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Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Who needs testing?

It’s the surest way to see the infection rate decline, am I right?

The number of Texans being tested for the coronavirus has fallen sharply in recent weeks, a trend that has worried public health experts as officials consider sending children back to school while thousands more Texans are infected each day.

In the week ending Aug. 8, an average 36,255 coronavirus tests were administered in Texas each day — a drop of about 42% from two weeks earlier, when the average number of daily tests was 62,516.

At the same time, the percentage of tests yielding positive results has climbed, up to 20% on average in the week ending Aug. 8. Two weeks earlier, the average positivity rate was around 14%.

On Saturday, the state set a record for its positivity rate, with more than half of that day’s roughly 14,000 viral tests indicating an infection.

Taken together, the low number of tests and the large percentage of positive results suggest inadequacies in the state’s public health surveillance effort at a time when school reopenings are certain to increase viral spread, health experts said.

“Opening the schools is a really complicated problem, and the best thing we can do is get the number of cases down so kids can go back to school safely,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “There are so many reasons why kids need to be in school, particularly younger kids, but we’re finding out more and more they can get infected, and the concern is them bringing it home and spreading in the community and spreading to teachers.

“I think the worst thing would be for schools to open, then close,” she said. “That really makes it hard on parents, that unpredictability, and there’s a lot of costs associated with opening the schools safely.”

[…]

The number of tests performed in Texas has “never been great,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, but “it’s extremely troubling” that the numbers have dipped since last month.

“It’s troubling because we can guess at some of the reasons, but we’re not sure,” she said.

She suggested that some people may have been discouraged by long wait times for test results, or less concerned about the virus’ toll in Texas after a frightening peak in July began to flatten out.

A declining number of tests is a particularly thorny issue for schools, Ho said. “No public school has the resources to do testing under the current circumstances. There are huge class sizes and crowded hallways,” she said.

Does any of that sound good to you? Because none of it sounds good to me. Again I say, remember when Greg Abbott’s plans for reopening included sufficient testing capacity and a positivity rate under ten percent? Boy, those were the days. Oh, and as the story notes, the TEA still hasn’t yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. So, you know, the school situation remains a mess. Isn’t this fun?

The school situation remains a mess

It’s a mess of Greg Abbott’s making.

Some superintendents say that despite Abbott’s statements to the contrary, their ability to respond to the pandemic is still limited, and many of their questions have gone unanswered even as school is slated to start in the coming weeks. They are worried their decisions could result in consequences from the state, including cuts to funding, and some say they would prefer high-stakes decisions affecting student and employee health to stay with medical experts.

“We’re going to make our decisions based on local scientific data, and we’re working with the health authority. That’s our guide,” said Juan Cabrera, superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District. “Nobody on our board, including myself and my administration, are medical doctors, so I’m going to try to take their advice.”

After about 18 local health authorities issued orders delaying in-person instruction because of coronavirus concerns, Abbott said last week that those health officials cannot issue blanket orders preventing all schools in their jurisdictions from opening classrooms before the academic year begins. His statement backed nonbinding guidance from Attorney General Ken Paxton released earlier that week.

Abbott also said school districts could ask for more time to limit the number of students learning in classrooms, on a case-by-case basis, beyond the current eight-week maximum set by the Texas Education Agency. And he reminded school officials that they could move their start dates later in the year with a school board vote, as long as they make up the time. This, he said, gives local school boards the most authority to determine when and how it’s safe to have kids back.

The Texas Education Agency has not yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. But it said it will not fund school districts for unlawful school closures, worrying superintendents who want more certainty of state support while handling an unpredictable pandemic.

“After the eight weeks, there’s a threat to withhold funding if schools don’t have in-person learning. They’ve offered a waiver opportunity … but it takes it out of the hands of the local school district beyond the eight weeks, and that is not local control,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators and former superintendent of Alamo Heights ISD in San Antonio.

A spokesperson for Abbott, when reached for comment for this story, referred to the governor’s previous statements on the issue. Abbott has said that school boards are welcome to consult public health authorities as they make their decisions. And he said local health officials could shut down schools that have COVID-19 outbreaks after they reopen.

Some superintendents, especially in areas where the virus is rampant, balked at the idea of waiting for kids and teachers to get sick before shutting down their campuses in the middle of the year, instead of working with local health officials to close classrooms if cases spike again. And some still wondered: What options do they have if cases are still high after eight weeks?

“Districts, I think, are very concerned about creating these rolling situations where people come back on campus and then get sick and then everybody has to leave again,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, on a recent podcast explaining the state’s guidance.

