ATPE’s Updated Recommendations on School Reopening for the 2020-21 Instructional Year
July 14, 2020
As Texas continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and what it means for the 2020-21 school year, the state’s largest educator association offers a plan containing updated recommendations for state and local officials who are making decisions about reopening schools.
At the heart of ATPE’s recommendations are three overarching principles:
1. Safety should be a foremost concern driving decisions on reopening schools.
As we have emphasized since the COVID-19 pandemic forced Texas public schools to completely overhaul their plans for the coming school year, ATPE believes all students and educators have a right to a safe school environment. We have heard this sentiment expressed repeatedly in our educator surveys and in the daily messages we receive from our members. This core belief was reiterated by ATPE members July 9 when our House of Delegates adopted a resolution calling for schools to delay reopening until there has been a “flattening of the curve” of reported COVID-19 infections.
We believe the state has a responsibility to ensure decisions around the reopening of schools are data-driven, guided by expertise, and focused on factors related to health and safety of students, educators, and their families, rather than being motivated by political expediency. In this document, ATPE outlines suggestions for a state framework that can be used to determine when schools should be allowed to reopen their campuses to in-person instruction. ATPE also urges the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to update and modify its health and safety recommendations issued July 7, 2020, taking into account the feedback of ATPE and other stakeholders and the widespread concerns about reopening campuses too quickly amid reports of rising numbers of COVID-19 infections. Finally, as we recommended previouslyii with respect to state and district-level COVID-19 policies for the 2020-21 school year, ATPE believes the state should require each school district to develop and disseminate a local policy that prioritizes student and employee safety, describing the health and safety measures the district will take to mitigate and respond to the threat of COVID-19 locally.
2. State and local school officials must involve educators and parents meaningfully in the development of COVID-19 policies.
ATPE continues to emphasize the importance of including the voices of parents and school staff in the development and implementation of each school district’s COVID-19 policies and protocols. Similarly, the voices of school employees, beyond those at the administrator level, must be included in the development and refinement of state-level policies. While we appreciate Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath’s willingness to communicate frequently with school superintendents, as evidenced by his conference calls conducted with them at least twice a week, groups representing campus educators and other school staff have not had an equal seat at the table.
3. Flexibility is needed.
The debate over when and how to reopen schools continues amid circumstances that change daily. With so much uncertainty about how long the COVID-19 pandemic will require Texans to adjust their daily lives, we know flexibility is needed when it comes to state and local policymaking. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely provides the flexibility necessary to meet the needs of students or school staff in the more than 1,200 school districts and charter schools that operate in Texas. Our schools vary in size, geography, wealth, family demographics, and a host of other factors. Likewise, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been varied throughout Texas cities and towns; urban, suburban, and rural settings; and areas that are either more or less susceptible to the spread of the virus. The approach to preventing and mitigating further spread of COVID-19 in our schools should align with local needs and circumstances.
With these three guiding principles in mind, ATPE offers the following updated recommendations on school reopening for the 2020-21 school year.
RECOMMENDATION: The state should adopt a framework under which objective, quantitative measures will provide the basis for local decisions on safely reopening schools for in-person instruction.
ATPE recommends the state adopt a framework that incorporates objective measures of COVID-19 impacts that can be used consistently across the state to inform decisions on when schools may safely reopen their doors for in-person instruction. Such an approach to reopening schools relies heavily on uniform, quantifiable data and decisions that are driven by the recommendations of qualified state health experts, while still allowing for a flexible policy that recognizes the pandemic’s varying impacts on different parts of the state. ATPE recommends the state consider a plan for reopening school districts based upon verifiable progress toward objective thresholds for COVID-19 mitigation. We believe in-person instruction should be resumed only as appropriate on a district-by-district basis, and that distance learning should continue until established criteria are met. The statewide framework for such criteria should be based upon guidelines promulgated by one or more established public health authorities.
Under such a framework, a school district would not be permitted to begin reopening its campuses for in-person instruction until the conditions established by the state are met locally. An example of such conditions might be as follows:
- The local COVID-19 positivity rate, defined as the percentage of positive cases to viral tests conducted over seven days, is below a minimum threshold established by the state as informed by state health officials;
- Newly identified COVID-19 cases are on a downward trajectory (or near-zero incidence) over a 14-day period; and
- Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are on a downward trajectory (or near-zero incidence) over a 14-day period.
Much like the state’s approach to reopening Texas businesses, this framework could serve as the basis for a single-gate or phased reopening based upon improvement in the local positivity rate.
Example 1: Under a single-gate reopening, campuses in a district could be authorized to reopen for in-person instruction once the district meets the preceding conditions.
