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Texas Education Agency

State finally releases most federal stimulus funds for schools

About damn time.

Texas’s top state leaders announced Wednesday they are releasing $11.2 billion out of nearly $18 billion available in federal pandemic relief funding that has been dedicated for the state’s public schools.

The announcement comes as education advocates and Democratic lawmakers have been urging officials in recent weeks to release the money that was set aside by Congress for Texas’ public schools to address learning loss and cover pandemic-related education expenses.

It’s unclear how the state plans to spend the remaining $7 billion in stimulus money, which was allocated through multiple aid packages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding could not be immediately released due to federal requirements, state officials said.

[…]

State officials had previously argued the reason they hadn’t allocated the one-time funding to the schools was because they were awaiting federal government guidance about whether the state would need to increase funding for higher education to make the K-12 funding available.

Last week, the federal government weighed in and clarified the state must maintain both higher education and public education funding at the same proportion to the budget as it was in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to tap into those dollars. Effectively, that means Texas would have to increase higher education spending by $1.2 billion to unlock the K-12 stimulus dollars.

Abbott has applied for a federal waiver that would allow Texas to bypass increasing higher education spending, but no decision has been announced on whether the waiver was granted. His office did not respond to questions about what this announcement means for higher education funding or why the public school funding was released. The announcement said legislative leaders will work to address outstanding issues about distributing the rest of the federal funding by the end of the legislative session.

K-12 and higher education advocates argue increasing funding for higher education is worth it to receive the nearly $18 billion in relief funds for K-12 schools.

“The state is seeking a federal waiver to avoid this additional spending, but that is the wrong thing to do, especially at a time when our institutions of higher education need the additional funding to cover extra expenses incurred during the pandemic,” said Texas Faculty Association President Pat Heintzelman in a press release this week.

School districts also called the state to release the money because they need to know how much money schools will receive as they develop budgets for next year. While the funding can be used for a variety of resources, including extra mental health support, counselors and more staff, school leaders were growing concerned they would run out of time to hire the necessary staff without access to more money.

“This is a positive first step in getting the funds our schools need,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that it took nearly two months of pushing the governor to get to this point. Many districts that have been contemplating cuts related to pandemic expenses can now implement plans to help students catch up.”

See here for the background. One reason for the increasing concern is that school districts have to be planning their budgets for next academic year, and there will surely need to be a lot of summer instruction as well. It’s so much better to have the funds in place and know what you’re getting rather than guess how much and when. The Chron adds a few details.

Houston-area district leaders have not yet detailed precise plans for stimulus money, largely because they did not know how much they will receive or when funding would arrive. However, several superintendents have identified top priorities, such as hiring more staff, extending the school day or year, upgrading ventilation systems and providing retention bonuses.

TEA officials released each district’s share of the $11 billion on Wednesday, cautioning that only two-thirds of the money will be available immediately. The remaining one-third will arrive once the U.S. Department of Education approves Texas’ written plan for the money.

The funds will flow in proportions similar to federal Title I money, meaning public school districts with a higher percentage of students from lower-income families will receive a greater share of the cash.

Houston ISD will receive about $800 million, equal to roughly 40 percent of its annual general fund operating costs. The more affluent Cy-Fair ISD will secure about $190 million, slightly less than 20 percent of its annual operating costs. The even-more affluent Katy ISD will net about $67 million, just under 10 percent of its annual operating costs.

This money will do a lot of good. It’s frustrating we had to wait as long as we did to get it, but at least it’s finally here, with more to come.

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

In the winter of 2019, two committees composed of Houston ISD employees, parents and advocates issued recommendations for how the district should tackle two of its thorniest issues: campus funding practices and access to magnet programs.

Some of the proposals would require sacrifice, committee members warned, including the potential closure of low-enrollment campuses and the elimination of magnet funding to elementary schools. Yet other recommendations, such as staffing all schools with essential support personnel and expanding magnet programs to all neighborhood middle and high schools, would offer more opportunities to students with the greatest needs, they said.

Two years later, HISD administrators and school board members have implemented few of the proposals, let alone discussed them at length publicly.

The inaction, local leaders and advocates said, speaks to a pattern in the Houston Independent School District of avoiding difficult but potentially consequential reforms in recent years, leaving the state’s largest school system mired in a status quo that holds back lower-income children of color.

Despite receiving numerous studies, investigative reports and committee proposals, HISD administrators and board members have not moved swiftly to address multiple challenges. The festering issues include inequitable distribution of resources and programs, declining student enrollment, inadequate support of students with disabilities, lagging employee pay and the long-term viability of small campuses.

The reasons for the paralysis are numerous — a fractured school board, a reticent administration, the ever-present threat of a state takeover, and once-in-a-generation natural and public health disasters — but each reflect how a $2-billion bureaucracy can become stagnant in the face of calls for reform.

“It feels like HISD has been in a holding pattern, and any type of substantive change hits a wall pretty quickly,” said Jaison Oliver, a community advocate who has urged HISD to implement multiple educational and social justice reforms.

The article delves into the reasons and the prognoses from there, and you can read the rest. Broadly speaking, while the district continues to perform well overall, racial and economic gaps exist, special education is still a mess, the magnet program remains controversial, and the school board is still divided. Harvey, coronavirus, and now the freeze have caused enough disruption to make anything beyond crisis management nearly impossible to attain, and oh yeah, there’s no Superintendent but there is a continuing threat of state takeover. In some ways it’s a miracle the district is performing at all. Maybe there’s some light in the tunnel now, we’ll see. Read the story and see what you think.

Parents sue Katy ISD over its mask mandate

Someday, these dumb stories will stop happening. Others will replace them, to be sure, but this type of dumb story will eventually fade away.

A group of parents are suing the Katy Independent School District, calling its continued requirement for masks in schools unconstitutional and a violation of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order from last month that lifted the statewide mask mandate, among other COVID-19 safety restrictions.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by a Houston attorney for parents Bonnie Anderson, Jenny Alexander, Doug Alexander, Heather Calhoun and Stephen Calhoun, takes issue with the district’s current safety protocols for in-person schooling, specifically its requirement that students wear masks in hallways, buses, and other common areas.

When Abbott announced his executive order, he did not address the ways rescinding the mask mandate affected public schools. In a later interview with radio host Chad Hasty, Abbott said he expected the Texas Education Agency to leave the decision to require masks up to local school boards.

The agency’s updated mask policy has allowed “local school boards have full authority to determine their local mask policy,” according to its website. In public planning guidance, the agency also recommends the use of masks.

Under Katy ISD’s policies, students who don’t comply with the mask policy will be moved to online school and aren’t allowed to participate in other student activities. Those who have medical conditions that preclude them from wearing a mask must notify the school nurse and have documentation from their medical provider, according to the policy.

The lawsuit also argues under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Brown v. Board of Education that forcing students to switch to virtual school is a form of “separate but equal” discrimination.

The Supreme Court case’s ruling focused on segregation between Black and white students in public schools and discrimination on the basis of race.

[…]

Katy ISD responded to the lawsuit with a statement that it is complying with the agency’s public planning recommendations.

“Katy ISD continues to follow the Governor’s Executive Order GA-34 and comply with the Texas Education Agency’s Public Health Planning Guidance,” said the statement, obtained by Fox 26 Houston.

If you guessed that only Jared Woodfill would be dumb and obnoxious enough to cite Brown v Board of Education as a precedent for this silly lawsuit, congratulations. You don’t win a prize but you do get to live with the knowledge that you are familiar enough with Jared Woodfill to recognize his handiwork. It sure seems to me like this lawsuit is unlikely to win, but the part of my brain that tries to make sense of the world around me is convinced there must be some merit to this, however hard it may be to find. I don’t think my analysis can get any deeper than that, so let’s wrap this up. The Chron has more.

There are still a lot of students doing remote school

I’m actually a little surprised it’s this much.