See here, here, and here for the background. Basically, school districts are being told they cannot prioritize safety until they have proof that their schools are unsafe. If they take action that doesn’t conform with regulations that are not currently documented, they risk losing funding. Greg Abbott is the sole decider on these matters, and he has nothing new to say at this time. Any questions?

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

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

That condition will exist the instant schools reopen.

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

Abbott finally speaks about schools

Of course, he mostly says weasel words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

The school situation remains a big ol’ mess

You can blame Greg Abbott for all this confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the impact of Paxton’s letter?

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

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

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

What did Morath do Tuesday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who can clear up this conflict?

The simplest answer: Abbott.

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

Abbott has made no move in either direction.

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

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

Paxton overrides county health orders on schools

So much concern for the children here.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: This says a lot:

Truly, we have a weak and feckless Governor.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

The Chron covers the local angle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools get an in person opening reprieve

It started with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

And later in the day, HISD followed suit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD being investigated over special education

Flagging this for later discussion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools are going to reopen, like it or not

It’s gonna be crazy.

Texas public school districts must reopen campuses for in-person instruction in August to continue receiving state funding, unless the governor issues a school closure order or a confirmed case of COVID-19 on an individual campus forces a brief shutdown of the building, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Tuesday.

The mandate ensures that families wanting in-person classes will have the option for children to return to campuses during the novel coronavirus pandemic, though students may continue learning from home if they choose. Districts can restrict the number of students who receive on-campus instruction for the first three weeks of their school year, a period designed to “facilitate an effective back-to-school transition process,” TEA officials said.

“On-campus instruction in Texas public schools is where it’s at,” Morath said during a conference call with superintendents. “We know that a lot of families are going to be nervous, and if they are nervous, we’re going to support them 100 percent.”

The mandate came as Morath released public safety guidance for the 2020-21 school year, requiring staff and students older than 10 to wear face coverings in compliance with Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandatory mask order, and encouraging the use of social distancing in buildings, among numerous other protocols.

TEA leaders are leaving many health and hygiene decisions to superintendents, a long-expected decision given the varying spread of the novel coronavirus in different corners of the state.

[…]

Decisions over reopening schools have pitted public health concerns against the benefits of in-person classes.

Some school employees and parents fear the resumption of in-person instruction will cause the virus to spread more rapidly, particularly if classes restart in areas already experiencing an outbreak. While children display symptoms of COVID-19 at low rates, public health officials are not yet certain about how often they are infected and spread the virus to adults.

The state’s four largest teacher unions and organizations each leveled criticism of the state guidance Tuesday, arguing Texas education leaders are moving too quickly to reopen campuses and failing to require enough safety protocols. Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said allowing up to 100 percent of a school’s students to return to campuses will put kids and teachers at risk.

“There is no way under those circumstances you could guarantee social distancing or even have a chance at it,” Capo said. “To act like kids can’t get (COVID-19) is a farce, and the adults in those schools are probably even more at risk than the kids.”

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, some more concerns from the teachers.

Teachers, who may be more susceptible than students to COVID-19, were concerned upon hearing last month that state leaders considered it safe to return to school. Earlier Tuesday, the Texas State Teachers Association put out a statement asking Abbott to “slow down and put safety first” before reopening campuses this fall.

After the final guidelines were announced, the teachers association said they don’t go far enough. “Children younger than 10 will still be exempted from wearing masks in schools. Teachers of those children should be able to decide whether they want their students to wear masks,” said Clay Robison, spokesperson for TSTA. “Teachers who fear they will compromise their health by returning to campus should have the choice of teaching remotely, and it doesn’t look like TEA guidelines will require that.”

And the Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement criticizing the TEA for not providing “more explicit guidance” or including educators and parents in the decision-making process.

The guidance released Tuesday requires school employees to “meet the work expectations set by their employers” but does not include many specifics for at-risk teachers who may not feel safe going into schools.

Let’s be clear that nobody involved in this decision really knows what’s going to happen. As with everything else so far, it’s a lot of hope and not much else.

A draft version of this TEA guidance that wasn’t supposed to be made public was revealed last week. I drafted a post about it, then never got around to publishing it. But waste not, want not, so click on to read what I wrote then, which largely still applies. I hope this goes well. I fear it won’t. I worry for everyone involved.

(more…)

HISD will not change its calendar

Not for this year, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to school, kids

Yeah, I don’t know about this.

Texas students will be returning to public schools in person this fall, Gov. Greg Abbott told state lawmakers Thursday morning.

The state’s top education officials confirmed the plans in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

“It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall. But there will also be flexibility for families with health concerns so that their children can be educated remotely, if the parent so chooses,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

When students return, school districts will not be required to mandate students wear masks or test them for COVID-19 symptoms, said Frank Ward, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency.

