidence for the technology’s effectiveness means that there are no sufficient grounds for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in child rights, told The Verge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unwarranted harm:

“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it hadn’t met any safety standards? No,” said Han. “Similarly, to use unproven, untested surveillance technologies on children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”

Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 — which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 — did not receive a response.

The Uvalde school district was confirmed to have purchased monitoring capability from Social Sentinel in 2019–2020, though it is unclear whether the subscription was still active at the time of the shooting. However, even if it had been, the technology would have been unlikely to flag any of the shooter’s posts. There are now numerous reports of concerning activity surrounding the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly made frequent threats to young women and girls via chat apps, sent images of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed carrying out the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only able to monitor public posts and would not have had access to any content shared in private messages.

At the same time, there are significant privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a range of civil and human rights concerns stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately impact students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting by Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel’s technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter and from a student pleased their credit score was “shooting up,” among other things.)

Of all US states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for school children. A 2021 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital surveillance companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that did take out these contracts, results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that had paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they had declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few actionable alerts or flagged mostly irrelevant information.

But while Social Sentinel advertises an ability to monitor a broad range of platforms, there’s some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. A client presentation from the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media sources for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress, and even Meetup.

Data obtained by BuzzFeed News confirmed this through data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed the company skewed heavily towards Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed, 98 percent (1,180) related to tweets — even though Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But the conventions of Twitter — where the vast majority of posts are publicly visible, even unintentionally — mean that it is comparatively easier to monitor, providing a wealth of social media data on tap that can be assimilated by companies looking to boost their surveillance credentials.

The DMN reports that some of the school districts that kicked the tires on Social Sentinel later decided it wasn’t worth it.

Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”

“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.

The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.

Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year but soon canceled.

“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs, and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”

Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.

HISD does not appear to have been a user of Social Sentinel, so we’ve got that going for us. There are other companies with similar products out there, so be on the lookout for that kind of pitch. It’s not out of the question to me that a tool like this could be effective at some point (we would still have to debate the privacy impact, and I can just about guarantee that it won’t be good), but we’re not there yet and it may be awhile before we can reasonably broach the subject. In the meantime, I dunno, maybe ban assault weapons again like we did in the 90s? Worked pretty well back then, and it didn’t involve snooping on things kids were saying among themselves. Just a thought.

(FYI, I first heard about Social Sentinel and its connection to Uvalde on the What Next podcast. I went looking for the DMN story from there, and found the others in the same search.)

Please don’t ever talk to me about “a good guy with a gun” or “hardening the schools” again

The police were there but did nothing.

A gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a South Texas elementary school walked unopposed onto school grounds, state law enforcement officials said Thursday — and once he was inside, it took police an hour to stop him.

In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter encountered a police officer employed by the school district before charging through a back door — and gave conflicting accounts about whether the officer fired at the gunman.

Agency officials now say there was no police officer on campus when the shooter first arrived — but did not explain why they first believed there was.

The gunman crashed a truck in a ditch near the school at 11:28 a.m., fired at two passersby on the street, then entered the school 12 minutes later through a back door before police arrived, DPS officials said Thursday.

“He was not confronted by anybody,” Victor Escalon, a DPS official, said during a press conference Thursday. The agency is leading the investigation into the shooting along with Uvalde police.

The law enforcement response to the active shooter call has drawn mounting scrutiny in the days since the massacre. State law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened after the gunman arrived at the school, and parents have criticized police for not acting quickly enough to stop the shooter.

At a Wednesday press conference in Uvalde, DPS Director Steve McCraw said that a school police officer “engaged” with the gunman before he entered the school but did not exchange gunfire with the gunman. Other DPS officials were quoted in media reports saying there was an exchange of gunfire at that moment.

That was Wednesday. By Friday, they had gotten the story straight, and the local PD screwed it all up.

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety criticized the police chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District on Friday, saying he acted too slowly in responding to the elementary school gunman who killed 21 people, including 19 children.

Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the incident commander — identified by the San Antonio Express-News as Uvalde CISD police chief Pete Arredondo — believed the situation was no longer an active shooter, but that of a barricaded suspect.

But 911 calls, reviewed by Texas Rangers, reveal that at least two people inside the Robb Elementary School classroom called police and reported that there were children inside who were alive.

Meanwhile, the shooting continued periodically.

“With the benefit of hindsight, of course it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision.”

He said once the shooting continued, the incident commander — who he did not identify directly — should have switched back to an active shooter response.

“We believe should have been an entry at that as soon as they (could),” McCraw added. “When there’s an active shooter, the rules change.”

Meanwhile, inside the classroom, children made terrified calls to 911, whispering and asking for help.

All of this has made Greg Abbott mad because he had been out there praising the Uvalde PD’s response before being clued in about how inept they were. He should maybe be mad that all of his party’s “solutions” for stopping mass shootings at schools just don’t work.

Four years after an armed 17-year-old opened fire inside a Texas high school, killing 10, Gov. Greg Abbott tried to tell another shell-shocked community that lost 19 children and two teachers to a teen gunman about his wins in what is now an ongoing effort against mass shootings.

“We consider what we did in 2019 to be one of the most profound legislative sessions not just in Texas but in any state to address school shootings,” Abbott said inside a Uvalde auditorium Wednesday as he sat flanked by state and local officials. “But to be clear, we understand our work is not done, our work must continue.”

Throughout the 60-minute news conference, he and other Republican leaders said a 2019 law allowed districts to “harden” schools from external threats after a deadly shooting inside an art classroom at Santa Fe High School near Houston the year before. After the Uvalde gunman was reportedly able to enter Robb Elementary School through a back door this week, their calls to secure buildings resurfaced yet again.

But a deeper dive into the 2019 law revealed many of its “hardening” elements have fallen short.

Schools didn’t receive enough state money to make the types of physical improvements lawmakers are touting publicly. Few school employees signed up to bring guns to work. And many school districts either don’t have an active shooting plan or produced insufficient ones.