Example 2: Under a phased reopening, Phase 1 could begin with a hybrid instruction model, with great deference paid to the needs and concerns of the school district’s staff and the parents of students. Under this model, each campus could be limited to 25% in-person attendance as calculated by the previous year’s daily attendance, prioritizing students with individualized education programs (IEP) and those with limited access to technology and in-home support. A lower positivity rate threshold could be designated for entering Phase 2, provided that newly identified cases and hospitalizations in the area served by the school district continue a downward trajectory over a 14-day period after Phase 1. The same approach could be used for Phase 3 and additional phases as needed, according to the state’s framework. Each phase would expand the number of students and staff allowed on campus.
Similar criteria must be established that would trigger reclosure, should local epidemiological trends change for the worse after in-person learning has resumed.
It is important to note that ATPE offers the above examples for illustrative purposes only to demonstrate how a statewide framework comprising quantitative indicators could be used to steer local reopening plans. We believe the specific criteria incorporated into the state’s framework should be determined by state health officials.
ATPE believes a statewide framework allowing for local reopening decisions based on objective metrics will provide the needed balance between the obligation to maintain public safety and the need for local control and flexibility. We believe this approach will give educators and parents more peace of mind and confidence in the rationale behind an individual school district’s reopening timeline. It also minimizes the risk of local plans being implemented haphazardly or capriciously based on political pressure and other factors that do not adequately weigh the health and safety considerations that appear to be the foremost concern of most educators and parents.
RECOMMENDATION: TEA should give districts more flexibility to make practical reopening decisions, including the ability to implement instructional delivery models that accommodate the needs of the staff and students in their communities.
TEA released guidance in early July to districts regarding attendance and remote instruction in the upcoming school year. ATPE recommends that TEA revise its guidance to provide additional flexibility on attendance and funding decisions tied to attendance calculations. The agency’s current guidance requires districts, after the first three weeks of school, to offer in-person education to 100 percent of the student body every day. This requirement all but precludes districts from being able to proactively minimize the spread of COVID-19 through distance learning or hybrid plans combining in-person instruction with distance learning.
Practically all of ATPE’s recommendations regarding the use of objective metrics to determine when in-person learning should resume and how districts might thoughtfully structure social distancing are predicated on a more flexible and realistic approach to funding, We fear more disruption will occur if schools are held to an unrealistic expectation that they will be ready to resume conventional, in-person instruction upon the expiration of an arbitrarily determined ramp-up period of three or four weeks. In order to address both health and safety needs and educational goals, the state must give school districts the flexibility needed to develop and implement creative solutions to best educate students while maintaining a safe environment for all.
In addition to revising guidelines on attendance requirements tied to funding, the state should consider waiving its rule that requires a student to attend 90 percent of instructional days to qualify for course credit. Many students may face school interruptions due to a forced quarantine, personal or family illness, or the instability brought about by a family member’s loss of work and income. A student who misses more than 10 percent of a semester’s instructional days (approximately nine days) due to COVID-19 should be given an opportunity to make up lost learning time, as opposed to automatically forfeiting credit for all their classes during that semester. This flexibility, especially given the uncertainty surrounding how much time away from the classroom COVID-19 might force next year, will help ensure students do not become discouraged from reengaging in the learning process once they return to campus.
ATPE also asks the state to consider extending the “hold harmless” provisions in the current TEA guidance for the upcoming new school year that are intended to prevent districts from losing funding because of an increase in the number of students who may be unable to attend or choose not to attend school due to COVID-19. Currently, those provisions protect a district against being penalized only during the first two six-week grading periods, with a possible extension through the third six-week grading period for some districts. If anything has become clear since the emergence of COVID-19, it is the uncertainty of how long and to what degree we will be affected by this pandemic. Attendance is likely to remain unstable for an extended time, and correspondingly, student engagement may ebb and flow throughout the entire 2020-21 school year. As long as a district demonstrates it is actively attempting to find and engage students and providing students with daily access to an educational environment that would otherwise qualify for funding under the state’s Average Daily Attendance (ADA) rules, TEA should guarantee that fluctuations in student engagement will not negatively and unfairly impact funding. This is especially important considering that district expenses do not decrease along with temporary dips in attendance, and costs are likely to increase as schools attempt to address the challenges presented by COVID-19.
RECOMMENDATION: The state should pursue all available avenues for securing needed funding to help school districts deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
ATPE encourages Gov. Greg Abbott and Commissioner Morath to pursue all pathways for additional funding, including making use of available state and federal resources. A continuation of distance learning, to the extent it is needed or desired, will require additional expenditures to ensure students and teachers have the needed technology, equipment, and connectivity. Regardless of when in-person instruction resumes, Texas public schools are already facing substantial costs outside of their normal needs as they attempt to create safer environments.