The TEA is expected to release additional guidance for school districts next Tuesday. Abbott has long said his intention is for students to return in-person this fall, saying this week that there will “definitely be higher safety standards in place than when they opened last year.”

[…]

According to state lawmakers on the 11 a.m. call, school districts will be able to also offer instructional alternatives for students. The decision comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise statewide, and local officials begin to put firmer restrictions in place to tamp down the spread in their cities and counties.

National surveys have shown many parents do not feel safe sending their students back to the classrooms, with one poll showing two-thirds in support of keeping schools closed until the pandemic’s health risk has passed.

School districts’ surveys of parents are showing that many students will stay home, even when the classrooms are open. That could pose a financial risk to districts, which receive state funding based on student attendance. Already, many districts are planning for hybrid programs, with some students learning virtually and some learning in person, allowing them to keep class sizes small.

Before we go on any further, just a little reminder:

Thursday marked the seventh consecutive day that Texas reported a record number of hospitalized coronavirus patients, with 2,947 people currently in hospitals being treated for COVID-19, according to data released Thursday by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The latest seven-day average for the number of people hospitalized is 2,468. Since the beginning of June, hospitalizations have increased almost every day. There’s almost twice as many people hospitalized because of the coronavirus than there was on Memorial Day.

You can click over and see the chart, but you probably already have the picture. Even as recently as last week, we were still talking about the different options school districts may choose to employ for the fall. So much for that, I guess. I mean, remote learning has been a challenge in many ways. Many students were not equipped for it, and many just simply never showed up for online classes once schools closed. Schools play a vital role in childcare for many families, and of course many children are fed at schools. I want kids to return to schools – hell, I very much want to get my own kids out of the house again, and I know they really miss their friends and teachers. But how can anyone feel confident about this, when the numbers are trending so strongly in the wrong direction, and our Governor speaks in riddles as a means of avoiding his responsibilities? We should have been able to send our kids back to school this fall with the assurance that all reasonable steps have been taken to minimize risk and drive infection levels down. We have neither of those things. What’s a responsible parent supposed to do? Right now, I have no idea.

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

Brace yourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

School districts set to get financial relief for coronavirus

Good.

Texas will distribute the vast majority of a $1.29 billion federal stimulus package to school districts this summer, using it to deliver on a promise that schools will remain fully funded this school year despite statewide closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school officials on a call Thursday.

State officials told school districts in March there would be no financial penalties for attendance declines, as COVID-19 fears spread and school districts were required to close their buildings. Now, Texas has decided to use its share of the federal stimulus package to fund that promise, distributing 90% directly to districts based on their student poverty rates, aiming to forestall layoffs and budget cuts.

Texas school districts can see how much they can expect to receive on the Texas Education Agency’s website. Houston Independent School District, the state’s most populous, will receive the highest award of $81.7 million.

On top of that stimulus package, Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers agreed to reimburse all school districts for up to 75% of their pandemic-related expenses to date, using money from a federal grant awarded to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. School districts have spent a state total of about $392 million on COVID-19 expenses.

School districts in Texas are funded based on student attendance, meaning the statewide school closures could have been a major financial hit. “With school closed to in-person attendance for nearly a third of the school year, generating the remainder of that entitlement would be impossible without us stepping in and making some changes,” Morath said Thursday.

States are allowed to use the federal stimulus funding to offset budget holes. “Federal guidance explicitly authorizes it as a way for states to sustain their school finance system, as long as net state funding remains above prior years,” Morath said.

From the description in the story, I don’t have any specific concerns. It sounds like the districts are going to have their COVID expenses mostly covered, which is what should happen in times like these. Now we just need the same thing for cities and states.

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

Lots of possibilities, no clear answer yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe all schools will start earlier this year

What do you think about this?

Texas Education Agency officials on Thursday pitched the benefits of starting the 2020-21 school year in early August, ending it later than normal and building in longer breaks that could serve as make-up days if campuses are closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In a presentation posted online, TEA officials said the upcoming school year is “likely to be disrupted” by building closures and high levels of student absenteeism, issues that could be alleviated by districts moving closer to a year-around academic calendar.

One sample calendar offered in the presentation shows classes starting in early August and ending in late June, with longer-than-normal breaks around the Thanksgiving, winter and spring break holidays.

TEA officials did not mandate or formally recommend districts change their academic calendar, noting that local school boards ultimately have the authority to set schedules. However, agency leaders said the option, called an “intersessional calendar,” provides more flexibility to address students’ academic needs.

“Given the ongoing disruptions caused by COVID-19, TEA has spoken with numerous educators about the need to adapt our school systems to this new environment,” a TEA official said in an email to the Houston Chronicle.