In January 2020, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District received $69,000 from a one-time, $100 million state grant to enhance physical security in Texas public schools, according to a dataset detailing the Texas Education Agency grants. The funds were comparable to what similarly sized districts received.

Even with more funds and better enforcement of policies, experts have said there is no indication that beefing up security in schools has prevented any violence. Plus, they said, it can be detrimental to children, especially children of color.

“This concept of hardening, the more it has been done, it’s not shown the results,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University who studies school security practices and their effectiveness.

Khubchandani said the majority of public schools in the United States already implement the security measures most often promoted by public officials, including locked doors to the outside and in classrooms, active-shooter plans and security cameras.

After a review of 18 years of school security measures, Khubchandani and James Price from the University of Toledo did not find any evidence that such tactics or more armed teachers reduced gun violence in schools.

“It’s not just guns. It’s not just security,” Khubchandani said. “It’s a combination of issues, and if you have a piecemeal approach, then you’ll never succeed. You need a comprehensive approach.”

I was on the board of our elementary school’s PTA in 2012, when the Sandy Hook murders happened. Our school adopted the “only one entrance” idea then, so even though there were other entrances to the school, you had to go through this one, and be buzzed in, if you wanted to visit. That could easily be defeated by an attacker, of course, but it’s in line with the official Republican response. The other ideas, you know, about limiting access to extremely deadly automatic weapons that can fire dozens of rounds in a few seconds, we’re still waiting on that.

Again, there’s plenty of reporting and analysis out there. You don’t need me to regurgitate it all. What we need, all of us, is a change in political leadership in this state, plus at least two more Democratic Senators, to maybe have a chance to move this forward. (We’ll also have to deal with the radical Supreme Court, but with those two more Democratic Senators, bigger things are on the table.) We’re not going to get anything from the Greg Abbotts and Dan Patricks. We have to get them out of power to have a chance.

UPDATE: Here’s two more things for you to read if you haven’t had enough yet.

The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

A bunch of well-financed wackos won school board races in Tarrant County

Not great.

All but one of the 11 Tarrant County conservative school board candidates, who were backed this year by several high-profile donors and big-money PACs, defeated their opponents during Saturday’s statewide election, according to unofficial election results. The one candidate backed by the groups who didn’t win outright advances to a runoff election in June.

The 10 candidates won the school board races for the Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller, Mansfield and Carroll school districts.

The candidates’ sweep shows a large swath of voters across the county responded to their calls to eradicate so-called critical race theory from classrooms and remove books discussing LGBTQ issues, which concerned parents have described as “pornographic.” Education experts, school administrators and teachers all say that critical race theory, a university-level concept that examines the institutional legacies of racism, is not taught in classrooms.

The victories also show that the staggering amounts of money that were poured into the once low-profile and nonpartisan local races are producing their intended effect. PACs organized by parents, as well as a newly-formed PAC from a self-proclaimed Christian cell phone company, collectively raised over half a million dollars for the local races this year. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on top political consulting firms that bolstered an anti-CRT platform with flyers saying the candidates were “saving America.”

See here for some background, and here for the cumulative election results. Turnout was way up from 2018 and I’m sure the money and the hot-button issues played some role in that, but it was also the case that many of those races were uncontested four years ago, and I daresay the population of these suburbs is a lot higher now, so the turnout as a share of registered voters (we don’t have that data on the 2022 report, it may be there after the official canvass) may be up by a smaller amount. I don’t mean to diminish what happened, I’m just trying to give some context. Anyone who knows more about the area or those races, please feel free to chime in.

It’s also instructive to compare to the 2020 election, where you may recall that the May races were postponed until November of that year due to COVID. Not all of those ISDs had races in 2020, or at least races that were reported by the Tarrant County election office, but Grapevine and Mansfield did, and the turnout comparison is of interest – I’ve listed the races in ascending order of total voters:

Grapevine 2018 = 6,666
Grapevine 2022 = 12,001
Grapevine 2020 = 45,453

Mansfield 2018 = 4,022
Mansfield 2022 = 11,035
Mansfield 2020 = 74,523

The 2020 totals for Grapevine and Mansfield are exaggerated a bit, as there were 10K undervotes in Grapevine (so about 35K actual voters there) and 23K undervotes in Mansfield (51K actual voters). It’s still the case that the November elections had vastly more participants, even in this charged and big-money environment. I don’t know how the Grapevine and Mansfield wingnut candidates might have done in a turnout context like that, or like what this November would be, which is to say less than 2020 but still considerably more than May, but those were the closest races among those reported in this story. For sure, it was easier for those outside agitators to have a more effective channel to the voters, without a much-bigger-money top of the ticket drowning them out. Against that, it may be that the default voter in those districts would have leaned towards the wingnuts anyway, just based on what they might have absorbed by osmosis. I say this all to note once again that the right wing activists once thought that forcing school board elections to be held in November of even-numbered years would partisanize them in their favor. I don’t think they think that now, and you can cite these races as evidence for it.

Some Dallas-area school board races are really crazy

We’re going to see more of this, I’m afraid.

New political action committees targeting North Texas school board seats are spending big money on conservative rallying cries ahead of Saturday’s elections.

Some Richardson voters, for example, received mailers decorated with baby blocks with the letters CRT. “RISD schools can’t teach the basics if they’re too busy teaching ‘critical race theory’ nonsense,” the flyers read.

It’s yet another sign of how local school board races are now the front lines of Republican culture war issues, such as those on race, gender, library books and parental choice.

At least 10 conservative PACs are trumpeting “taking back” school boards as they funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence local races.

Some are tapping the same consulting groups, including GOP heavy hitter Axiom Strategies, which worked with Sen. Ted Cruz and helped on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s strategy in Virginia.

Last month, Axiom received more than $100,000 from at least four local conservative PACs and a handful of the candidates they endorsed for school boards in Richardson, Keller, Highland Park and Southlake. Those funds largely went toward mailers, according to April 29 campaign finance filings.

“Usually those [races] would be below the radar screen for national-level political operations,” said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU supports The Education Lab). “But so many of the really hot-button contentious issues over the last couple of years have been fought out at the school board level that it’s not surprising to start to see some of that.”