Districts will face many challenges next year, including providing adequate PPE to students and staff, staggering schedules, creating space for suitable distancing between students’ desks and in common spaces such as hallways, and adding bus routes to accommodate smaller passenger loads. Districts must also address the need for employees to take leave if they become ill, are caring for a loved one, or are forced to self-quarantine as a precautionary measure, which will also necessitate sufficient funding to ensure an adequate supply of substitute teachers who are available to step in. These and a host of other concerns are already placing immense financial pressure on school districts as they plan for the 2020-21 school year, and additional resources will be needed.
ATPE continues to lobby Congress for additional aid, but we also ask state officials to use their influence to seek relief at the federal level while also exploring available state resources, particularly as we approach the 2021 legislative session.
RECOMMENDATION: The state should require districts to involve educators, other non-administrative school staff, and parents in the decision-making process for development of local COVID-19 policies.
ATPE recommends that TEA require each district to assemble a COVID-19 advisory committee comprising non-administrative campus-level staff, as well as parents and local medical professionals, to assist in the development of a local pandemic policy for the district. This COVID-19 pandemic advisory committee should include at least one parent and campus educator who serves in a non-administrative role from each vertical team within the district. The district may appoint some, or all, of the members of an existing district committee, such as the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) or the District Advisory Committee (DAC), to serve as its COVID-19 advisory committee, so long as parental and campus educator membership requirements are met.
Upon drafting its local pandemic policy, the school district should be required to share its draft policy with all district employees and allow them a reasonable opportunity to provide feedback through an online survey. Districts should also be encouraged to make their draft policies available to parents for feedback.
TEA should specify that upon receiving feedback, the district, with the assistance of its local COVID-19 advisory committee, should consider the feedback received and make any appropriate changes to its draft policy prior to submitting the proposed policy to its board of trustees for approval and adoption.
RECOMMENDATION: The state should require school districts to notify employees and parents of local COVID-19 policies.
ATPE believes all Texas public school students, parents, and employees deserve to have a clear understanding of the minimal protections and protocols their local school districts will put in place to address their health and safety. This information must be shared as early as possible prior to reopening schools for the 2020-21 school year. Once a local policy is adopted, the school district should be required to notify all employees and parents and display the policy on the district’s homepage. Districts should also consider notifying employees and parents of the policy by mail, email, phone, or a combination thereof. Policies should be updated at the local level as warranted by changing circumstances, and any updates should be communicated to school district staff and the students’ parents in a timely manner.
RECOMMENDATION: The state should offer clear guidance, including explanation of any circumstances that would mandate a school district’s revision of its local COVID-19 policies.
District policies, such as a local pandemic policy, are intended to provide a measure of consistency and certainty to parents and staff. However, in a rapidly developing situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic, districts should also be prepared to adjust their policies and subsequent practices.
TEA should encourage districts to identify the circumstances and processes by which the district may revise its local policy based on changes in the epidemiological environment. Changes must be made with the assistance of the district’s COVID-19 advisory committee. The state should also disseminate clear guidance on certain criteria under the state’s reopening framework, as recommended above, which would mandate a policy change at the local level.
RECOMMENDATION: The state should seek waivers from the federal government to alleviate the pressure of mandated student testing and accountability requirements that will be difficult and unfair to implement during the 2020-21 school year.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close this spring, Gov. Abbott cancelled the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) for 2019-20. Texas subsequently sought and received a waiver of federal testing and accountability requirements, as did most other states. ATPE urges the governor and TEA likewise to seek the necessary waivers from the federal government that would allow for an accountability “pause” during the 2020-21 school year, alleviating the burden of preparing for and administering high-stakes standardized tests while schools attempt to return to normal and remediate the losses sustained by students because of the pandemic.
Earlier this year, school districts were forced to close their doors with little warning and inadequate time to prepare for monumental change. We know the readiness of schools to immediately switch to a distance learning model this spring varied from district to district, leading to fluctuations in quality and results. We suspect nearly all students have been negatively affected by these changes, with some faring worse than others. It will take time to fill the gaps in learning created by this crisis, especially for students who lacked the necessary support to thrive in a virtual learning environment. We also do not know at this point how long it will take to return students to a classroom setting anywhere close to “normal.”
Recognizing that many students may have fallen behind (or further behind) because of the pandemic, the ATPE House of Delegates recently adopted a resolutioniii calling for the state to waive requirements for administration of the STAAR and the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) during the 2020-21 school year. Eliminating the requirements for these tests—as advocated by numerous elected officials across the political spectrum —would take immediate pressure off students and educators alike, free up educators’ time for remediation and addressing students’ individual needs rather than using it for mandatory test prep, and save the state considerable amounts of money.
RECOMMENDATION: The state must provide minimum standards for COVID-19 mitigation to assist school districts in implementing local policies and reopening plans.