“One potential option is to adjust the school calendar, to improve our school systems’ collective ability to respond to continued COVID-19 disruptions and address any learning gaps that have emerged over the latter portion of this school year. The presentation lays out options informed by those discussions.”

[…]

TEA officials also promoted the possibility of offering instruction to the neediest students during longer breaks if make-up days are not needed. However, state law only provides additional funding — at half the typical rate — for students enrolled in grades prekindergarten through 5 if districts go beyond certain minutes and days of instruction.

Some of the changes also could require restructuring employee contracts for 2020-21 — many of which are not yet signed — and schedules for extracurricular events. In their presentation, TEA officials said calendar overhauls would require “substantial change management” and “immediate action.”

For now, at least, I’m taking this in the same spirit as all those “how MLB could play its season” proposals, which is to say mostly as a thought experiment so that they have some options at hand if they can go forward at all. I mean, if “reopening” leads to another, much higher, peak of COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths, we could be back in lockdown at this time. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen, and planning for uncertainty is by definition a dicey affair.

But let’s say for these purposes that this is feasible, that we will be able to open schools in August. In that case, I can think of a few objections to this idea. One is that families who plan travel in the summer will complain, since we’d be going from a ten-week break to maybe a five or six-week break, which will greatly hinder travel plans. Two is that this will make all kinds of summer activities for kids – camps, jobs, internships, what have you – basically impossible, for the same reason. Three, having more breaks during the academic year as well as having fewer opportunities to occupy kids during the summer will be an extra burden on working parents. Four, this will all naturally affect teachers and other school staff, and they will have their own objections. Some of these will carry more weight than others due to collective bargaining agreements.

So, to put it mildly, there are issues that would need to be worked out. Putting all of that aside, I don’t think this is a terrible idea, nor do I think it should be off the table even with these concerns about it. The chances that the school year will be disrupted by coronavirus, whether on a single-campus level or systemwide, are extremely high, and there needs to be a plan to handle that. Maybe this plan isn’t it, but maybe parts of it could be used in a modified version of it. Point being, we need to have something in place for when – not if – something happens, and we need to be making those plans now.

No one knows when schools will open

I mean, if Mike Morath doesn’t know, then no one knows.

Texas schools might start bringing students back to classrooms on staggered schedules in the fall. Or they might have some students show up at school while others continue their coursework online.

Or they might stay completely virtual until 2021.

While it’s much too early to pin down all the permutations of how and where COVID-19 might remain a health risk come August, Texas superintendents are starting to game out how public education will look in the fall.

Since Gov. Greg Abbott closed all schools in late March, school districts have cobbled together combinations of online learning and old-school written worksheets handed out to students without reliable internet. The evolving, makeshift system has raised concerns about students without computers being left out and overwhelmed parents struggling with their new roles as home school teachers.

Some superintendents worry that students will fall ever further behind the longer school buildings are closed. And they know they must improve remote teaching in case the return date ends up being even further off than projected.

[…]

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has been holding biweekly phone calls with superintendents across the state to discuss plans, but no official decisions have been made.

“The bigger question is: How can you plan to be nimble so that if the situation changes quickly, you can adjust to the change either way, either toward bringing kids into buildings, or perhaps once you bring kids into building, having to put them back into distance learning environments?” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio.

“If you ask me today, what’s the percentage chance we come back in August? I have no idea. Somewhere between 0 and 100%.”

About half the students in the 100,000-student school district are economically disadvantaged, and 12% are receiving special education services. Woods and his staff are considering bringing back those students least likely to be served virtually in the fall while keeping the other half in distance learning as a way to reduce exposure.

But that method of splitting students up is less possible for districts like small Hearne ISD, outside of College Station, where 96% of students are economically disadvantaged, meaning pretty much all are hurting while school buildings are closed.

Two points. One, it would be super if the state could pony up a few bucks to help the school districts that are struggling to outfit their students with the equipment necessary to properly do remote learning. (Maybe this kind of school finance inadequacy, combined with the much more urgent need for this kind of contingency, could be the basis of the next school finance lawsuit.) And two, if no one can feel confident about schools being able to reopen and stay open, then what does that say about all of the other things that Greg Abbott wants to open?

The next school year is going to be different, too

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

No school accountability ratings this year

No surprise.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAAR testing waived

This had to happen, given everything else.

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he would waive testing requirements for this year’s STAAR exam, as many schools expect to be closed at least through the April testing window, due to the new coronavirus.

He also said he would ask the federal government to waive this year’s federal standardized testing requirements, which apply to all states. According to the state, as of Sunday afternoon, 569 school districts had announced closures due to coronavirus concerns. Texas is not alone, since more than 30 states have closed schools due to coronavirus, affecting at least 30 million public school students nationwide.