Nathan is among 35,127 students in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and hundreds of thousands of students across Greater Houston whose parents opted to keep at home for the fourth and final grading period of the 2020-21 school year. Many of those students have not been inside a classroom since schools closed last March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 250,000 students in 18 districts are learning from home in the final grading period, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of school district attendance data. Twenty-one districts responded to a Chronicle request for data, but only 18 were able to provide specific numbers for each grading period.

About 475,000 students in the 18 districts are back in schools. Among the 21 districts that responded to the Chronicle’s request, an average of about 75 percent of students were learning in person on campuses.

Those numbers vary widely from district to district. Only about 42 percent of Houston ISD students were back on campus by the fourth grading period, for example, while nearly 97 percent of students in Deer Park ISD have returned.

Statewide data from the TEA shows that districts that serve larger shares of Black and Hispanic students had fewer coming back for in-person classes. In districts where 10 percent or less of students were Black or Hispanic, about 80 percent of students returned, but in districts where 90 to 100 percent of students were black, less than half came back for face-to-face instruction.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said multiple studies have shown that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, which often makes families of color more fearful of sending their students back to campuses.

“They’re more likely to know someone who’s gotten the virus, gotten seriously ill from the virus or died from the virus,” he said. “A lot of parents are just concerned that if kids go back to school in those communities, the impact could be very real and immediate for those families.”

Despite the varying attendance rates, one trend was clear among the 21 districts: More parents opted to send their children back for in-person instruction every time they were given the chance. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents that opportunity each grading period.

Maybe if we were three months ago where we are now with vaccinations it would be different. Maybe if Texas had prioritized vaccinating teachers and school staff as part of the first wave it would be different. Who knows? The fact that the in-person attendance has ticked up every grading period suggests a correlation with the vaccine rate, but we can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, our kids have been back in school since January – in HISD, you have to make a selection every six weeks – and it’s been fine for them. The eighth grader informed us the other day that they can eat in the cafeteria now instead of having to have lunch at their desks – they’re limited to three at a table made for eight, but it’s still an improvement as far as she’s concerned.

I expect that the large majority of kids will be back in the classroom in the fall, but online learning will still be available to those who still want it. Most likely, anyway.

Houston ISD leaders plan to offer online-only classes to families that want them to start the 2021-22 school year — as long as state officials continue to provide funding for children enrolled in virtual instruction.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday after her annual State of the Schools speech, said district leaders hope to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms by August while also remaining committed to an online-only option.

About 56 percent of HISD’s 197,000 students attended virtual classes as of February, largely due to health and safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While Lathan pushed for choice Wednesday, she also warned that HISD families should expect one big change in 2021-22: educators no longer will be required to teach students in face-to-face and virtual classes at the same time. As a result, families should not expect to retain the same teacher if they switch between formats during the school year.

“Our teachers teaching simultaneously has been extremely difficult this year, and we cannot continue to go on in that manner for the next school year,” Lathan said. “That’s what will look different. The option will be there, but we need to have teachers teaching in one mode.”

As the story notes, this is dependent on the next Superintendent not deciding to change direction, and on the TEA being willing to continue funding schools for online learning at the same rate. I think this may be a mostly moot point if we’re at 70%+ vaccination rate by August, and even more so if kids start getting vaccinated, but we’ll see. I think basically everyone will benefit from getting back to the classroom, but people still have to feel safe about it. Things really would be different if we had prioritized safety from the beginning.

HISD Board wins again in court

They’re still a thing, and Mike Morath can’t do anything about it right now.

The Houston ISD school board earned another win Friday in its effort to stave off Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plan to replace it with an appointed board, this time prevailing in a procedural battle before the state Supreme Court.

In an 8-1 decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a state appellate court had the legal right to temporarily halt Morath’s move to oust HISD’s school board amid an ongoing lawsuit.

The ruling is not final victory for HISD in its fight with Morath. It merely means that the education commissioner cannot immediately move to replace trustees with a board of managers, which could vote to drop the lawsuit. The HISD board’s case remains pending, with an appeal related to the central issues of the case pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

Lawyers representing Morath and the Texas Education Agency argued that a state law precluded the courts from stopping state administrative actions — such as stripping power from school board members and appointing replacements — even if a trial court issues a temporary injunction. A Travis County judge overseeing HISD’s lawsuit issued such an injunction in January 2020.

An appellate court partially agreed with the TEA’s position, but the judges also found that they separately had the power to halt an administrative action under the state’s rules of appellate procedure, which they did in HISD’s case.

Lawyers for Morath and TEA disagreed and asked the state Supreme Court to overturn that finding, but the eight justices sided with the lower court.

See here and here for the background. This is a procedural ruling, which just means that the TEA does not get to take over HISD while the appeal of the ruling that said that the TEA did not properly follow the law while attempting to do the takeover is being litigated. HISD still has to win that appeal, and then have that upheld by the Supreme Court, to get out of the current situation. In the meantime, there’s the Harold Dutton bill that would make all of this moot, though it too would surely be subject to a lawsuit. I dunno, maybe the TEA should try to negotiate a settlement of some kind if they lose again, so we can all get on with our lives? Just a thought.

Dutton files bill to enable HISD takeover

Whatever else you may say, this is true to his beliefs.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Texas House Public Education Chairman Harold Dutton Jr. filed a bill Tuesday that, if it passes and withstands any legal challenge, would virtually guarantee the ouster of Houston ISD’s school board.

The Houston Democrat’s bill aims to clear the way for Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to strip power from all nine elected HISD trustees and replace them with a state-appointed board — an effort mired in an ongoing legal battle that has stretched more than a year.

[…]

Dutton’s bill seeks to remedy each issue raised by the Third Court of Appeals, while also explicitly stating that Morath’s decisions on school district sanctions cannot be litigated in courts.

Some parts of the bill would apply retroactively or punish HISD for past performance — which could prompt legal challenges.

For example, the bill states that Texas’ education commissioner must replace the school board in any district with a campus that has not received a passing grade under the state’s academic accountability system since 2010-11 and received more than five failing grades during that time. HISD’s Wheatley High meets that criteria.

“I don’t know if they can do that or not, but it certainly leads to an argument that it’s retroactive legislation,” said Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer representing HISD in its lawsuit against Morath.

See here for the last update on the takeover litigation. As noted, the issues that the court ruled on were that the TEA did not follow the law correctly in its takeover bid. I’ve no idea if Rep. Dutton’s retroactive fix will remedy that, but I feel confident we’ll find out if it gets that far. As noted, the original bill that led to the HISD takeover was a Dutton bill, as he has been a longtime critic of HISD for the poor performance of schools in hid district (including Wheatley) and others in predominantly black neighborhoods. It was very much an issue in his 2020 primary race, and I have no doubt it will arise again in 2022.

At least one of Rep. Dutton’s colleagues is not with him on this:

Rep. Wu notes that the TEA could simply take over Wheatley if they wanted to, as it is the sole school that is causing HISD to trigger the takeover law, but that is not what they chose. I have no idea if this bill will make it through, but Dutton is the Chair of the House Public Education Committee, so it will certainly get a hearing.

HISD Superintendent Lathan leaving

I wish her well.

Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan plans to leave the district at the end of the 2020-21 school year, ending an unusually long three-year run in the position that was marked by fallout from the pandemic, the constant threat of severe state intervention and battles with some school board members.

In announcing her departure Monday morning, Lathan said she has accepted the job of superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in Missouri starting July 1.

“The students, teachers, principals, staff, parents and community of HISD are close to my heart, and I leave knowing that they are resilient and stronger together,” Lathan said in a statement. “I am beyond honored and thankful for this amazing opportunity, and I thank HISD for all the lessons learned, the success of our students, and the commitment of our staff.”

Lathan’s departure is expected to coincide with the arrival of a permanent superintendent in June. HISD trustees are in the early stages selecting a superintendent, an effort delayed by a state order to halt an earlier search and lingering uncertainty about Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plans to replace all nine elected school board members.

[…]

Lathan’s leadership drew mixed reviews, which often split along racial and professional lines.