Axiom vice president Nick Maddux said in a statement that his firm works to win tough races across the nation.

“High-intensity school board campaigns have become the new norm,” he said.

Patriot Mobile Action, tied to a Texas-based cellphone company, spent more than $400,000 supporting conservative candidates in four North Texas school board races, NBC News reported. The PAC endorsed 11 candidates in Keller, Mansfield, Carroll and Grapevine Colleyville, according to its website.

It still has over $100,000 cash on hand, finance records show.

Meanwhile, several PACs are collectively spending tens of thousands of dollars with a group called Edgerton Strategies, a group with little online presence. It is registered to a lawyer in Wyoming but run by Erik Leist, a Keller father who does marketing work. He said he got involved with the different groups based on word-of-mouth.

Leist previously did communications work with a KISD parent who challenged a library book and disputed the district’s process for reviewing it.

Heading into the final stretch, the KISD Family Alliance PAC got a financial bump: A $10,000 donation from Monty Bennett, CEO of Ashford Inc. The hotelier is a major Republican donor.

While trustee races are technically nonpartisan, their work has become increasingly politicized over the past two years as ideological battles raged over COVID-19 protocols and how schools should discuss race and gender.

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s not just in the Dallas area that these large sums of PAC money are pouring in to support wingnut candidates – John Coby has been documenting this for CCISD races. There’s been a bit of coverage on this in the Chron, but not nearly as detailed.

There was a time in the aughts during Tom Craddick’s Speakership when some Republicans wanted to mandate school board elections be held in November of even-numbered years, on the theory that this would necessarily make them more partisan, and that would work in Republicans’ favor. Clearly, they didn’t need the races to be in November for the partisanship. I don’t know what to expect today, but I won’t be surprised to wake up tomorrow and find out that a lot of terrible people are now on a bunch of school boards. Unfortunately, these are the times we are now in.

Abbott sees another opportunity to hurt children

He is definitely making this a habit.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to “resurrect” a court challenge over a 1975 Texas law withholding state funds from school districts for kids who were not “legally admitted” into the United States. That law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1982.

He made the remarks in an interview Wednesday on the Joe Pags radio show.

“The challenges put on our public systems is extraordinary,” Abbott said before referencing Plyler v. Doe, the ruling that overturned the Texas law. “I think that we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many years ago.”

In that case, the court ruled that “education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society,” and withholding it from the children of immigrants in the country without paperwork “does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.” People living without documentation in the country remain people “in any ordinary sense of the term” and are thus entitled to the same basic rights as anyone else in the country.

We’re going to see a lot more of this, because people like Abbott have realized that SCOTUS is now a cheat code for achieving whatever policy ends they want, without having to legislate them. You could say that the policy he seeks to achieve here is the reversal of one that had been done via the court and not the legislative process. The difference is that the litigants in the Plyler case had to win on the merits and could have lost. They didn’t get to count on having a majority on the court that was ideologically on their side and willing to use their power towards that end.

If you can’t see what a public policy disaster it would be, not to mention a moral catastrophe, to prevent children from getting an education, I’m really not sure what to tell you. As Stace says, it’s yet another reason to vote Abbott and the rest of his crew out of office in November. TPM, Daily Kos, the Texas Signal, and Amanda Marcotte have more.

Southlake keeps on Southlaking

On brand.

Seven months after teachers at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, went public with their concerns about an administrator’s advice to balance books on the Holocaust with titles that show “opposing” perspectives, district employees this week discovered that a new clause had been added to their annual employment contracts, listed under the heading: “Non-Disparagement.”

“You agree to not disparage, criticize, or defame the District, and its employees or officials, to the media,” it read.

Four Carroll teachers, speaking on the condition that they not be named because they feared retaliation, said they were disturbed by the new contract language.

“Only a district that is knowingly doing something wrong would choose to silence its entire staff,” one of them wrote in a text message to a reporter on Thursday.

“I hadn’t yet decided if I was going to leave, but it seems the district decided for me!” another wrote.

Officials for both the National Education Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, unions that represent teachers nationally and across Texas, condemned the contract language as an attempt to silence teachers.

“This is the first time we have heard of a school district putting that language into a teacher contract,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “It is a rejection of a teacher’s fundamental First Amendment rights. A teacher also is a taxpayer, who is entitled to criticize a public school district.”

Michael Leroy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that prohibiting public school employees from criticizing their district “is absolutely indefensible under the Constitution,” adding that the new clause in Carroll’s teacher contracts is “clearly unconstitutional. I mean, that’s not even a close call.”

Nondisparagement clauses are more common in the employment contracts of private companies, which are not subject to the First Amendment, Leroy said.

[…]

Leroy, the University of Illinois law professor, said the nondisparagement clause appears to violate a half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent that established the right of government employees to speak on matters of public importance, even if it means criticizing their employer.

In that 1968 case, Pickering v. Board of Education, the court found that a school district in Illinois violated a teacher’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for writing a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the school board for prioritizing funding for athletics over teacher salaries.

“If a teacher, and for that matter if a public employee, is speaking on a matter of public concern, it is protected speech,” Leroy said, noting that the only time he’s seen government employees asked to sign a nondisparagement clause has been in settlement agreements after public employees have been fired, not as a condition of their employment.

Two other labor law experts agreed that a blanket ban on teachers criticizing a public school district is probably unconstitutional.

A Carroll teacher, texting a reporter from her lunch break, summarized her reaction to the new contract language this way: “It seems like if we say anything to anyone then we’re screwed. What happened to freedom of speech?”

See here for the previous example. Maybe they need Elon Musk to buy Carroll ISD, if he has any cash left over after Twitter.

Lawsuit filed over Llano County libraries

This is going to be something to watch.

Seven Llano County residents filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the county judge, commissioners, library board members and library systems director for restricting and banning books from its three-branch public library system.

The lawsuit states that the county judge, commissioners and library director removed several books off shelves, suspended access to digital library books, replaced the Llano County library board with community members in favor of book bans, halted new library book orders and allowed the library board to close its meetings to the public in a coordinated censorship campaign that violates the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.

