Texas school districts must offer in-person classes to students this fall, the Texas Education Agency announced Tuesday.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath released new guidance about how schools should plan to welcome back students for the next school year.
It’s the clearest guidance yet about how school districts should plan to welcome students back to classrooms for the first time since COVID-19 closed school buildings across the state in March.
But although districts will be expected to have students in class, the guidelines also allow for parents to opt their children out of attending school in person and acknowledge the virus likely will be spreading in some places come August.
“There will almost certainly be situations that necessitate temporary school closure due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools,” the agency’s plan stated. “Parents, educators and school administrators should be prepared for this in the event that it occurs, while actively working to prevent it through prevention and mitigation practices.”
The guidelines were published with little public fanfare about 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Along with requiring schools be be open for in-person instruction, the agency will require school systems to post their full reopening plans one week prior to restarting instruction.
Students will be required to attend 90 percent of class days to receive credit for a course but can receive credit for attending classes online. Teachers and school staff must screen themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 and report possible infections to their schools.
School staff and students who are confirmed to have COVID-19, or who show symptoms, must stay home throughout the infection period and cannot return to school until three days after their symptoms subside.
If an infection is confirmed in a person who has been inside a school, districts must close off sections of the school “heavily used” by that person.
The guidelines don’t explicitly require students and staff to wear mask, but schools must comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s regarding face masks in public places.
In a conference call with Texas superintendents, Morath said that rule means face masks will be mandatory in many places this fall.
“Consistent with the executive order, masks are required in schools for the duration of the executive order,” Morath said in the phone call, according to the Texas Tribune. “It’s likely the executive order will be modified over time. As it does, our guidance will be modified.”
In the statewide order issued on July 2, Abbott ordered people living in counties with more than 20 coronavirus cases to wear face masks in buildings open to the public, whenever social distancing isn’t possible. Abbott’s order includes an exception for children who are younger than 10 years old, meaning younger students in school will not necessarily be required to wear masks.
Abbott’s order doesn’t have an expiration date.
School districts also can individually decide to require masks “for adults or students for whom it is developmentally appropriate,” according to the agency’s guidelines.
‘FREEDOM AND FLEXIBILITY’
In a joint statement issued after the release of the guidelines, state Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, lauded the guidelines for including “the freedom and flexibility to operate in the best way for their local communities.”
“At the end of the day, parents have the final decision on whether or not their children return to campus,” the statement said. “As parents ourselves, we understand how critical it is for our students to get back to some sort of normalcy and resume their education, and appreciate TEA offering this guidance.”
Locally, educators and officials on school boards still were digesting what the newest guidelines meant for plans they had been working on in preparation for the school year.
The agency’s guidelines appeared to be in line with what Galveston Independent School had planned, said Tony Brown, the chairman of the Galveston Independent School District Board of Trustees.
One difficulty still facing school districts is the deadline by which parents have to decide whether their students seek in-person or virtual instruction. That decision isn’t binding until two weeks before school begins, Brown said. That makes resource allocation extremely difficult, he said.
“I personally believe that the key to success on the campuses will be strict compliance, with zero tolerance for violations,” Brown said. “We must do that to protect our teachers and employees. To do any less risks the health and even the lives of our teachers and other employees and their families, which is unacceptable.”
The guidelines are likely to draw more objections in coming days. Hours before Morath released them, the Texas State Teachers Association urged state leaders to slow down their decision-making plans.
“Texas obviously has not seen the end of this pandemic, and no one knows what August, the normal start of the fall semester, will bring,” association President Noel Candelaria said. “Regardless of the date, no school must reopen until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and strict safety standards are in place for that campus, including required mask use for students, employees and visitors; regular testing of everyone entering the school for COVID symptoms; and strict social distancing in classrooms and other locations.”
The agency’s guidelines require none of those things.