HISD produced modest districtwide academic gains over the past three years and saw significant improvements at some historically lower-rated campuses, including Kashmere High School. The district launched several new initiatives, including mentoring programs for high school boys and girls, and expanded its signature wraparound services effort.

The city’s Black legislators and community leaders particularly lauded her work, pushing HISD trustees to retain her as the district’s first Black female superintendent.

Others, however, bristled at her tenure. In the past three years, HISD received blistering reports from the Legislative Budget Board, which criticized numerous aspects of the district’s operations, and the Texas Education Agency, which blasted the district’s special education department. Lathan also clashed with some trustees and employee union leaders over budget negotiations in 2018 and 2019.

As the story notes, her departure was expected given that the Board declined to hire her on a permanent basis. She wound up serving as interim Superintendent for three years. I thought she deserved a real shot at the job, but I agreed with the decision to do a national search and not just hire her outright. I think Lathan did about as well as she could have under the circumstances, but her successor will also face some steep challenges. I sure hope we hire the right person. My best wishes to Grenita Lathan in the next stage of her career. The Press has more.

Reactions to the maskless mandate

Let’s start with the doctors, since clearly they weren’t consulted.

Houston-area doctors and medical professionals reacted with dismay to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday decision to roll back the state’s mask mandate and other precautions against COVID-19.

“I had a pretty strong visceral reaction — like PTSD,” said Dr. Matt Dacso, an internist at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “I can think of no other word but incomprehensible… Everybody is hurting, but gosh, man. The masks were doing a lot for us.”

Dacso said the order was a huge hit to morale, coming almost exactly one year after the first recorded case in New York. His team had been celebrating the progress made since then — until they heard about Abbott’s order.

[…]

“It’s true that Texas has been vaccinating people,” said Peter Hotez, vaccine researcher at Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “But after the recent freeze, we rank at the bottom of states in the percentage of people we’ve vaccinated: Only 13 percent of Texans have had their first dose.

“I would have preferred to wait a couple of weeks to reopen while we see how these new variants play out here, and so that we could catch up to the rest of the country in terms of vaccinations,” Hotez continued.

While people who have been vaccinated may feel tempted to go out without their masks, they shouldn’t, said Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association.

A vaccination means they’re less likely to face severe complications from COVID-19, not that they’re less likely to catch it and infect others. COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are still studying the rate of transmission and infection in people who have been immunized, and trial data may not be available until the spring.

“Fully vaccinating 1.8 million people is still a huge number, but it’s far from getting anywhere near where we say things are going to be contained,” Fite said.

Local hospitals say they are not planning to change their masking requirements.

“The COVID-19 virus and its effects will be with us for a long time,” St. Luke’s Health officials said in a Tuesday afternoon statement. To ensure the safety and health of our communities, we urge people to continue to wear masks and practice other precautions like hand washing and social distancing, in addition to getting vaccinated. Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the virus, which is why masks are still required at all St Luke’s Health facilities.”

See here for the background. Local health officials were equally vehement.

Keep wearing your mask and taking COVID-19 safety precautions, local health experts said Tuesday, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on businesses.

“Despite the impending removal of the state mask mandate, we must continue our vigilance with masking, distancing, and hand washing,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Travis County Interim Health Authority. “These remain critical in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”

Expressing concerns about highly contagious variants of the virus and the need for local health officials to maintain some authority over their local situations — which vary widely from county to county — doctors and health officials cautioned that Texans should not take Abbott’s announcement as a signal to relax the behavior that has lead to a recent decrease in coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations.

[…]

Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority, said it’s premature to abandon safety precautions and hopes Texans can stay patient even in the absence of statewide rules.

“I think that people have a lot more common sense than we give them credit for, but … it’s very hard for human beings not to start socializing and to stop wearing masks,” he said.”I understand they are looking for any sign they can go back to the old ways, but I would just remind them that we’re in the bottom of the ninth, two runs out, and we’re almost there. This isn’t the time to put the bench in. This is the time to continue with the A-Team. Very soon, we’ll be there.”

Others said that while they’re glad Abbott did stress that Texans should stay cautious, the mandate provided an important function that the state may not be ready for yet.

“I think it’s a little bit early, in my opinion, to be removing the masking requirement,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. “I would have preferred to see our numbers lower, and I would have preferred to see more people vaccinated before we took that leap.”

Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the state medical association’s COVID-19 task force, agreed it was too soon for Texans to relax their safety practices, adding he is especially concerned about the increasing spread of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, which is thought to be more contagious and perhaps more deadly.

None of this should be a surprise. I’m sure there are some doctors out there who are Team No Mask, but as a group this is obvious. The Texas Medical Association took a diplomatic path:

Restaurants were also cautious, though they have clear reasons to be happy about the full reopening stuff.

Operators wondered if they would be ready to return so quickly to full service; if they could hire workers fast enough to accommodate full capacity; if their purveyors would be ready to service increased orders for food and other goods. And, most crucially, how mask wearing would be handled by workers and a dining public no longer required to cover up.

There were no clear answers Tuesday.

“Personally, I didn’t expect him to say that today. I thought we wouldn’t see it until sometime in the summertime,” said [Levi] Goode, whose restaurant portfolio also includes Goode Co. Seafood, Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina and Armadillo Palace. “We’ve adopted some great practice from the safety standpoint during the pandemic, and many of those will remain intact until we feel comfortable we can move in another direction.”

But without a state mandate that masks are required, next Wednesday will bring uncertainty.

Ricardo Molina, president and co-owner of Molina’s Cantina restaurants, said that he probably will not enforce masks for his servers, but that those who choose to wear one will be able to do so. He added that customers will ultimately dictate how the staff will come down on masks.

“We’re probably going to find the vast majority (of customers) are ready to see masks go away,” Molina said. “If people are ready to go all-out business as usual, we’re ready to do that as well.”

Paul Miller, owner of Gr8 Plate Hospitality which includes The Union Kitchen and Jax Grill restaurants, anticipates a gradual return to practices that existed before COVID-19.

“Our primary concern is for our staff and our guests, and while we certainly appreciate the opportunity to go back to 100 percent and the governor has removed the mask mandate, we are going to continue to uphold our safety and sanitation protocols as we slowly but surely move into this new phase of our business,” he said.

How the restaurant industry will negotiate that new phase wasn’t clear on Tuesday. While the Texas Restaurant Association celebrated Abbott’s announcement, it was quick to say that Texas restaurants must “remain vigilant so we do not slide backward.”

“Consumers will only go where they feel safe, and so restaurants must continue to be very thoughtful and implement the safety protocols that will enable them to maintain and build trust with their consumers and employees,” the association stated.

Yeah, that. It’s a thing I’ve been saying for months – you have to beat the virus if you really want to reopen. People will not want to patronize businesses if they don’t feel safe doing so. That as much as anything is why I would have expected a more gradual reopening, one that takes into account the fact that we still have a lot of vaccinations to administer, and still have a lot of people getting sick and going to the hospital. Just declare your intention to take the victory lap. What was the rush?

Personally, I’ve been eating at a couple of places that have outdoor seating, and also doing takeout. I will continue to do that for at least the next few months. The Chron’s Alison Cook is surveying restaurants around town to see what their response is; her initial story on that is here. Quite a few are currently planning to stay with what they’re doing now, which surprises me a little, but in a good way. I’ll be very interested to see how the wider public reacts. For the record, the subset of barbecue joint owners and brewery owners were not impressed and seem to be determined to keep doing what they’ve been doing for now.

School districts have a choice to make.

Local school boards will have the authority to decide whether to require students over the age of 10 to wear masks under current Texas Education Agency health guidance, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he was lifting the state’s mask mandate and reopening businesses at 100 percent capacity.

In the governor’s executive order, which takes effect March 10, he wrote that public schools “may operate” under minimum health protocols found in Texas Education Agency guidance, and that private schools and colleges are “encouraged to establish similar standards.”

Under the previous mask mandate, all students older than 10 were required to wear masks on school property.