The plaintiffs — Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring and Diane Moster — insist their constitutional rights were violated when public officials censored books based on content and failed to provide proper notice or an avenue for community comment.

When the plaintiffs attempted to check out several removed books, they said, they were denied access.

“Public libraries are not places of government indoctrination. They are not places where the people in power can dictate what their citizens are permitted to read about and learn,” the lawsuit states. “When government actors target public library books because they disagree with and intend to suppress the ideas contained within them, it jeopardizes the freedoms of everyone.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Ellen Leonida said she plans to file a preliminary injunction this week to get books back on shelves and access to the digital library distributor, OverDrive, reinstated while the lawsuit is pending. Leonida also wants the lawsuit to serve as a warning that small groups like the one in this case cannot control the availability of books without legal resistance.

“They can’t censor books, unequivocally, based on viewpoints that they disagree with,” Leonida said.

[…]

In November, Bonnie Wallace, who eventually became the vice chair of the new Llano County library board, emailed Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham with a list of 60 books on Krause’s list that were available in Llano libraries, according to emails referenced in the lawsuit and obtained by The Texas Tribune. Later that day, Cunningham directed library system director Amber Milum to remove “all books that depict any type of sexual activity or questionable nudity.”

In addition to library books’ removal, Cunningham told librarians to stop ordering new publications in November, according to the lawsuit.

Listed as the lawsuit’s defendants were Cunningham; Llano County Commissioners Jerry Don Moss, Peter Jones, Mike Sandoval and Linda Raschke; Milum, the library director; and library board members Rochelle Wells, Rhonda Schneider, Gay Baskin and Wallace.

I had to reread this and then check Google to make sure I got this right: We are talking about the PUBLIC LIBRARIES in Llano County, not the school libraries. Do you want Commissioners Court deciding what books you can read? I didn’t think so. Here’s some local coverage with more details.

The lawsuit, “Little et al v. Llano County et al,” is a direct result of recent actions taken by Llano County officials within the library system, including the recent removal of books from library shelves, switching the library system’s online reading services from OverDrive to Bibliotheca, the dissolution and creation of the county’s Library Advisory Board, and the March 9 termination of the head librarian of the Kingsland Branch Library.

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of plaintiffs Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring, and Diane Moster, all of whom are Llano County residents and users of the library system.

[…]

The complaint claims county officials violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights laid out in the First Amendment, which protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press.

Some examples outlined in the legal document are the removal of 12 books, including “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen” by Jazz Jennings; the suspension of new book acquisitions; and the decision to discontinue use of the online reading service OverDrive, which now operates as Libby.

The complaint also states that the rights laid out in the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees U.S. citizens the right to due process, are being violated.

That part of the complaint argues that the aforementioned actions were done secretively and without due process as laid out in the county’s adopted policies and guidelines published by the Texas Library Association and other industry experts. It also references the county Library Advisory Board’s recent decision to close meetings to the public.

“Bringing legal claims under both the First and Fourteenth amendments allows Plaintiffs to ask the judge not only to order defendants to put banned books back on the shelves and reinstate OverDrive access, but also to mandate certain procedural protections be put in place to ensure that defendants can’t engage in this kind of censorship again in the future,” said Amy Senia, an associate with BraunHagey & Borden.

Evidence provided in the legal document includes direct quotes from emails and other correspondence sent between county officials, advisory board members, and library staff.

The story provides a PACER link to court documents. You lawyers out there, please weigh in on this one. There was a recent Washington Post story about how the fervor for banning books in schools had metastasized into doing the same at public libraries, with Llano County as the focus; there’s a reprint of it here. My favorite detail is that the “new library board stacked with conservative appointees” includes several people who don’t even have library cards. Because of course they don’t. I think you can guess how I’ll be rooting in this one. Daily Kos and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: Speaking of school libraries, there’s some action on that front as well.

The ACLU of Texas last week sent a letter accusing San Antonio’s North East Independent School District of violating the First Amendment by permanently banning 110 books from its school libraries last month.

The April 20 letter, first reported locally by the Express-News, also accused the district of violating its own polices with the book removal. The ACLU demands that the district return the tomes to its shelves, apologize for its “grave missteps” and commit to educating its students on the United States’ “history of racism.”

“All books recommended for removal must be placed back on North East ISD shelves as swiftly as possible,” the ACLU writes. “If the district seeks to review any books for removal in the future, it must follow its written policy for doing so.”

I’ll keep an eye on that as well.

Early voting for the May 7 elections begins tomorrow

We all have at least one election to vote in, so get ready to get out there.

On May 7, Texas voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on two proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as a number of other contests, from local propositions to city council seats.

Early voting for the May 7 elections runs from Monday, April 25, through Tuesday, May 3. As always, polls will be open on Election Day, Saturday, May 7, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

[…]

To vote by mail in Texas, you must be 65 years old or older, sick or disabled, out of the county on Election Day and during the early voting period or confined in jail but otherwise eligible.

The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot for the May 7 election is Tuesday, April 26 (received, not postmarked).

This will be a good chance to see if any counties have learned from the March mail ballot debacle and taken steps to reduce the number of rejected ballots. That responsibility very much falls on the political parties as well, and the May 24 primary runoffs will be the bigger test for them. I will be keeping a close eye on this.

(By the way, tomorrow is also the deadline to register to vote for the primary runoffs, if somehow you are not currently registered to vote.)

A list of early voting locations for Harris County for the May 7 election is here and the interactive map is here. Note that fewer locations than usual are available, as this is going to be a low turnout affair, so check to ensure your regular spot is open. I note that the West End Multi-Service Center, on Heights Blvd just south of I-10, which I’ve been using lately as it’s a reasonable bike ride from my house, is not available this time. Check before you head out and save yourself some trouble.

What’s on your ballot for this election? Everyone gets to vote on the two constitutional amendments that were placed on the ballot during the last special session. Prop 2, which increases the homestead exemption from $25K to $40K, is worth a Yes. Prop 1, which approves a property tax cut for elderly and disabled homeowners, is your call. Wherever you are and whatever other races there may be, this one is for all of us to vote on.