The federal government has previously said it might give out targeted waivers from testing for areas where the COVID-19 disease has had significant impact.

The state will not mandate that districts offer the exam, but some superintendents may want the test data to see how their students are doing, according to the TEA. Agency officials are working to support those school districts, if necessary.

[…]

State leaders are giving schools more leeway than they have in the past, showing the increasing seriousness surrounding the COVID-19 disease.

When Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston-area and Coastal Bend communities in 2017, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath hesitated to give them a break on testing or accountability requirements, arguing that doing so would harm student learning. He argued that getting rid of state testing requirements would violate federal requirements and put federal funding at risk.

Eventually he agreed not to hold poor STAAR results against schools and districts, though he did not waive the requirement that they test students.

“Accountability results have been waived for Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey. But never has testing itself been waived,” said Dee Carney, a longtime school accountability consultant in Texas. “It’s absolutely an unprecedented event requiring extraordinary measures of our schools and our teachers and our communities.”

It is not clear exactly what the implications are for students who need to take certain state tests in order to graduate from high school or move on to the next grade. Morath said he would send more specific guidance on student testing and school accountability this week, likely before Thursday.

So three things here. One, given the likely closure of schools through the rest of the academic year, this was basically inevitable. There’s too much disruption, and the test results would be essentially meaningless. Which was the same argument lots of people made following Harvey in 2017, but this time the message was received. Two, this is going to be a months-long, if not years-long, experiment in unprecedented actions and figuring things out as we go, because what else can we do? And three, we just may find out that some of the things we’d been doing all along we can do without, or do differently, and some things we’d never done before become new habits. That’s what happens with big disruptions. Maybe one result of all this is we’ll completely re-evaluate the need for high-stakes testing like we have now. Or maybe we’ll decide we need even more of it. I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll bet that five years from now when we look back on all this, we’ll be amazed at how different things became.

Schools could be closed for the rest of the academic year

Lots of school-related news on Monday.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school superintendents and lawmakers Sunday to be prepared for long-term school district closures, potentially through the end of the school year, especially in areas where the new coronavirus has spread.

According to individuals who participated in two separate conference calls with the commissioner, Morath said he would still leave the decision up to local superintendents. This comes as hundreds of school districts announced they would suspend classes for at least a week, with concerns about COVID-19 spreading through their communities.

Morath suggested superintendents consider telling parents sooner rather than later that closures would stretch beyond a few weeks. The extended school closures would be a burden for low-income and working parents, who would more likely struggle to keep their children home for long periods of time.

The state has already said school districts with prolonged school closures due to coronavirus concerns may avoid financial penalties, as long as they can prove they are teaching students remotely. But not all school districts have the experience or resources needed to offer remote instruction, and many students lack access to consistent internet at home.

This is not unexpected. At this point, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen, though obviously if that’s the case then there will be wildly disparate effects on the students, between those who will have access to online instruction, and those who will not. Maybe – stay with me here – that should be something the Legislature addresses going forward. You may now be thinking “How can they possibly do the STAAR test if no one is at school?” I say to you, keep reading.

Shepherd ISD update

They’re the other district being taken over by the TEA due to failing performance.

Four days after a court order temporarily stopped Texas from taking over Shepherd Independent School District, elected school board members voted to effectively cede their control over the four-school East Texas district. They also fired the lawyers who got the takeover halted without a directive from the full school board.

With Friday’s school board vote, Texas education officials are poised to appoint their own board of managers to oversee hiring, budgeting and operations in Shepherd ISD, a result of the long-standing academic failure at two of its schools. It would be Texas’ first state takeover as a result of a 2015 law requiring harsh penalties for districts that fail to improve long-struggling schools.

“I’m opposed in principle to this,” said Mike Courvelle, the loudest school board voice in disagreement with the decision. “Once the state comes in…we’re granting them total control.”

The Third Court of Appeals in Austin, which issued an order Monday that temporarily blocked the takeover, must still give the state permission before it can appoint a new board. Almost all the discussion Friday on the school board’s votes happened behind closed doors in executive session.

Courvelle did get one win Friday: He and his colleagues unanimously tapped internal candidate Dianne Holbrook to serve as the district’s new superintendent, refusing the option chosen by the state. They did so knowing the state would likely overturn that decision.

“We know her. She’s here. We trust her,” Courvelle said. “We expect it to be a short-lived decision anyway.”

Jeff Cottrill, the Texas Education Agency’s representative in Shepherd, agreed with the latter part of Courvelle’s statement. “We look forward to the Third Court of Appeals bringing resolution to this litigation so the state-appointed superintendent Dr. Jason Hewitt as well as the board of managers can begin serving and uniting this community around improving student outcomes,” he told The Texas Tribune after the vote.