TEA’s most recent guidance, issued in December, says that outside the soon-to-expire mask mandate, school systems “may require the use of masks or face shields for adults or students for whom it is developmentally appropriate.”

Houston and Fort Bend ISDs issued statements Tuesday afternoon saying they would continue to require masks and face coverings at all schools and district facilities.

“This requirement is consistent with the advice of health professional and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” HISD officials said in a statement.

We got a robocall from HISD Tuesday afternoon informing us of this. It’s the clear and obviously correct call, and as someone whose kids are attending school in person, I’d have been massively pissed if they had done otherwise.

Metro riders will need to keep their masks on.

Despite state officials loosening restrictions related to COVID, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said requirements for face coverings on riders and employees will continue.

“Metro has no plans at this time to drop the mask requirement for people riding our system,” transit agency spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Since June, Metro has required masks for anyone using the system. Last month, the Federal Transit Administration issued guidance that all transportation providers — buses, trains, ferries and planes — prohibit anyone from riding without a mask.

For those who do not have a face covering and want to hop on a bus, Metro drivers will offer them a mask. Bus drivers and others have handed out 2 million masks along the Metro system, agency officials said.

Good call. This, not so much.

H-E-B will urge, but not require, customers to wear masks inside its grocery stores in Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded his statewide mask mandate Tuesday, the company said.

The grocer and retailer, however, will still require employees and vendors to wear masks in the stores.

“Although there is no longer a statewide mask order, H-E-B believes it is important that masks be worn in public spaces until more Texans and our Partners have access to the Covid-19 vaccine,” Lisa Helfman, the retailer’s local public affairs director, said in a statement.

I’ve already seen a few people react negatively to this on Twitter. I try to do my HEB shopping early in the morning, to avoid larger crowds. I may need to push it a little earlier now. Yes, we could order curbside – we have done it a couple of times – but I like the in store experience. Or at least, I have liked it. Don’t make me regret my choices, HEB.

What are your expectations? Will you avoid or patronize places that lift their mask requirements? The Texas Signal and Dos Centavos have more.

TEA appeals HISD takeover ruling to Supreme Court

One way or the other, this should get a resolution.

Lawyers representing the Texas Education Agency filed an appeal Wednesday asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a temporary injunction that has slowed Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plans to strip power from all nine Houston ISD school board members.

The filing comes nearly two months after the Third District Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Morath did not follow laws and procedures that would give him the authority to temporarily replace HISD’s school board with a state-appointed board.

TEA pledged in late December 2020 to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. If the state’s highest court overturns the injunction, TEA leaders could install a new board that could vote to end HISD’s lawsuit.

[…]

In their filing Wednesday, state lawyers representing the state argued the Third District Court of Appeals erred in its interpretation of laws and regulations on all three fronts. The lawyers also claimed HISD should not be able to sue the state over an administrative matter.

“This case is of immediate importance to HISD students,” Assistant Solicitor General Kyle Highful wrote in the appeal. “And the court of appeals’ misinterpretations of the law endanger TEA’s future efforts to assist failing schools.”

Each of the three issues considered by the Third District Court of Appeals largely fell along technical lines.

See here for the previous update. The ruling in favor of HISD was bipartisan, so this isn’t an R-versus-D issue in the way some other recent lawsuits have been. No idea how long this may take, so just keep on keeping on until we know more.

Getting the kids caught up at school

Gonna be a big job, and hopefully we can do it in earnest beginning in August.

With students finally settling into a pandemic-altered routine and widespread vaccine access on the horizon, Texas education leaders are turning to their next great challenge: catching up potentially millions of children falling behind in school.

Faced with the possibility of devastating student learning loss, educators across the state are in the early stages of planning for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, starting to devise significant — and likely disruptive — changes to their calendars, curricula and staffing.

Several of Texas’ largest districts already have restructured their upcoming school year, adding multiple weeks of instruction or moving up their start dates to stem the so-called “summer slide.”

The adjustments will impact many of the state’s more than 5 million students, whose academic, behavioral and emotional development have been stunted by the pandemic.

The effort also will test the state’s dedication to equity, the oft-cited-but-frequently-unfulfilled principle that children with the greatest needs should receive the most resources and support. While conclusive data on the pandemic’s impact remains elusive, educators widely agree that Black and Latino children, as well as students from lower-income families and those with disabilities, are more likely to fall behind than their peers.

“We need to use this opportunity to really step back and think about what students need, and then build a system and schedule and structure that helps them get that,” said Bridget Worley, executive director of the education nonprofit Texas Impact Network. “If we start back where we left off, we’re doing them a disservice.”

[…]

In Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district, school board members voted Thursday to give staff and families at each school the option to add 10 weeks of in-person instruction spread across 2021-22 and 2022-23. District administrators are gathering feedback to determine which campuses want to adopt the revised calendar. Attendance will not be mandatory for students and staff at schools making the change.

The idea, which could cost up to $90 million to implement, marks the most ambitious proposal to date among Texas’ largest school districts.

Derek Little, Dallas’ deputy chief of academics, said administrators still are crafting plans for the 10 weeks of support, but they envision smaller classes in a lower-stress environment for children.

“We knew we had to do something really bold to help our students recover from their learning loss and pandemic challenges,” Little said. “The research here is really compelling, that when students have more time in a high-quality learning environment, that extra time makes a difference.”

The Dallas plan mirrors an initiative launched this school year in neighboring Garland ISD, home to about 54,100 students. The district added 17 days of optional instruction into its 2020-21 calendar — eight weekdays spread throughout the normal school year, plus nine weekdays tacked on in June — and plans to offer 21 more optional class days in 2021-22.

[…]

In a statement this week, Houston ISD officials said they are “in the initial stages of planning our summer program and strategic planning for the 2021-22 school year.”

“Normally, this process typically occurs during the first few months of a calendar year,” the administrators said. “Like other districts, HISD is prioritizing students who are struggling academically and socially/emotionally, beginning with making district-wide credit recovery available to our 11th and 12th graders in February 2021.”

Clearly, everyone wants students back in school, in a much lower-risk environment. When that happens, a lot of students are going to need a lot of remedial work, because distance learning has its problems, and many students had technology and Internet issues on top of that. There are lots of options for this kind of remedial work, but they all boil down to more time in the classroom and more instruction. Both of those things, along with tutors and materials and who knows what else, will cost money. Ideally, there will be federal funding to pay for this, but the Legislature will have a role as well, even if it’s just to appropriate the federal money. What the actual on-the-ground plans are will be done locally. Whoever is in charge of HISD when this all comes around will have their hands full.

Taking the STAAR online

If we’re going to have the thing, then this makes sense.

Texas education officials want all public school students to take state-required standardized tests digitally by 2022, an effort that could cost school districts millions more collectively each year, according to a report released Monday.

The report, created by the Texas Education Agency and commissioned by state leaders, estimated school districts would have to make a one-time payment of about $4 million total to improve internet connectivity, and then spend about $13.4 million more annually for extra bandwidth and staff training. Many of the districts that need to increase funding are small and rural.

That investment would allow nearly all students to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, online by the 2022-23 school year, according to the report. That excludes students who may need paper tests due to disabilities or other special cases.

“Benefits of online assessments include the potential for faster results, the potential for customizable assessment, more engaging assessment questions, reduced operational complexity and paper waste, better test security, improved administration and more equitable access to accommodation supports for students,” the report reads.

In 2018-19, just 13% of STAAR tests were administered online, many for students who needed accommodations due to disabilities.

It makes sense, for the reasons stated, and spending the money to upgrade the schools that need the equipment is a good investment. The Lege needs to approve the plan, and I figure that’s likely to happen. I’m not a big fan of the STAAR, but as I said, if we’re going to have it, this is the way to do it.

HISD Superintendent search is back on

For now, anyway.

Houston ISD trustees kicked off their long-delayed search for a permanent leader Monday, choosing three superintendent search firms to interview later this week.

The initial move comes as the state’s largest district seeks to fill a position that Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has held since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City public schools. HISD’s search has been delayed because of the looming threat of state sanctions, a state order that temporarily halted the first search and lingering uncertainty about the trustees’ ability to hire a quality candidate, among other issues.