In Harris County there is the special election for the remainder of the term in HD147, which is between Jolanda Jones and Danielle Bess. Those two are also in the primary runoff on May 24 – yes, I know, this is weird and confusing – and it really only matters if the same person wins both races. For higher stakes there is the special election in HCC District 2, with four candidates running to replace Rhonda Skillern-Jones. You can listen to the interviews I did with each candidate. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

Also in Harris County, there are several school bond referenda:

In Fort Bend County, there are two races for Fort Bend ISD, in District 3 and District 7. Note that one of the candidates for District 7 is a problem.

In Montgomery County, there are a bunch of special purpose district elections. If you live in Montgomery, check very carefully to see if one of those includes you.

There are undoubtedly plenty of others, but I’ve only got so much space and time. Check your local elections office webpage for further details, and get out there and vote.

Our new school library standards

I am casting a gimlet eye at this, at least for now.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

The Texas Education Agency released statewide standards Monday for how school districts should remove and prevent “obscene content” from entering Texas public school libraries.

In the agency’s model policy, there is an emphasis that parents should have a role in how books are selected. The agency says that districts should make new selections readily available for parents to review. School librarians or staff should be “encouraged” to ask parents what their children can and cannot read.

The new guidelines suggest that school boards have final approval of all new books and that a committee should be put in place to review books if parents file a formal “request for reconsideration.”

To avoid “obscene” content in libraries, the agency reminded school districts that state law spells out that handing out inappropriate materials to minors is a crime. Texas librarians, school administrators and public education advocates have denied allegations that there are “inappropriate” or “pornographic” materials in school libraries or that they’re handing out such content.

The standards are to be used as guidance for school district officials as they develop new procedures or alter their policies for selecting or removing library books. School districts, which are largely independent governmental entities and run by locally elected trustees, are not required to adopt the agency’s recommendations.

The TEA’s new standards come about five months after Gov. Greg Abbott directed that agency, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and State Board of Education to develop such guidelines. In his directive, Abbott cited two memoirs about LGBTQ characters, which include graphic images and descriptions of sex, that were found in some Texas school libraries.

“There have been several instances recently of inappropriate materials being found in school libraries,” TEA commissioner Mike Morath said Monday in a letter to Abbott. “This model local school board policy will serve as a helpful guide to school boards as they create the policies for their school district libraries.”

In his letter Monday, Morath said that his agency worked with the state’s library and archives commission and the SBOE chair to develop the guidelines.

As most school districts have existing policies for how books are selected or removed, it was not immediately clear Monday how this guidance will affect individual school libraries.

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, warned school district officials to be wary of what policies they decide to adopt. Holmes said they should listen to their communities and not to be taken away by the politics surrounding the situation.

“As we have said since these latest book controversies began, elected school boards have for decades had the means to work with educators and parents to determine what library content meets the needs of their local communities,” Holmes said.

I have not read the new standards yet – only so many hours in the day, etc etc etc. Honestly, I’d like to hear what the professionals have to say about them first, because I’m not sufficiently versed in this topic to get all the nuances. I think the library and archives commission is a good faith actor, so there’s a chance this isn’t all that bad. I definitely agree with Shannon Holmes that school districts should be very careful with how they handle this, and take all needed steps to keep the hotheads, censors, and general do-badders at bay. I wish them all the luck in the world with that.

Superintendent House backs off a key piece of his budget plan

Sounds like he heard the concerns.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Wednesday said he would scrap a plan that would have centralized the funding of specific positions and programs, instead asking his administrators to come up with a plan that would let campus principals maintain control over their budgets while requiring they staff key positions and provide critical services.

“I have asked the leadership team to present a revised funding model that will create a more equitable baseline education for all students and maintain HISD’s commitment to campus-based budgeting that meets the specific needs of each unique student population,” House said in a letter to the Houston Independent School District community. “We will set clear expectations and hold each campus accountable for improving educational outcomes and eliminating achievement gaps for all students they serve.”

The letter said schools that have not had the money to invest in those key staff positions will receive additional funding to do so.

“All schools will be expected to provide a baseline education experience to all students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year,” the letter stated.

The development which House called a compromise, was the latest this week after House’s Chief of Schools, Denise Watts, told principals Monday the administration would be “revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy.”

In Wednesday’s letter, House said his decision was the result of hearing from trustees and “many of you.”

See here for the previous update. I’m fine with this, as the main goal of achieving equity is still in there. The details matter as much as before, and we will need to continue talking about how this will be done, what will change, how funding can be ensured, and so on. But this was a good step for the Superintendent to take. The Press has more.

Maybe not so fast on the HISD budget stuff

I’m OK with this.

The Houston Independent School District may reconsider proposed budget changes that would have centralized the funding of certain positions and programs, a top district official told principals Monday.

“Our cabinet team is revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy this week. As a result, we need to pause all budget meetings and your planning based on the previous allocation sheets,” Chief of Schools Denise Watts told principals via e-mail. “It is my hope that we will be able to communicate how to move forward soon. I apologize for any frustration or confusion that this may cause. I appreciate your flexibility and patience.”

[…]

Under the strategic plan, which aims to make the school system more equitable, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the plan calls for the district to centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

During the first workshops about the budget, several trustees had raised concerns about the lack of details they had received about the proposals, the speed at which the proposed changes would occur and how the district planned to pay for the strategic plan, which will be initiated with the help of federal COVID relief money.

“I am happy to hear the district is listening to the feedback,” Trustee Bridget Wade said Monday.

Wade last week tweeted that she was a “no” vote until she saw more research and data guiding the district. “The pause and redirect are a much needed start.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree with Trustee Wade, we need more time and data before we can move forward with this. I’m not making any judgments about Superintendent House’s proposals – as I’ve said, I generally like the goals, but the details very much matter, and so does buy-in from the stakeholders. Big changes need careful handling, and that takes time. I recognize that we can’t take forever, but we should take as much time as is needed, and we should very much listen to the concerns that have already been raised. I am hopeful this will proceed with all due care.

