Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath speaks during a Texas State Board of Education meeting in April.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has delayed return to school plans as the coronavirus continues to cause uncertainty throughout the state. Credit: Stephen Spillman for the San Antonio Report

State education leaders canceled plans Tuesday to unveil long-awaited guidance on what in-person instruction would look like for the state’s public school students this fall and what health protocols schools could enforce. Instead, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency said the department continues to solicit feedback on public guidance and that further instruction will be provided soon.

It was unclear why TEA officials delayed their expected announcement. But the number of Texans testing positive for the coronavirus has ballooned in recent weeks, with the state reporting a record 5,500 new cases Tuesday amid an increase in hospitalizations.

“[We] will provide clarity on the framework for on campus instruction at a time when it is appropriate,” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said on a phone call with superintendents Tuesday. “It is a rapidly changing public health landscape now, much like it was in the initial days of coronavirus, so we’re trying to make sure that we take all that information in and give folks as much clarity as possible.’

North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika was disappointed that the release of  public health guidelines for in-person instruction was again delayed. Superintendents were told they would be released last Tuesday, but a week later and there was still no publication of such rules.

For Maika and other superintendents, this information is increasingly urgent as the first day of the fall semester approaches. In NEISD, the first campus to open is Castle Hills Elementary, which has a start day of July 21.

“Those are my first parents that I need to figure out some answers for and they want some answers,” Maika said. “Parents don’t want to simply know I am going to have an in-person option. They want to know what safety measures are going to be in place at that time and what it is going to entail for them and their child.”

However, TEA officials did release information on how a school finance system that typically awards funding based on the number of students showing up in person will work with schools that anticipate offering both in-person and remote instruction.

This guidance comes at an important time when many school districts, locally and across the state, are preparing to pass budgets. In recent weeks, several San Antonio district leaders emphasized the challenge of approving funding plans for 2020-21 without knowing if they would receive money for students who refused to come back to the classroom and chose to continue learning at home.

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath told superintendents Tuesday that their school systems would be able to offer both in-person and at-home instruction and that they would be funded the same amount for students choosing either option. The state education agency is permitting districts to offer distance learning in two ways.

The first option requires all participants to be present at the same time virtually. It could take a variety of forms, with videoconferencing, scheduled online tests, or conference calls. Students would be required to log in at a designated time to be marked present in order for schools to receive funding for their attendance.

Schools can also offer remote instruction in a way that doesn’t require all students to log in at the same time. Students would instead be able to check in with their teachers intermittently and would be required to show some form of engagement on a daily basis for schools to get credit for their attendance.

No matter the method of instruction, all grading policies must be the same for each student. Students will be able to transition between online and in-person instruction, Morath said.

Judson ISD Superintendent Jeanette Ball applauded the release of funding guidelines, saying it allowed her to offer the district’s families multiple options for instruction.

“The plan will truly accommodate parents so we can offer three different options,” Ball said. “We can get information out to the parents and allow them to choose what they feel is best and most appropriate for their child.”

On his phone call, Morath acknowledged the significant uncertainty surrounding how many students would enroll in school this fall.

“We know that everybody has uncertainty walking into the new year,” Morath said. “What we have heard from superintendents is that folks are expecting pretty erratic attendance patterns when we return back to school.”

To help school districts deal with uncertain enrollment, Morath said the State will give school systems a grace period for the first 12 weeks of the school year. The most schools could lose on lower attendance during those first 12 weeks would be 1 percent of funding.

One percent is still a lot of money, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said Tuesday, noting that 1 percent of State funding annually equates to about $8 million for his district.

Woods was one of the superintendents who worked with Morath to form a funding plan for attendance. He was satisfied with most of the plan released Tuesday, but objected to the fact that the State did not plan to completely fund districts based on projected attendance.

The state also stipulated that after the first 12 weeks passes, there is no limit on how much funding schools could lose for dips in enrollment.

“It makes doing something that has never been done – teaching both in person and remotely and being fluid enough to allow students and families to move back and forth – without full funding … more challenging than it is going to have been with full funding,” Woods said.

NISD Superintendent Bryan Woods Credit: Courtesy / NISD

The new TEA guidance comes just one day after Gov. Greg Abbott said that COVID-19 cases are spreading at “an unacceptable rate.”

In an interview with KBTX, a College Station television station, Abbott emphasized the magnitude of the public health crisis. 

“Because the spread is so rampant right now, there is never a reason for you to have to leave your home unless you do need to go out,” Abbott said. “The safest place for you is at your home.”

Some superintendents believe the number of parents who wish to keep their students home will increase because of the current spike in coronavirus cases. Edgewood ISD Superintendent Eduardo Hernández polled families earlier this summer and found that about 30 percent wanted to keep their kids home.

With the number of cases trending upward, Hernández estimated Tuesday that as many as half of his district’s families might want to engage in remote learning. However, he noted, it would be hard to get a clear picture of participation until closer to the school year.

Woods said Northside ISD could likely have a “roughed-out” plan for remote learning in mid-July, but the plan for on-campus instruction would also play a role in how the district offers remote instruction.

Remaining questions include how districts will be able to track whether a student wants to switch between learning from home and on campus and how staffing might be affected. If funding is in flux because of lowered enrollment, school districts will likely face a challenge when trying to assign certain teachers to oversee a specific learning model.

NISD staff polled families in early June on attitudes toward returning to school this fall. More than 70 percent of families indicated they would be willing to bring their kids back to campus if health protocols were in place. District leaders suspect this number could change given the recent spike in cases, Woods said. 

San Antonio’s largest school district plans to poll families again next month to get a better grasp on how many students plan to participate in remote learning instead of return to campus.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.