Trustees are scheduled to reconvene Wednesday and possibly Thursday to select from the three firms: Austin-based JG Consulting; Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates; and Nebraska-based McPherson & Jacobson. Board members opted against interviewing GR Recruiting and the Texas Association of School Boards’ Executive Search Services.

“I prefer to interview three and give those three more time with us,” Trustee Dani Hernandez said.

HISD trustees have not released a proposed timeline for completing the search. School boards typically take multiple months to choose a lone finalist.

As the story notes, the previous search was halted by conservator Doris Delaney, who cited the investigation into allegations that five HISD Trustees had violated the Open Meetings Act when they voted to bring back Abe Saavedra as interim Superintendent and force out Grenita Lathan. The recent Third Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed an injunction against the TEA takeover stated that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures in conducting that investigation, which sort of brings us full circle.

The injunction did not explicitly say HISD trustees could resume the superintendent search, leading to uncertainty about the board’s authority. However, trustees are interpreting the injunction as giving them the power to restart their search, and TEA officials have not moved to halt the effort.

“Because of the turmoil, it’s been hard to know what has been the long-term vision (for HISD),” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said in November. “This process will help provide space to hear that, as well as the vision of others, as we do what’s best for kids.”

The potential for a bigger mess if the Supreme Court overturns the lower court rulings is very present, but one way or the other, the district deserves the opportunity to hire a new leader. Let’s just hope this results in less chaos and not more.

TEA still barred from taking over HISD

Still in a state of limbo.

Texas is still temporarily barred from taking over Houston Independent School District, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday, upholding a lower court’s order.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Texas Third Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction that stops the Texas Education Agency from replacing the elected school board of its largest district with an appointed board of managers. The appeals court ruling sends the case back to the lower court that in January blocked the state’s takeover effort.

The appellate judges said Houston ISD had a “probable right to relief” since the TEA did not follow proper procedure and acted outside its authority as it moved to sanction the district. It also ordered the state to “pay all costs related to this appeal.”

The TEA plans to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. “While the Agency is disappointed with the split ruling from the 3rd Court of Appeals, this is only a temporary setback,” the agency said in a statement. “We are confident that the Texas Supreme Court will uphold the Commissioner’s legally-authorized actions to improve the educational outcomes for the 200,000-plus public school students of Houston.”

[…]

[T]he appellate court’s ruling Wednesday said Texas’ “proposed actions are not authorized by the Education Code.” The opinion stated that the state did not have the right to appoint a conservator to oversee the entire school district in 2019, force Houston ISD to suspend its search for a new superintendent, or impose sanctions based on an investigation, among other things.

The opinion was written by Judge Gisela Triana, who was joined by Judge Jeff Rose in the ruling. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Baker wrote that Texas is authorized to take over Houston ISD, the injunction should be removed and the district’s claims should be dismissed.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. The Chron story goes into the opinion in some more detail.

To start, HISD’s lawyers argued Wheatley High School did not trigger a state law requiring the school’s closure or the board’s ouster after the Fifth Ward campus received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019. While the law is intended to punish districts with campuses receiving failing grades in multiple consecutive years, the justices found that the TEA failed to take a technical step — ordering HISD to submit a campus turnaround plan for Wheatley — that it says was required under the statute.

The two justices also ruled that the TEA incorrectly interpreted a state law that says Morath can replace the school board in any district that has had a state-appointed conservator for more than two years.

State officials appointed conservator Doris Delaney to oversee long-struggling Kashmere High School in 2016, then clarified that her authority extended to district-level support in 2019. TEA officials argued Delaney’s presence since 2016 met the criteria for triggering the state law, but the two justices ruled that only her time as a district-level conservator counted toward the two-year requirement, which thus hasn’t yet been met.

Finally, the two justices found that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures related to a special accreditation investigation, which Morath cited as a third reason for replacing HISD’s board.

For what it’s worth, the “affirm” opinion came from a Democratic justice (Triana) and a Republican justice (Rose), while it was a Democratic justice (Baker) who voted to overturn the district court opinion. I don’t know when this might be resolved – the appeal to the Supreme Court is of the injunction, while the case itself was sent back to the district court – but until there is a final ruling that says the TEA can install its Board of Managers, I’m going to operate on the assumption that there will be HISD Trustee elections this year. I guess there would be regardless, but at least for now those elections mean a bit more, since the Board of Trustees is still running things. The Press has more.

STAAR yes, school ratings no

Seems like this is where we were always headed.

Texas public school students will still take the STAAR test this spring, but the state will not rate schools and districts based on their results, the Texas Education Agency announced Thursday.

The announcement comes as districts report alarming numbers of students failing at least one class this fall and thousands of students who have not showed up to online classes or turned in assignments. In normal years, Texas rates its schools and districts on a scale from A through F, based in large part on the scores students receive on the standardized tests.

“The pandemic has disrupted school operations in fundamental ways that have often been outside the control of our school leaders, making it far more difficult to use these ratings as a tool to support student academic growth. As a result, we will not issue A-F ratings this school year,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Thursday in a statement.

[…]

Last spring, Texas applied for and received a waiver from the federal government allowing it not to administer the STAAR test. It is unclear whether President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will offer similar waivers in 2021.

See here and here for the background. I expect the incoming administration to be pretty understanding, and I am in favor of waiving all of this stuff until everything is well and truly back to normal. No need to make it any harder on the kids than it is already. The Chron and the Press have more.

HISD Board selects a successor for Wanda Adams

Meet Myrna Guidry.

Myrna Guidry

Houston ISD trustees unanimously voted Tuesday to appoint lawyer Myrna Guidry to the board seat vacated last month by Wanda Adams, who represented parts of south Houston.

Trustees considered eight applicants over two days before landing on Guidry, who has operated a private practice focusing on family and probate law for the past two decades. Guidry will fill the final 12 months of the term won by Adams, who resigned from the District IX position following her election as a justice of the peace.

In an interview following the vote, Guidry said the board’s decision left her “ecstatic and over-the-moon.” Guidry is the parent of a high school senior who grew up in HISD, and she has served as a guardian ad litem and family law mediator. She has not been involved in education advocacy prior to her appointment.

“I’m a God-fearing mother of an amazing child, with a wonderful husband, who is trying to do what I can to help the children not only in District IX, but in all of HISD,” Guidry said.

I had forgotten about this. Wanda Adams won the Democratic primary for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 7, and was unopposed in November. (You won’t find her in the election results page for November 2020 on HarrisVotes.com because of this – state law allows for unopposed candidates for county office to be declared the winner prior to November, and thus not need to be on the ballot.) Her term as HISD Trustee is up at the end of 2021, so Guidry will have to run for a full term this November, if HISD is allowed to have trustee elections. As the story notes, it is not clear what the TEA will do about that as part of the takeover, which for now is stalled in court. As for new trustee Guidry, I didn’t find a Facebook page for her, but her LinkedIn profile is here. Welcome to the Board, and I wish you all the best for as long as the Board is allowed to operate.

Can we please not screw the schools right now?

Really, we don’t have to do this.

Across the Houston region and Texas, school districts that lost enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing a drop in state funds starting in January if the Texas Education Agency or state lawmakers do not act.

Since the virus began sweeping across the state and nation last March, forcing schools to close, the TEA has given districts several grace periods in which it provided them the same funding they would have received in normal times. To date, that has provided a lifeline to districts that otherwise would have seen their state revenues plunge due to lower-than-expected student enrollments.

The current grace period, which the TEA calls a “hold harmless guarantee,” ends Dec. 31.

The Texas Legislature in 2019 allocated enough money to fund schools at their current levels until the end of the school year, but the TEA has remained mum on whether it will extend the hold harmless guarantee until then. Without another extension for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, some local district finance officials worry they will be faced with two bad options: dip into and potentially deplete their reserve funds to keep their districts operating through spring, or lay off teachers and staff to make ends meet.