More on the HISD budget plan

Trustees make first contact with the Superintendent’s plans.

More than a month after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II unveiled a strategic plan aimed at making the district more equitable, trustees still have unanswered questions about how to pay for it and concerns about whether parents and community members understand some of the changes that would occur.

Chief among the changes prompting some of those questions is House’s call to centralize funding for certain positions and programs, a shift from the district’s decentralized system that empowers school principals to spend their budgets as they see fit.

Under the plan, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers, in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the district would centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

In interviews and during budget workshops this month, trustees largely have agreed that all campuses should have those staffers and programs but several say they want more information about how the changes will affect principals’ autonomy.

They also want to know how the district will pay for the initiative, which is projected to cost $255 million to implement in the first year of the five-year plan.

[…]

The district plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money and general budget funds to pay for the first year. Funding it in the other years, however, has not yet been discussed in great detail.

“This isn’t the first time that this type of change has been proposed, right? What I would like to see as a trustee is to see there is transparency around the process, that there is community understanding and buy-in,” said Trustee Judith Cruz, currently serving as board president, “and ultimately that there is alignment to the board’s vision and goals.”

Most recently, former Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed centralizing various staffing and budget decisions, but the plan fizzled out after he left the school system in 2018, less than two years into his tenure. His successor, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, said the district needed more outreach before changing its funding model.

The district was expected to create a committee to study resource allocation. It is not clear if it ever did.

Trustee Dani Hernandez asked House during a workshop Thursday if that group ever had been formed and produced any reports. House said he was not aware of any.

“I feel like it’s a lot more of a plan than it previously was,” Hernandez said after last week’s presentation. “I still have a lot of questions about it.”

Administrators have said the change will not be a complete abandonment of the district’s decentralized operations but more of a hybrid model in which principals still will make some budgeting decisions.

Duncan Klussmann, former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said the level of autonomy given to principals that often is associated with HISD could lead to different programming available to students across the district without “guardrails.”

2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board called for structural changes across the district after finding the decentralized model had delivered inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending.

“I think there is a balance that organizations are always looking to,” Klussmann said, “to try to figure out that right balance between campus autonomy and centralization.”

See here and here for the background. The story goes on to quote an expert who has some reservations about the plan and the speed with which it is moving forward. She and a colleague turned those concerns into this op-ed piece calling to slow things down.

Houston’s school board needs to take the time the city deserves to see if consolidating budget power back to the top is the right way to go. As such, we respectfully call for the board to stand up for the community and ensure a full public vetting process. It’s what such a monumental decision warrants before a well-established budget strategy with a lot of wins is ditched in the blink of an eye.

Those wins include the fact that the current model, known as weighted student funding, advances equity. Under the highly transparent model, the district gives schools more dollars for students with higher needs. Peer-reviewed research proves it: in fiscal year 2019, HISD spent $384 per student more on schools attended by the average low-income student than schools attended by other students. The weighted student funding strategy brought student achievement gains that won HISD the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. (The link between implementation and positive student test scores is documented in our research .) And while the district today clearly has ample room to improve, in a district like HISD with very limited dollars, there’s no wiggle room to get it wrong. It is these successes that led the school board to make weighted student funding a cornerstone of district strategy.

The Houston superintendent’s move goes against the tide of dozens of mega-districts that have adopted WSF in recent years — from Atlanta and Denver to Chicago and New York, Memphis-Shelby County and Metro Nashville — each posting equity gains as a result. Most recently, District of Columbia Public Schools approved weighted student funding, swayed by the evidence backing it. And in 2015, the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a pilot program enabling districts to expand their weighted student formulas to include federal funds as well.

We understand that the natural state of many districts is to centralize power over finances. But HISD’s board has long resisted that pressure, choosing instead to run a system that gives principals latitude in how best to staff their schools to meet differing student needs.

[…]

The district need not jettison weighted student funding to mandate that all schools apply an effective reading curriculum or offer fine arts — things that leadership has called for. The district can absolutely require all schools to offer certain programs or services under weighted student funding; principals simply keep the leeway to decide how best to deliver those offerings at their school. It’s the district’s responsibility to then hold principals accountable for outcomes.

So, a centralized funding model does not win more money for schools. It does, however, incur losses. Principals — who know their students and the strengths of their unique mix of staff — lose their flexibility to decide how to tailor their resources to meet the needs of their diverse students. And a proven track record of equity hangs in the balance.

In working with scores of districts through our national school finance research center, we can confidently say that Houston’s rush to change is unprecedented. We have never seen a big-city district so dramatically overhaul its finance model without at least two years of planning. And while the threat of a state takeover continues to hang over HISD, there is no evidence that the Texas Education Agency is demanding this rapid-fire shift.

As I said before, I generally support the goals of Superintendent House’s vision. I’m fine with taking all the time needed to study it and make sure that we’re not disrupting things that are working well or implementing things that don’t have empirical backing yet. I’m out of my depth beyond that, so that’s all the more reason why I’d say taking more time on this is worthwhile.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

HISD’s budget plan

From the op-ed pages, a few words from Superintendent Millard House.

During a listening session at Chavez High School last September, a mother told me in tears that her child had to travel an hour each way to reach a magnet school. When parents and students don’t have options for a great education in their own neighborhood, it should not come as a surprise that Houston ISD has 20,000 fewer students enrolled since the 2016-2017 school year. While the COVID pandemic plays a major role in that number, enrollment had already begun dropping.

We need the trust of everyone in the community to turn things around. And to build that trust, as the superintendent, I must be frank.

When I was hired to lead the Houston Independent School District last summer, I believe I was clear-eyed about the opportunities and challenges I was taking on. If there was one thing that was not clear to me, it was the urgent financial challenges facing our district. Years of poor budgeting practices, unchecked waste and organizational inefficiencies combined with steady declines in enrollment have created a structural deficit that my administration could not have anticipated just a year ago. Now it’s time to do the work and start making the tough calls.