See here for the background. The stopped-and-to-be-restarted takeover situation is somewhat of a comedy of errors, stemming from miscommunication between the Shepherd board and the attorneys representing them. That’s not very interesting to me, and I expect that by mid-week or so the initial court order will be lifted. Of greater interest to me is this:

Shepherd’s takeover is due to a 2015 state law intended to hold school districts more accountable for improving their schools, instead of allowing them to languish in a state of low academic performance for years. If one school fails for five or more years, Texas is required to either shut down the school or take over the entire school district.

The same year the law was passed, Shepherd ISD’s primary and intermediate schools, which serve about half the district’s students, received their first failing grades.

Those schools would fail for four more consecutive years: a cohort of students attending elementary schools where less than a quarter of them can read on grade level.

When Ronnie Seagroves took over as principal of Shepherd Intermediate School last year, it had already been considered a failing school for years, not just for its poor academics but also lack of student discipline. Principals came and went, without providing vision or direction for the school and its students, he said.

Seagroves is working hard to turn that around by encouraging collaboration among teachers, providing more individualized instruction for students, and greeting students each day at the school’s entrance. But that same cohort of students who spent each year in a low-performing elementary school is now attending the middle school, which has received failing grades for the last two years.

So how likely do you think the TEA will be to reverse this trend? I suppose the preliminary question to that is, what caused this problem in the first place? Was Shepherd a more-or-less OK school system that suddenly took a nosedive? Was it that when a different (maybe more precise, maybe more random) measuring system was put into place, problems that had been there all along were suddenly exposed? Is there some other potential cause that may not be so readily identifiable? I’m skeptical that the TEA can and will do any better, but if they can at least identify the problem here, then maybe that can help other districts in the future. Whatever happens, I hope it’s done in a transparent manner, so we can learn from it one way or the other.

School could be out for awhile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The other TEA takeover

A preview of things to come, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Hold that takeover!

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chron overview of the HD142 primary

Also known as the How Mad Are People At Harold Dutton? primary.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Longtime state Rep. Harold Dutton is facing the most serious re-election test of his 35-year political career in an acrimonious primary against two Democratic opponents.

The race, which has generated few headlines but produced ample tension between the candidates, pits Dutton against Houston District B Councilman Jerry Davis and transportation logistics executive Richard Bonton. A fourth candidate, Natasha Ruiz, does not appear to have a campaign website and has yet to file any campaign finance reports.

Imperiling Dutton’s re-election is a well-funded challenge from Davis, who since 2012 has represented much of the same northeast Houston territory as Dutton, including Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens and Trinity/Houston Gardens.

The candidacy of Bonton, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2018, also raises the prospect that Dutton could be forced into a runoff for the first time since his initial run for the seat in 1984, said Michael Adams, chairman of Texas Southern University’s political science department.

“I think it’s a very competitive race,” Adams said. “Harold is a long-standing incumbent, but that cuts both ways, because Jerry has a lot of recognition from his city council races.”

Nothing has drawn more attention in the race than Dutton’s role in crafting a 2015 law that requires the Texas Education Agency to penalize a district if any of its schools fails state standards for five consecutive years by closing the school or replacing the school board.

[…]

Dutton shrugs off the criticism over HISD, noting that the law received widespread bipartisan support when it sailed through the Legislature five years ago.

“I stand by it totally,” Dutton said. “I just couldn’t in good faith sit there and do nothing while these students linger in the education toilet. HISD, like most school districts, could have taken the opportunity to fix the schools. That’s what could have happened and should have happened, but didn’t happen.”

I just don’t know what to make of this one. It’s certainly the strongest challenge Rep. Dutton has faced in a long time – he made it through the Craddick years without being targeted – I just don’t know how much people will hold the TEA takeover stuff against him. He’s right, the bill had broad support when it passed, and there’s certainly a case that if a school continues to struggle year after year, it’s being failed by its district as much as anything else. On the other hand, he doesn’t have much money, he probably doesn’t have much of a field operation (since he’s never needed to have one, and he’s far from the first name you think of when you think of team players in the countywide campaign), and he doesn’t have much in the way of establishment organizational support. Labor has mostly sided with Davis (with the exception of the Texas State Teachers Association, which may see him as a friendly incumbent), as has the GLBT Caucus, while HBAD has endorsed Bonton, and the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats co-endorsed Bonton with Dutton. Maybe the high expected turnout will help him, as he’s likely the best known name on the ballot even after Davis has won three elections, and maybe less-frequent voters will feel less affinity for him. I really have no idea. If you live in the district and have seen the campaign activity there, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile, the HISD Board of Trustees is still a thing

Meet the new Board, not the same as the old Board.