For Houston-area districts, which began the school year missing more than 20,000 students, the financial ramifications could run into the tens of millions of dollars. For example, Alief ISD could lose nearly $40 million after enrollment fell 3,500 short of initial estimates.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which has 2,364 fewer students now than at the end of last year, estimates it could lose $29 million. Aldine ISD could “easily” miss out on $20 million after its enrollment fell 4,000 students shy of projections, and Pasadena ISD would face a shortfall of nearly $14 million due to a 2,261-student enrollment drop.

Houston ISD did not respond to a request for comment, but the district began the year with 13,000 fewer students than expected.

There is no one answer for why students have dropped off schools’ radars. Some may have moved with family in search of work. Parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students may wait to enroll them until school operations are more normal. Others may have been kept at home by parents waiting for COVID infection levels to improve before sending their kids back to school.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the Chronicle’s editorial board in November the agency “already provided unprecedented flexibility to offer remote learning, and with it, full funding.”

“However, we know that certain districts face challenges because of significant enrollment declines, and we are working to ensure that our schools and teachers receive the additional financial support we need,” Morath said.

The lack of a concrete assurance that districts statewide will continue to receive funding at current levels has many on edge, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“Everybody right now is holding their breath, hoping the state will come through with hold harmless,” Brown said. “But they’re also starting to look at what will happen if that doesn’t come through — are they going to have to do layoffs, and if so, how extensively?”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Cypress, said while enrollments remain lower-than-predicted across the state, the situation is improving as the school year plays out and kids come back. He also said he expects more students to return as COVID-19 vaccines begin to be distributed.

Returning funding to the state’s attendance-based formula creates an incentive for districts to keep looking for students who have not shown up.

“You have to balance all these needs, because we have to keep the public school system making sure they make every effort to find students,” he said. “Otherwise children are left behind.”

I mean, look. Schools and school districts and teachers – and parents and students – are contending with a lot this year. They’re doing the best they can under extreme circumstances. While the state of Texas is also under financial constraints, this is exactly the sort of situation for which the Rainy Day Fund – also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund – was created, to smooth out unexpected downturns in revenue and tide things over till they rebound. And for the millionth time, I will note that our state Republican leadership could be loudly demanding that our two Republican Senators support a COVID relief package that gives financial support to state and local governments, including school boards, that are suffering through the effects of the pandemic. There are many things we could do that do not involve putting all the burden on the school districts. We just have to choose to do them.

Remote learning has been hard for many students

This is a problem that I don’t think we’re prepared to deal with.

Students across Greater Houston failed classes at unprecendented rates in the first marking period, with some districts reporting nearly half of their middle and high schoolers received at least two F grades because they routinely missed classes or neglected assignments.

The percentage of students failing at least one class has doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in several of the region’s largest school districts, education administrators reported in recent days, a reflection of the massive upheaval caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

If those trends keep up, districts expect to see a decline in graduation rates, an increase in summer school demand and a need for intensive support to accommodate students falling behind, among numerous other consequences.

“Our internal failure rates — not (standardized) tests, just our teachers teaching, grading, assessing kids — are like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers, who reported nearly half of his students failed at least one class to start the school year.

“I’ve told our teachers to use the same professional judgment you’ve always used, but I don’t want our standards lowered. We’re not creating these false narratives that you’re doing OK and let someone move on without being competent in the area we’re teaching.”

The failure rates illustrate the monumental challenge faced by students, families and school districts trying to navigate the pandemic while remaining engaged in learning.

[…]

Local education leaders are hopeful the performance trend reverses before the end of the first semester, when high school students’ grades become official for transcript purposes. They noted more students are returning to in-person classes or growing comfortable with completing work online.

If failure rates remain high, however, the impact could be long-lasting for students and districts.

Educators fear the pandemic will widen graduation and college acceptance disparities between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Districts in less affluent areas of Houston generally saw more students remain in online classes, where failing grades were more prevalent.

“We’re going to have to be mapping things out for how to use every minute of remediation, thinking about a two- to three-year span for getting kids back on course,” Aldine Chief Academic Officer Todd Davis said.

Districts could add summer school courses in the coming years to help students make up for failing grades, but the cost of those programs already worries some school leaders. Texas legislators and education officials have not pledged to allocate additional funding for summer school ahead of next year’s legislative session.

“Those extra courses that students normally take — for us, it’s called ‘credit recovery’ — that we pay for now, we would have to start charging for services,” Lathan said. “I know some school districts do it now, but based on our district, it’s hard to charge.”

Chambers, the Alief ISD superintendent, said high failure rates also could upend staffing schedules in some schools, requiring more sessions of courses that students must pass to graduate.

“We’re going to have to probably double staff algebra classes and all those freshman courses, because we’re going to have twice as many kids that failed or didn’t complete the course,” Chambers said.

I’ve left a lot out, so go read the whole thing. Maybe things will get a little better as more students acclimate to remote learning, and others go back to the classroom. But unless it more or less entirely reverses, we’re going to be left with the choice of spending a lot of money to get these kids back up to grade level, so they can graduate and hope to lead lives that aren’t economically compromised, or we can just let them fail and leave it to our kids and future selves to deal with the consequences. I know what I’d want to do, but I don’t know that I expect Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick to be with me. What is clear is that this is our choice. The Trib has more.

Not everyone wants to skip the STAAR

There are no kids in this group.

Fourteen Texas school superintendents, including those leading Dallas, Fort Worth and Aldine ISDs, joined with several business and education advocacy organizations Thursday to voice support for continuing to give standardized tests to students in the spring.

The announcement came one day after 70 members of the Texas House of Representatives issued a bipartisan call for state leaders to take steps toward canceling the annual exams, illustrating the split over a hot-button education issue that has riled teachers and families.

In a letter to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, the superintendents, business leaders and education advocates said they “believe strongly in understanding where Texas students are in their learning journey.” The group argued the exams would provide vital data to help measure students’ academic achievement and growth amid the pandemic.

“We think it is critical for government leaders and policy makers to fully understand the extent and the disproportionate nature of COVID-19 learning loss that has likely occurred for our communities from limited income homes and our communities of color,” the letter read in part.

While education and business advocates encouraged giving the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly known as STAAR, they did not support continuing to grade schools and districts based on the results. The Texas Education Agency’s academic accountability system results in A-through-F letter grades to campuses and districts largely tied to STAAR scores.

In arguing against accountability ratings, the superintendents and advocates said it would be “almost impossible to assign A-F ratings in a fair and equitable way.”

“We respectfully request that academic accountability for school and district ratings be placed on pause for the 2020-21 school year, and that superintendents and school leaders are given this information as soon as possible,” the group wrote.

See here for the background. I’m all in for skipping the STAAR, in part because I think the kids could use a little less stress in their lives and in part because I think it’s unlikely to be all that useful in such a weird and disruptive year. But if we have to go through with it, then for sure let’s skip the accountability ratings, for the same reasons. This is the reality that we’re in, and we need to accept it.

Legislators call for no STAAR test this year

Fine by me, and very fine by my kids.

A bipartisan group of 68 Texas House representatives signed a letter calling on the Texas Education Agency to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam or at minimum not use student scores to rate schools or districts this school year.

The letter, penned by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, asks that the state apply for waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the standardized test, which is administered to students in third through 12th grade.

Should the test still be administered during the coronavirus pandemic, it “should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

The letter is addressed to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, but it’s “just as much a letter to the governor,” Bernal said in an interview, adding that Gov. Greg Abbott “very easily could call the play to change the landscape right now.”

“If we take our time talking to educators — not administrators — but educators, counselors, parents and students, of course, that the last thing they all need right now is the extra and added stress of STAAR,” Bernal said.

You can see a copy of the letter and its signatories here, and a late addition here. As you may recall, the STAAR test was waived last spring at Greg Abbott’s order. The Chron adds some details.

The federal government and Texas Legislature set broad frameworks for testing and accountability, while the TEA fills in many details for the state. Texas did not administer STAAR in the spring of this year after the TEA sought and received a federal waiver because of the pandemic, which forced the abrupt shutdown of all public schools in March.