We have assembled a world-class team and built a five-year strategic vision for this district that — if we make hard choices and put students first in our decision-making — will stabilize the district and make it one of the few urban districts in the country that provides every student with an education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for success in life after graduation.

[…]

It is clear there are three things HISD must invest in to stabilize the district:

1. We cannot afford to lose any more students and we must bring new students into the district. Stabilizing and then growing enrollment is the single most important thing we can do to right-size the budget and meet our commitments to the Houston community.

2. We cannot afford to lose more experienced educators. When we lose teachers, kids suffer. We must pay our educators a competitive wage because it’s the right thing to do and HISD will not survive if we don’t.

3. We cannot afford the wasteful spending at the district- or campus-level that has not just created inefficiencies, but also exacerbated inequities across the communities we serve. We must centralize some aspects of school budgets to reduce costs and meet the needs of all children.

See here for more on the strategic plan. There are still a lot of details to be filled in, and of course there needs to be support for both from the community and the HISD Board. I like the overall direction, and I generally agree with the three points outlined above, though decades of “fiscal conservatism” mumbo-jumbo have left indelible scars that flare up in the presence of old saws about cutting waste and finding efficiencies like Harry Potter whenever He Who Must Not Be Named is up to something. We’ll see what the details and the next two budgets look like and go from there. The Press has more.

Students against banning books

I have three things to say about this.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

For high school senior Gabrielle Izu, Texas’ public school book bans feel personal.

The books Texas is targeting — mainly novels that focus on discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity — tell the tale of Izu’s past and future. The 17-year-old high school student is Asian American, Black and Hispanic and bisexual, and she hates to see her identities or her peers’ censored.

“I ignored [my sexuality] for a really long time. And I think that as a young girl, if a book showed me that this is a life that could be lived, I could have had a lot more peace and coming to terms with bisexuality,” said Izu, who attends James E. Taylor High School in the Katy Independent School District near Houston.

Here and there, Texas students are forming their own book clubs to read what adults want banned. Books like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Ashley Hope Perez’s “Out of Darkness” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House.” Books that, until last fall, were easy to find and access.

In Katy ISD, students have distributed hundreds of novels challenged by adults in Texas. They’re getting the books free of charge from a political advocacy organization and publishers. And Leander ISD near Austin, students are coming together in a banned-book club to discuss those books. Some students are starting to attend school board meetings to fight for the freedom to choose what to read.

More than a hundred Katy ISD students of a variety of ages, races and gender identities met after school to discuss the bans and pick up contested novels. Among the books they’re reading is Kalynn Bayron’s “Cinderella is Dead,” a novel that follows a queer, Black teenager’s coming-of-age story. Izu, who saw herself reflected in the book, said her heart broke when Texas schools targeted it for a ban.

“It felt like my identity was seen as dangerous because of the banning of a story like that. What about my story? Am I seen as a bad influence?” Izu said. “Am I seen as something that should be shamed?”

Texas parents and politicians say they are protecting students with book bans. Many students, including Cameron Samuels, a senior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy ISD, aren’t buying it.

“It’s clear that these books address issues of race and LGBTQ identities, and that is the exact reason that certain people are seeking to remove these books from libraries and prohibit students from accessing them,” said Samuels, who helped with distribution efforts. “And these policies have dire consequences for us because they keep us struggling with our queer identities.”

Katy ISD students showed strong support at the events, Samuels said. But not all parents are happy, and some have even tried to enter the school to disturb student discussions on Texas’ book bans, they said.

1. I salute these kids and wish them the best of luck in fighting what is likely to be a long battle. At some point, there is going to be a very heavyhanded response from someone in authority, whether it be a principal, a law enforcement officer, or just some loudmouth (quite possibly an elected official) targeting them online. That will get ugly very quickly, and who knows what happens next. I just hope whoever is that first target has a good support system around them.

2. Whether as a result of that heavyhanded response or not, this fight is going to find its way into the courthouse sooner or later. If there is some litigation going on already, I confess I’ve missed it. But one way or another, some aspects of this will be decided by judges.

3. I hope all these kids will be registering to vote at their first opportunity, and will be sure to vote against everyone who has tried to take their books away from them, from their school board up to their legislators and governor. Let me say this one more time: Nothing is going to change until someone loses an election for their support of banning books.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

HISD lifts its mask mandate

A bit earlier than expected.

The Houston Independent School District will lift its mask mandate Tuesday, no longer requiring the use of face coverings at all facilities and buildings, district officials said Monday.

The change in policy at Houston ISD arrived three days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it measures community spread to account for hospitalizations in addition to caseloads. Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last week lowered the county’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant,” the second-highest possible threat level, while Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted a mandate that required city employees and visitors to municipal buildings to wear masks indoors.

“Masks within HISD schools, facilities, and school buses will become optional,” Superintendent Millard House II said in an e-mail to principals Monday morning. “Please encourage students, staff, and any other HISD stakeholders that may need an additional layer of protection or are exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.”

See here for the official announcement. I was expecting this to come in a couple of weeks, but here we are. My kids have been pretty dedicated mask wearers, so we’ll see what they and their friends do. I hope that we have done what we can to improve air circulation in the schools, and I hope this spurs some people to get their kids vaccinated. And I really really hope we don’t have to change directions again this semester. The Press has more.

HISD may lift the mask mandate after spring break

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD students will get an extra day spring holiday and will complete the last day of the first semester before the winter break next school year under a calendar approved by the board of trustees Thursday.

The board also faced a parade of speakers demanding the district lift its mask mandate. The item, however, was not on the board’s agenda.

Superintendent Millard House II said the district planned to continue following COVID infection and spread data and, if trends hold, may reassess its policies in early March and potentially lift the mask mandate by the time students return to classrooms after spring break.

“When school resumes on March 21, a scenario exists where masks will be optional,” House said. “We can only get there, as we know, if we all pull together and continue our efforts of mitigation that we know work.”

First, my kids (or at least the one who will still be in HISD next year; the other will be off at college) definitely appreciate having the fall semester end at the start of winter break. Neither of them liked having to deal with finals in January. I suspect they are not alone in this.