Hours after Houston ISD’s four recently elected trustees took office, enshrining the district’s first all-female school board, the new-look governing team on Thursday made its first big decision.

Trustees voted 8-1 to postpone approving a facilities assessment contract sought by the district’s administration, which would serve as a significant step toward asking residents to approve a multi-billion bond package in November. Board members will return in February to decide on the contract, giving them additional time to consider the ramifications of the deal.

Multiple board members said they wanted more discussion between the administration and trustees before spending up to $5 million on a facilities assessment. HISD likely will face headwinds in gaining support for a bond package, the result of dramatic state intervention looming over the district and a decline in public trust following months of board in-fighting.

“If it were that important, these conversations should have happened months ago,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said. “To spring it on brand new board members and expect a vote is unfair.”

HISD administrators said the facilities assessment would help the district craft a bond proposal, which would involve extensive construction projects at dozens of campuses, major investments in school security and hundreds of millions of dollars in technology upgrades.

Derrick Sanders, HISD’s officer of construction services, said the delay in a facilities assessment “wouldn’t be a fatal blow, but it would be a challenging one” for placing a bond request on the November ballot.

District officials have not placed a price tag on any potential bond packages, but it would likely exceed $2 billion and come with little to no increase in the tax rate. HISD residents last voted on a bond in 2012, approving a $1.9-billion proposal. Nearly all projects financed by the package have been completed.

So the obvious question to ask here, which the story did not address, is whether there could be a bond election called by the Board of Managers. It’s been long enough since the last bond election that there’s surely a need for some capital spending, and waiting four or five years till the elected Board is fully back in place could ensure that the need is too great to be sufficiently addressed. These bonds usually pass without too much trouble – the 2012 bond got 69% of the vote – but it’s not hard to imagine a 2020 issue being controversial. I don’t know what the best course of action is here, but I hope the new Board figures it out quickly. Aren’t y’all glad you signed up for this?

Meet your Board of Managers wannabes

Lots of people want that gig.

[Frank] North is one of nearly 250 people who applied for positions on the prospective replacement board, which Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath plans to install in the coming months. Morath announced in November 2019 his intention to temporarily oust the elected school board, citing Wheatley High School’s seventh consecutive failing grade and multiple findings of misconduct involving current trustees, though a preliminary injunction issued last week and ongoing litigation could threaten those plans.

The applicants, according to a list provided by the TEA, represent a broad cross-section of the district, home to about 210,000 students from wide-ranging economic, ethnic, racial and social backgrounds. They include Houston ISD employees, former political candidates, business professionals, higher education staffers and advocates with children attending district schools.

Several candidates are well-known in civic and education circles, but most come with little to no public profile. Higher-visibility applicants include former HISD trustee Cathy Mincberg, former Houston Police Department interim chief Martha Montalvo, League of United Latin American Citizens leader Hugo Mojica and former HISD police chief Robert Mock.

[…]

State leaders will spend the next several weeks winnowing the list down to nine potential board members, conducting at least three rounds of interviews. Agency officials have said they want an ethnically, racially, geographically and socioeconomically diverse board of Houston residents with multiple skill sets. State law grants Morath the final authority on board selections.

The list released by state officials only includes first and last names of those who applied. The candidates’ work histories, educational backgrounds and personally identifiable information were not disclosed. TEA officials did not respond to questions about what information will be released as the screening process continues.

TEA officials wanted to install the board as early as this spring, but last week’s preliminary injunction blocks Morath from installing a replacement board while a lawsuit filed by HISD trustees seeking to stop their ouster is ongoing. Lawyers for the TEA immediately appealed the injunction ruling. A trial is set for late June.

As noted, the timetable here depends on the outcome of the litigation. The article contains more information about and quotes from a number of the applicants, presumably ones the Chron could identify either from their names or public statements they’ve made. I can understand limiting the data available about them for now, but we deserve full transparency going forward.

TEA appeals takeover-delay injunction

This isn’t settled just yet.

Texas Education Agency officials said they filed an appeal Thursday to overturn an injunction by a Travis County judge blocking it from replacing Houston ISD’s trustees with a state-appointed board of managers.

The appeal was sent to the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals, and if a panel of judges sides with the agency, it could resume its work to strip Houston ISD’s board of power.

If the injunction is upheld, the TEA would not be able to move forward until a lawsuit by the Houston ISD board of trustees has been decided. Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy on Wednesday set a hearing date for June 22.

[…]

Shepherd ISD, a small school district just south of Lake Livingston also is targeted for a board takeover by the TEA. That district also sought a temporary injunction this year to stop the education agency takeover. On Thursday, Travis County District Judge Karin Crump denied that application for an injunction.

