This story has been updated.

State education officials announced Friday that school districts can offer remote learning instruction only for up to eight weeks once the fall semester begins. After that time, in-person instruction must resume.

Districts can automatically delay reopening campuses for in-person teaching for four weeks and then must get approval from their school boards and a waiver from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to further delay in-person instruction for an additional four weeks, according to new guidance released by the TEA on Friday.

The TEA’s revised guidelines came in response to many schools districts asking state officials for more flexibility in reopening as the number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have soared statewide. In recent days, administrators, educators, and school board members from Bexar County and around the state sent letters to Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath asking for more leeway in deciding when to bring students back to campuses.

Later on Friday, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District announced it would prohibit any public or private schools from opening with in-person instruction until after Sept. 7. This order would preclude schools from offering instruction on campus or hosting school-sponsored events and activities, including extracurriculars or athletic competitions, until after Labor Day.

In a video posted Friday morning, Morath said the TEA’s new guidelines were designed to help schools adapt to local health conditions.

“Today we’ve announced that any school that needs it can adopt a four-week back-to-school transition window where instruction can be fully virtual if need be,” he said.

“This should give us time to work collectively to flatten the curve on this epidemic, and at the same time if that is insufficient time, local school boards have the ability to adopt an additional four-week transition window should that be necessary.”

During the eight weeks, the state would require districts to allow students access to in-person instruction if they don’t have access to internet or devices.

Earlier this week, three of San Antonio’s largest school districts – Northside, North East, and San Antonio ISDs – told families and students they would open with only remote instruction for the first three weeks of the school year, in line with state guidance at the time. It was unclear whether the TEA’s Friday morning announcement would affect their plans.

Neither South San Antonio or Southwest ISDs have officially announced plans for their fall semester, but superintendents in both districts confirmed to the Rivard Report Friday that school would start virtually for their students.

Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft said TEA’s new guidance is in the best interest of communities, students, and educators.

“The ability to start completely remote, based on where our local COVID numbers are, is a good thing,” Verstuyft said. “I think the eight-week period that TEA just announced has some flexibilities that people locally would embrace.”

Verstuyft expects to bring his reopening plan to trustees next Tuesday. Until then, nothing will be final, but SWISD expects to use the eight weeks ramp up in-person instruction.

South San ISD Superintendent Marc Puig expressed similar gratitude for the improved flexibilities TEA granted districts Friday.

“It means local control,” Puig said. “It is important that the school board and the administration have the flexibility to do what is in the best interest of our children, our staff, and our broader community in terms of safety.”

Considering the extent of the local outbreak, South San campuses are not in a position to start with in-person instruction, and they may not be in that position four or eight weeks into the school year, Puig said.

All decisions must be made around public health data, Puig said.

The updated guidance also provided districts more flexibility at the high school level, allowing school systems to offer a hybrid learning experience so schools could “reduce the total count of people on campus at any one time to maintain social distancing.”

School systems must publish a summary of their reopening plan at least one week prior to the start of on-campus activities and instruction.

Previously, the TEA had required school districts to offer full-day, in-person instruction for any student who wanted to partake. The guidance permitted school districts to offer remote instruction options, but it wasn’t required.

The state allowed districts to gradually phase in their in-person instruction, permitting them to operate remotely for the first three weeks of the school year. After TEA officials made this allowance, several local districts in areas grappling with high numbers of coronavirus cases announced they would take advantage of this three-week window.

State law allows local health authorities, like the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, to order campuses closed because of public health conditions. Earlier this week, a TEA spokesman confirmed districts could still receive funding if they continue offering remote instruction during this period.

Metro Health announced Wednesday it would convene a task force to recommend whether such an order was necessary locally. The task force met Thursday and a recommendation is expected early next week at the latest. It is still unknown who is serving on the task force.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.