Second, HISD had previously considered lifting the mandate at the end of 2021, but chose to keep it in place as omicron began surging. The intent was always to review the policy and scale it back or take it down when it made sense to do so. Some other large urban districts have already taken this step. It’s a complex decision, one that needs to balance evidence that masking has some negative effect on kids, especially younger kids, with the reality that even a “milder” form of COVID can still wreak havoc as teachers and support staff get sick and have to isolate. Hopefully the numbers will stay down enough for this to make sense, and if we’re really lucky maybe we’ll get a longer lull before (sigh) another variant comes along. Here’s hoping for the best.

Have I mentioned that we need to get more kids vaccinated?

Seriously, y’all.

Since November, 693,345 Texas elementary-age children have received at least one dose of the vaccine, accounting for about 24% of the state’s 2.9 million children ages 5-11 — and a figure in line with the national rate. Nearly 390,000 of the 5-11 group are fully vaccinated, while more than half of Texans ages 12-15 are fully vaccinated.

Texas’ child vaccination rate is higher than in many other Southern states, where rates as low as 10% are being recorded. In the first two weeks after the shot was approved for emergency use in the younger age group, some 100,000 children showed up to Texas school clinics, pharmacies and pediatricians’ offices to get inoculated.

[…]

At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, positive cases among patients went from zero in early December to some 70 patients with COVID-19 a month later, mostly among unvaccinated children, said Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief for the hospital. Their hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 broke all previous pandemic records, and at breakneck speed, he said. Just weeks after omicron was first detected in Texas, it was causing more than 90% of new cases showing up at his hospital — less than a month after the vaccine was approved for young kids.

“We have staggering numbers here during this omicron surge,” Versalovic said in a news conference in early January.

That same day, the state broke its own record of children hospitalized with COVID-19, reporting 350 — five more than the previous peak a few months before.

On Friday, the state health department released data on 3.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas in the first two years of the pandemic. Almost 19% of them — 722,393 — were diagnosed in residents under age 20. The demographics do not include cases reported in 2022.

During the first week of January, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Education Agency reported that about 26,500 students and 11,800 staff members had been infected with COVID, according to data released Friday.

While the numbers of student cases are nearing levels not seen since the start of school last fall, there are more cases of COVID-19 among staffers than at any other time in the pandemic. The numbers are likely to increase as more districts report their numbers to the state. The current numbers include only about half of all of the state’s 1,200 districts, and the number of districts reporting any numbers is inconsistent from week to week.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the state reported 471 children in Texas hospitals with COVID-19. Most of them are unvaccinated, hospital officials have said. But there is no state data detailing how many COVID-19 child patients are in Texas pediatric intensive care units.

Yes, I’ve said this before. The numbers have climbed a bit since then, but there’s so much farther to go. As was the case with previous iterations of the vaccine, there was a large initial burst of activity, as the folks who had been eagerly awaiting the day that it became available for that group rushed out to get it, then it leveled off. The difference is that this time that initial burst was much smaller. Gotta say, I have no idea why. Get your kids vaccinated. What are you waiting for?

Back to school

Sort of.

Roughly one-quarter of Houston ISD students were absent Monday, the first day back following the district’s winter break, according to the district.

District officials released figures Tuesday that showed 45,515 students were absent on Monday and 26,259 on Tuesday, resulting in attendance rates of 76 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The district’s average daily attendance was 95 percent in the 2018-19 school year, the latest figures available from the Texas Education Agency.

While the data did not include reasons why students missed school, the absences offered a clue about the potential impact of the COVID-19 omicron variant surge on schools as they resumed instruction following breaks in the Houston region.

One possible reason for the high absenteeism on Monday: At least in my house, we all thought school didn’t start until Tuesday the 4th. Most years, the first Monday in January is a teacher in-service day, so schools are open but not for students. That was not the case this year, and it wasn’t until we saw an email from the Superintendent on Friday that we realized our error. I would not be surprised if some number of families had made travel plans that didn’t have them back in town until Monday. Obviously, COVID diagnoses and exposure and plain old fear played a role as well, but the difference between Monday and Tuesday is big enough that I think failure to understand the schedule was a factor. Just a thought.

Now that we’re a week into the school year, my kids, at two different HISD high schools, did not say anything about having a lot of substitute teachers or empty classrooms or anything like that. HISD does still have its mask mandate, so maybe that has allayed some fears, I don’t know. The younger kid has finals next week, so I am hoping for as much normality as the fates will grant us. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note:

Houston Independent School District is calling on students and alumni for help to address the loss of learning its elementary students suffered due to challenges from the pandemic.

The district announced Wednesday that it is hiring 500 HISD students and alumni for spring semester tutoring positions at elementary schools throughout the district. The district is seeking students ages 15 and up and alumni currently in college for the position which pays $12 an hour, according to a release.

[…]

Student tutors will work in-person with shifts available during the school day, after school and on Saturdays, according to the release, and will be paired with a certified teacher for up to 20 hours a week to help third to fifth-grade students with core subjects like English, Math and Science.

The program begins in January and runs through the end of June, according to the release. Those interested should apply by Jan. 12 at apply.ieducateusa.org. No experience is required and the district welcomes all majors.

The HISD press release is here. Go check this out if you’re interested.

Back to school, kids

It’ll probably be fine. And honestly, there’s no appetite for anything else.

Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.

The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.

At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”

Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.

Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”

In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.

In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.

“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.

She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.

HISD’s mask mandate has been a big success, though it hasn’t really been tested by omicron yet. If people are properly wearing appropriate masks, they can protect themselves pretty well. Better ventilation and doing whatever possible outside is helpful. I’d feel a lot better if a whole lot more kids were getting vaccinated, but maybe getting them back into schools will nudge a few more in that direction. Some universities have pushed back the start of in person classes for their spring semester in favor of online learning, but I just don’t see that as viable for the independent school districts, at least not at this time. Mask, ventilate, vax, test, and isolate as needed, and we can get through this. I’m hoping for the best.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.