HB 1842 was not the TEA’s only potential option to replace Houston ISD’s board. It could sanction the district over the state investigation. State law also allows the TEA to take over the board if a district has had a TEA conservator for two or more years.

HISD attorneys argue that the TEA’s investigation was biased and that because the TEA conservator was assigned to one campus, and not the district as a whole, her presence would not trigger a takeover.

The injunction by Judge Mauzy also blocks the TEA from acting under either of those rules.

See here for the background. The conventional wisdom seems to be that while the Third Court of Appeals may uphold the injunction, the all-Republican Supreme Court may be more favorable to the TEA. Make of that what you will. Time could be a factor, depending on how long it takes each court to hear and rule on the appeals. Honestly, I hope this gets decided on the merits in a timely fashion. Whatever the outcome, having some extra clarity on the law would be a good thing.

HISD gets another injunction

In state court this time.

A state judge Wednesday evening immediately blocked Texas from taking over the Houston Independent School District until she issues a final ruling on the case, complicating the state’s plan to oust the district’s school board by March.

In doing so, Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy preliminarily sided with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, in a legal battle that will ultimately determine whether Texas can indefinitely seize power from its elected school board. At a hearing Tuesday morning, lawyers for Houston ISD argued that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority in nearly every step in the process of deciding on a takeover.

[…]

Mauzy also denied Morath the ability to strike down the injunction on appeal. The trial is set for the morning of June 22, months after the state intended to seat a board of managers.

In the ruling, she said Houston ISD proved it needed the injunction because once Morath takes action to remove power from the elected board, the district would then have no recourse.

At Tuesday’s court hearing, Houston ISD’s lawyers challenged Morath’s reasons for the planned takeover, accusing him of inaccurately interpreting state law and skipping procedural steps to get the results he wanted.

“They don’t get to ignore the law and take over the district just because they think [the Texas Education Agency] could do a better job,” said lawyer David Campbell.

See here for the previous update, when a federal judge denied HISD’s request to halt the takeover but said they could file in state court. I’m still not betting on HISD prevailing, but they haven’t lost yet. Now the TEA needs to figure out how this affects their plans. Check back in June, this is going to be interesting. The Chron has more.

Morath’s big talk

But can he back it up?

In his first public comments about plans to strip power from Houston ISD’s elected trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Tuesday that the district’s leaders have engaged in “chronic neglect” of children in long-struggling schools, requiring the appointment of a replacement governing board that will better direct resources to HISD’s neediest students.

In an hourlong interview with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, Morath said he wants the replacement governing board to close achievement gaps by improving the district’s pre-kindergarten offerings, placing more high-performing staff at low-rated campuses and re-establishing strong leadership practices during its temporary stay in power. He faulted the district’s elected trustees for failing to address achievement issues in HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, several of which have received multiple consecutive failing grades in the past decade.

“This is how you make real inroads on the achievement gap: you get very serious about resource allocation,” Morath said. “It’s about money and talent. This is, in fact, an underlying root cause as to why you have some of the highest-performing schools in the state and some chronically under-performing schools, all in the same district. It’s a tale of two cities.”

[…]

In his comments Tuesday, Morath made clear that he expects the appointed board to address a few key areas, including “a systemic investment in early childhood education” and “how we properly support teachers and incent them” to work at chronically low-performing campuses. However, Morath said he will allow appointed board members and the superintendent to craft plans for meeting those goals.

“I would expect the board to use its judgment and proceed in a strategic direction that they think, given the intel that’s coming to them, makes the most sense for the kids and taxpayers of Houston,” Morath said.

I mean, if Mike Morath thinks that his appointed trustees can make significant improvements without screwing anything up, blowing a hole in the budget, or taking action that significantly contravenes popular will, then more power to them. As the story notes, HISD already offers pre-K (even though the state has historically not paid for it) and also already offers bonuses for teachers who work at underperforming campuses. It’s not that no one has thought of this stuff before, it’s that doing it right costs money, and I don’t see any plans for the state to address that. But hey, if they really can move the ball forward and leave the district in better shape than they found it, then that would be great. I’ll need to see it happen first.

On a side note:

Morath added that the district’s four newly elected trustees, who will be seated in January, cannot join the appointed board. Three of the four election victors say they have applied or plan to apply, believing they were eligible.

I kind of figured this would be the case, since the word from the TEA all along has been that it will be two years or so before they start reinstating the elected trustees, but a whole lot is up in the air now, so who knows what could have been. I remain sympathetic to the argument that the newly-elected Board members have already solved part of the problem that the takeover is supposed to fix, but clearly Mike Morath is not. This is perhaps another aspect of the law in question that should be reviewed by the next Legislature.