DALLAS - Governor Greg Abbott says Texas school districts will be allowed to extend online-only learning past the first three weeks of the school year.
The Texas Education Agency had previously released some guidelines allowing school districts up to three weeks of online-only learning at the start of the school year. After that, they could lose state funding.
In order to keep funding, the TEA said local health officials would have to order districts, or schools, to stay closed, and all students would need to be offered remote instruction.
The option, which gives more power to local authorities working with school districts, falls under the scope of what Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Dr. Kent P. Scribner, along with other education officials, asked for in a letter to the governor earlier this week.
“Those who are closest to problems often have the best solutions,” Scribner said.
The news is a win for parents and teachers who had been concerned about classrooms filling back up as cases of the virus continue to skyrocket statewide.
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Some school districts are pushing the start date back in order to have more time to prepare for a hybrid model of teaching where some students are online and others attend class in person. Others plan to have online only instruction until the high number of new coronavirus cases goes down.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa said there are challenges starting school online.
“There's a lot of ramp up we have to do. We've gotten our teachers trained on the mechanics, now we need to train them on the content. We need extra time to make sure they are ready to deliver that,” Hinojosa said.
The district was among 40 that sent a letter to the governor asking for more flexibility.
The president of Dallas ISD’s Board of Trustees said he is glad that the decision about in-person school can be made on a local level, but he is concerned about the impact if the county decides to keep schools closed.
“I have mixed feelings as a trustee and parent,” Justin Henry said. “If our local county officials feel it is a health risk to open school, I feel that is a better place for that decision to be made.”
While the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended a return to in-person school, many teachers, who are considered to be at a higher risk than students for suffering serious illness from the virus, have advocated for a continuation of remote learning.
Teachers held a sit-in outside the Texas State Capitol Wednesday morning.
“I hope parents, as they are watching and thinking about teachers, we love your kids, we want to be with them, we just want to be safe and have time for the right protocols,” said Darcy Vogt Williams, with Leander ISD.
Many people are concerned about the many unanswered questions as we inch closer to the school year.
“You know, we want to be in the classrooms, but we want to do it safely. We want to do it when the infection rates are not the staggering numbers that they are right now,” Williams added.
Dallas ISD has a special meeting planned for Thursday, July 23 to discuss the school start date.
Trustees will also consider if parents should have the option to start with in-person classes, or online only.
But if Dallas County Health Director Dr. Philip Huang orders schools to close, that question will no longer be in the hands of elected leaders.
Henry believes school board members may bring a different perspective about the importance of in-person classes.
So he hopes there is good communication between the school board and the county.
“The early learning years are most important of any students’ trajectory. It is where our brains can soak up most information. Most spongeable,” Henry added.
The superintendent for Fort Worth ISD said that starting the school year with virtual learning is becoming more of a reality.
“We are ready for it. We’re ramping up,” Dr. Scribner said. “A lot has changed over the last two weeks and we expect a lot to change over the next four or five weeks.”
The Austin Health Authority provided an example of a health department's power and what the TEA allows.
Tuesday, before the TEA's new guidance came out, Austin Health issued an order banning in-person classes for the first three weeks of school at all public and private schools in Austin and Travis County.
It also banned extracurricular activities, like sports, until in-person instruction resumes.