The U.S. Department of Education has not decided whether it will grant similar waivers in 2021. The decision likely will rest with President-Elect Joe Biden’s new administration, which has not yet taken a firm stance on the issue.

At a State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Morath said the state plans to apply for waivers related to student participation rate requirements, which essentially punish districts when some children do not take exams. However, he did not commit to canceling the exam or outline potential changes to the state’s A-through-F accountability rating system.

“I think there’s still a lot of question as to how we might pursue this,” Morath said. “We’ve got 10 or so different options, as it were, to consider. No final decision has been made as we gather feedback from folks.”

If Texas education officials move forward with STAAR in the spring, the group of 68 state representatives wants the TEA to set aside its traditional campus and district accountability framework.

“At most, any administration of the STAAR exam during the 2020-2021 school year should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically, as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions under the current A-F accountability system,” the legislators wrote.

The letter echoes some of the arguments made in recent months by educator organizations and unions, which lobbied against high-stakes standardized testing before the pandemic. Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said STAAR testing “should be the last priority” in schools.

“Our students, educators and their families can’t afford the distraction of STAAR as they struggle to stay safe and continue to adjust to new methods of teaching and learning,” Molina said in a statement Wednesday.

I mean, this entire year has been at best a struggle for many, many students. I don’t see the point in making it any harder on them. Ditch the STAAR until things are back to normal.

More on the Lathan non-hiring

Some sharp criticism from local leaders about the HISD Board’s decision not to hire interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan permanently.

About 20 of Houston’s leading Black elected officials, clergy and racial justice advocates called Tuesday for Houston ISD’s school board to reverse its vote last week declining to name Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the district’s long-term leader.

In a statement and at a news conference, many of the city’s Black leaders argued Lathan has proven herself worthy of the top job since assuming the position on an interim basis in March 2018. Some officials also questioned whether trustees were motivated in part by race, given that the board’s three Black members supported retaining Lathan while the six non-Black members voted against it.

“For several reasons, we are united in our belief that the decision not to name Dr. Lathan as superintendent of HISD was grossly misguided, and I must add, ill-motivated,” NAACP Houston Branch Vice-President Bishop James Dixon said Tuesday, surrounded by about a dozen Lathan supporters outside the district’s headquarters.

The rebuke of trustees came five days after board members voted to resume the district’s long-dormant superintendent search and forgo removing Lathan’s interim tag. The board majority argued HISD should conduct a national search — with Lathan as a candidate, if she chooses to apply — before selecting a long-term leader.

“We owe it to our students to, at the very least, take a look at the records of other candidates and other superintendents who want to apply to the school district,” HISD Trustee Dani Hernandez said Thursday. “I cannot make this decision for my community and our students without conducting a search.”

The group that convened Tuesday included state Rep. Ron Reynolds, former HISD trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jolanda Jones and several religious leaders. In addition, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, state Sen. Borris Miles, and state Reps. Alma Allen and Harold Dutton Jr. signed a statement in support of Lathan, according to the NAACP Houston Branch.

[…]

Board members were on the brink of naming a superintendent finalist in March 2019, but a state-appointed conservator ordered trustees to stand down. At the time, HISD remained under the threat of a state takeover of the district’s school board.

The Texas Education Agency ultimately moved in November 2019 to replace HISD’s elected trustees, citing a state law triggered by chronically low academic scores at Wheatley High School and multiple instances of trustee misconduct. HISD trustees sued to stop the takeover, and Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy issued a temporary injunction in January halting their ouster.

As part of the injunction, Mauzy ordered that the conservator is “prohibited from acting outside her lawful authority.” However, Mauzy did not state clearly whether that applied retroactively to the conservator’s order, leading to questions about whether trustees legally can conduct a superintendent search.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have a whole lot to add to what I’ve already said, but I will say this much: More discussion and engagement about this decision and the process that led to it would be a good idea. A full and honest accounting of the Saavedra situation from last year would help, too. I feel like there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s been happening, and that’s a problem.

HISD Board declines to hire Lathan permanently

A national search will be conducted, with still-interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan encouraged to apply.

Houston ISD trustees voted Thursday against committing to Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the district’s long-term leader, opting instead to launch a national search before filling the position.

In a 6-3 vote, trustees generally complimented Lathan’s lengthy tenure as interim, but ultimately concluded the district needs a deeper search for a permanent chief. Some trustees encouraged Lathan to apply for the job during the search, though it is not immediately clear whether she will.

“As the largest school district in Texas and the seventh-largest in the United States, it is of the utmost importance that we think about candidates for the permanent superintendent position by going through a transparent and thorough search process,” HISD Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said.

“We owe it to our students, our community, our constituents and the taxpayers to do our due diligence.”

HISD trustees Judith Cruz, Sue Deigaard, Dani Hernandez, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung joined Flynn Vilaseca in voting to start the search. Lathan did not address the outcome during Thursday’s meeting or immediately respond to a request for comment through the district.

[…]

Lathan enjoyed strong backing from many other HISD administrators, with about 45 of them lauding her leadership amid district instability and the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This period now has been, by far, one of the most difficult I have seen during my tenure,” said Moreno Elementary School Principal Adriana Abarca-Castro, who has led the campus for 31 years. “I have witnessed how our superintendent, Dr. Lathan, has led us courageously, positively and (been) supportive in every way.”

Many of the city’s Black civic leaders also rallied to support Lathan, with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Reps. Alma Allen and Senfronia Thompson endorsing her Thursday. Lathan would have become the district’s first Black woman to lead the district if chosen.

However, Lathan’s tenure coincided with scathing state reports documenting extensive operational and special education issues in the district. One of HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, Wheatley High School, also received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019, triggering a state law that resulted in Education Commissioner Mike Morath moving to replace the district’s elected school board.

Some trustees argued HISD should not lock in a superintendent while they continue to fight in court to stop their ouster. The board’s lawsuit against the state is pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

“The TEA lawsuit has huge implications for our choice,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said.

HISD trustees did not outline a plan Thursday for conducting their search, though questions remain about whether they can legally engage in the process.

See here for the background. This whole thing is a mess. The best argument for doing the national search is that this is the way we have always searched for Superintendents. Under normal circumstances, the HISD Super job is a plum – we’re a big district, we’re in good fiscal shape, we’ve got a lot of good schools, and yet there are some real challenges on which someone with vision can make a difference. We get good applicants, and just the process of reviewing and interviewing them can provide some new perspective on HISD and its mission.

Of course, these are not normal circumstances. Putting aside the current disfunction with the Board, the looming state takeover would be a pretty serious drawback for any potential applicant, and that’s before you take into account the fact that the eventual appointed board of managers might move to vacate your contract. Plus, the fact that you’d be competing against a now-multi-year interim Super for the job might be an impediment. I don’t even know how to factor in the whole Abe Saavedra fiasco, other than as another example of what a circus it has been around here. The clear downside risk of not making Grenita Lathan permanent, even on a shorter-than-usual contract, is that she might just decide that she’s had it with this bullshit and leave, and now we don’t have any Superintendent at a time when that would be really bad. I don’t feel strongly one way or the other about Lathan, but it is fair to say she has not been treated well by the Board, even with two of the instigators of the Saavedra mess being defeated in the 2019 election. I don’t know where we go from here.

HISD to consider hiring Lathan permanently

Interesting.

Houston ISD trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to name Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the lone finalist to lead the district, an unanticipated development amid ongoing litigation over the state’s effort to oust HISD’s elected board members.

If trustees do not agree to remove Lathan’s interim tag, they also could vote Thursday to resume their search for a permanent superintendent, which has been essentially dormant for more than a year and a half.

It is not immediately clear whether HISD trustees can legally hire a superintendent or resume their search. A state-appointed conservator overseeing the district ordered trustees to halt their search in March 2019, but a Travis County judge issued a temporary injunction in HISD’s favor in January. The judge ruled the conservator is “prohibited from acting outside her lawful authority,” but did not clearly state whether that applied retroactively to the search suspension order.

[…]

The move to address the superintendent position arose Monday, when HISD Board President Sue Deigaard placed the two items on Thursday’s meeting agenda. Deigaard said she approved the agenda items at the request of some fellow trustees, whom she declined to name.

“We’re long overdue for this conversation, and at the request of my colleagues, we will now have this conversation,” Deigaard said. “I’m trying to approach it in a way that is respectful of the diverse opinions of my board colleagues, as well as trying to be considerate as possible.”

While most districts replace their superintendents in a matter of months with little public acrimony — Clear Creek ISD announced a lone finalist Monday — HISD’s search has faced chaos at each turn.

Most infamously, five of the board’s nine members covertly coordinated to oust Lathan in October 2018, giving no advance notice ahead of a vote to replace her with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra. Many of the city’s Black leaders denounced the replacement of Lathan, while others decried the lack of transparency. Trustees ultimately reversed their decision the next week, restoring Lathan’s interim tag.

Board members subsequently launched a national superintendent search, nearing the selection of a lone finalist. However, state conservator Doris Delaney, in place due to chronically low performance at several schools, employed her legal power to halt the search. Delaney provided little reason for the move in her order.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath then announced in November 2019 his intention to replace HISD’s elected trustees , citing multiple instances of misconduct among board members and a state law mandating sanctions after Wheatley High School received its seventh consecutive failing grade.

HISD sought and received an injunction, but questions remained about the lack of clarity in the order. From then on, trustees never spoke at length about resuming the search or permanently hiring Lathan until Monday. The legal case is pending before the Texas Supreme Court on a procedural matter.

There’s more, so read the rest. Apparently, any three Board members can put an item on the agenda. I have no strong opinion on this – in an ideal world, we would have had a national search by now, and it Lathan had been the choice, then so be it. As it is, who knows what might happen, given the state of the situation with the TEA. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter gives an explainer on Twitter, and also notes that Lathan wants the job. We’ll find out tomorrow.

No school on Election Day

For HISD, anyway.

Houston ISD will not hold virtual or in-person classes on Election Day, district officials said late Tuesday, a reversal of earlier plans to provide online-only instruction because more than 100 schools will be used as polling places.

District officials said staff members are expected to participate in virtual professional development on Nov. 3, though some may take a comp day if approved by a manager.

[…]

The Texas Education Agency confirmed last week that virtually all public school districts holding online-only classes on Election Day will not receive credit toward their legally-required minimum of 75,600 minutes of instruction they must provide. Districts that fall short of the 75,600-minute requirement would risk losing a fraction of their funding, TEA officials said.

In a statement Wednesday morning, HISD administrators said the district’s calendar “allows for an excess of minutes beyond the 75,600-minute requirement from the state to allow for inclement weather or emergency closure days.” District officials did not respond to questions about how many minutes are built into their calendar.

See here for the background. Election Day should of course be a national holiday – though at the rate we’re going now, there won’t be that many people left to vote on Election Day this year – but that is not something HISD can control. Taking the day off is the next best thing. As for the minutes of instruction, I’m going to assume they have that covered. In the meantime, go vote.

HISD needs a bond referendum

Easier said than done, though.

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

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

Once again, an HISD bond would have to wait.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Back to the classroom for some

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of HISD students will stay remote for now

The people have spoken.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far so good on school reopening

It’s still early, though.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the local view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD may do remote learning on Election Day

Makes sense to me.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Politico profile of Lina Hidalgo

Good stuff.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

In late April, Lina Hidalgo stood at a microphone in the Harris County emergency operations center in Houston and pushed up the teal fabric face mask that had slipped off her nose. Her voice was slightly muffled as she spoke. Next to her, an American Sign Language interpreter translated for an audience that couldn’t see her lips. But there was no need to worry her message would be lost. Soon it would become the subject of debate across the country—and so would she.

Hidalgo, the county judge of Harris County—the top elected official in the nation’s third-largest county—announced that millions of people in the Houston area would be required to wear a face covering in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. People who didn’t comply would risk a fine of up to $1,000. Behind her, charts and graphs told the statistical story that had led Hidalgo to this moment. Since early March, when the state’s first case of Covid-19 had been identified in Houston, the urban heart of Harris County, the number of infected people in the county had climbed to 3,800. That day, the death toll stood at 79 and Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, warned that number could “exponentially increase.”

Hidalgo had been bracing for the disease for weeks. She had sought advice from officials in King County in Washington state, the nation’s first hot spot. Armed with their insight, she rallied her own emergency management and public health officials to prepare a response and on March 16 ordered the closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms. Initially, state officials followed suit. Three days after Hidalgo’s order, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a public health disaster for the first time in more than a century. Texans huddled indoors. But by early April, pressure was mounting on Abbott to end the lockdown. Hidalgo was pulling the other way.

You know what happened from there. You should read the whole thing, it’s mostly stuff you already know but it’s deeply satisfying to see someone who’s been right about the virus in all the ways that matter and who’s been the target of some vicious, racist insults as a result of her being right about it get her due. I’m going to highlight two other bits here:

“The perils of straight-ticket voting were on full display Tuesday in Harris County,” the Chronicle’s editorial board clucked. “Longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a moderate Republican who’s arguably the county’s most respected official, was ousted by Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old graduate student running her first race.”

“We hope she succeeds,” the editorial continued, “but residents can be forgiven for being squeamish about how Hidalgo will lead the county and, by extension, the region’s 6 million people, through the next hurricane.”

I can understand the initial apprehension about a political newcomer taking over as County Judge, and I can understand some unease at it happening as part of a partisan wave. But I guess I’m just going to die mad about all the pearl-clutching over straight-ticket voting, which casts a whole lot of people as mindless automatons instead of individuals who made a choice. That choice in 2018 was to vote for change, and to vote against Donald Trump. One can admire Ed Emmett for his competence, his compassion, his deep concern for Harris County and its residents, and still disagree with him on principles and priorities, and want to see our county government move in a different direction. The sheer condescension in that first paragraph will never not annoy the crap out of me.

“I expect for some Texans it’s a little hard to take that a young Latina who earned her citizenship, as opposed to being born here, has the level of authority that she has,” one of her advisers, Tom Kolditz, told me. “She absorbs every criticism, she listens to every racial dog whistle, she puts up with ageist comments about what her abilities are or are not.”

[…]

Re-opening schools has emerged as another battleground. Hidalgo has taken a position that is consistent with her aggressiveness throughout the pandemic. On July 21, she ordered all school districts in Harris County to delay opening schools for in-person learning for at least eight weeks. Wearing a floral face mask at a recent press conference, her curly hair longer than normal due to the pandemic, she urged the community to work together “until we crush this curve.”

“Then, we can responsibly bring your kids back to school,” she said. “Right now, we continue to see severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus and it would be self-defeating to open schools.”

A familiar chorus of criticism from state and federal Republicans followed quickly. Rep. Crenshaw, among others, has beat the drum that schools must open. And a week after Hidalgo’s announcement, the Texas attorney general said that local health authorities can’t close schools to preemptively prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, announced it wouldn’t fund schools that closed under such orders.

Kolditz, Hidalgo’s adviser and a retired Army brigadier general, has framed the pandemic like a war that can’t be won without a common objective and unity. When Hidalgo was empowered to call the shots in Harris County the pandemic was relatively under control, he said. Since Abbott undermined that, “it’s been a disaster.”

“We’re going to wake up from this pandemic and be stunned by how many lives were wasted by bad leader decisions, and she is not a part of that,” he said.

Hidalgo has largely tried to avoid making the pandemic into a political fight, but she is not naïve about the political implications of every decision. “If we do the best we can and, politically, that wasn’t appropriate for people and I’m not re-elected in two years, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be able to sleep at night.”

I mean, we could listen to the person who’s been consistently right, or we could listen to the people who have been consistently wrong. Seems like a clear choice to me, but what do I know?

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

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?