ATPE has asked TEA to require each school district to develop, approve, and disseminate a local policy that prioritizes student and employee safety. The policy must describe the health and safety measures the district will take to mitigate and respond to the threat of COVID-19 locally. The district’s local pandemic policy should be designed to enable individuals to be safely present in an in-person educational setting and may include such provisions for students and faculty as a mask policy or remote temperature checks, as locally appropriate. Policies and procedures should be designed to provide maximum protection for the physical and mental health and welfare of district staff and students while also being practical, feasible, and appropriate for the developmental stage and needs of each student.
Special considerations and accommodations to account for the diversity of students and staff should be incorporated. Policies and procedures should consider the varying risk factors among district staff, such as but not limited to age, pregnancy, the presence of high-risk individuals in their household, or other health factors. Policies and procedures should also consider impacts to vulnerable student populations, including those who are medically fragile, live in poverty, have developmental challenges, or have special health care needs or disabilities.
TEA should provide additional guidance and resources addressing the following areas for districts to use while drafting a local pandemic policy:
1. Staff Training and Professional Development
A district’s policy should include specific guidelines for supporting and training staff on implementation of the district’s required and recommended health, safety, and educational procedures. To the extent practicable, staff training and professional development should be conducted in a virtual environment to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
2. Physical Distancing and Other Policies to Minimize Person-to-Person and Person-to-Communal-Object Contact
The primary known mode of transmission of COVID-19 is through respiratory droplets among persons in close proximity. However, it is also possible to become infected after touching a virus-contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, eyes, or nose. Districts should consider and implement clear and specific guidelines designed to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 by reducing close physical proximity to other persons and exposure to communal objects. In developing local polices, the following areas should be considered and addressed:
a. Grade bands/age-appropriate policies
Students at different grade levels have dramatically different developmental capabilities in addition to different expectations regarding movement and daily interaction with their physical environment. For example, unlike most elementary students, middle and high school students typically move between classrooms, may utilize lockers, and may not stay in the same cohort throughout the day. These and other grade-related differences should be addressed in policies on physical distancing and other associated risk-reduction strategies.
b. Cohort development
Minimizing the total number of people with whom individuals interact on a daily basis reduces the overall opportunity for viral spread. Districts should consider policies designed to create the smallest feasible cohorts and reduce cross-cohort interaction as much as possible. This could include strategies such as having smaller groups of students on campus at different times of the day or, in upper grades, having teachers as opposed to students move between classes.
TEA should provide districts with guidelines, similar to those put in place at the beginning of summer school, for calculating the maximum number of students that may be present in each classroom. The agency should help identify best practices regarding the setup and utilization of classroom space to minimize contact.
Districts should consider strategies such as staggered release and creation of one-way corridors to minimize the amount of contact and overall number of bodies present in hallways at one time.
e. Communal indoor spaces
Communal indoor spaces such as gyms, cafeterias, libraries, special classrooms, and faculty lounges present special concerns and opportunities and should be addressed independently in the district’s plan.
f. Playgrounds and other communal outdoor spaces
Like indoor communal spaces, outdoor spaces present their own obstacles and opportunities as the use of outdoor spaces may provide some additional mitigation against viral spread. Safe utilization of such spaces should be addressed in the district’s plan.
Transporting students to and from school incorporates yet another educational environment and often a second set of district staff. Policies and training must be in place to address the critical need to safely transport students to and from school while maintaining a safe environment for the students and driver or other staff present.
Wherever feasible, districts should have policies in place to minimize in-person staff-to-staff and staff-to-parent meetings. The use of remote or virtual meeting platforms should be the general practice. In-person meetings should be discouraged.
The continuity of student meal service is essential and should be addressed with care and the utmost safety precautions. District policies should ensure that students being served through the School Lunch Program will continue to receive meals, include special considerations for students who are developmentally unable to feed themselves or who need assistance, and outline the process for students to receive and eat their meals. District policies should also address the role of school employees during mealtimes and should ensure that all employees have an adequate lunch break, even if students eat in classrooms rather than a lunchroom. Many teachers have asked ATPE if they will lose their right to a duty-free lunch as prescribed by state law (Texas Education Code, Section 21.405
). While the law does allow for some exceptions to this requirement, we urge TEA to provide guidance to help districts preserve this vital break time for educators.
4. Organized Activities
The district policy should include considerations for limits to organized activities, such as sports, clubs, and other events, that would cause students, staff, parents, or other community members to gather.
5. Special Populations
District policies must include considerations for how special populations will be served equitably and address the health and safety of students receiving special education and language services. Additionally, protections for the staff providing these services must be included in these considerations, as many of the health and safety practices adopted for students may not be developmentally appropriate or feasible for students in special education.
6. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
TEA has procured a limited amount of personal protective equipment (PPE). Where not otherwise regulated by state orders, school district policies should indicate whether the use of PPE such as masks will be required by students, staff, parents, or any other individuals who may enter the school building. Due to limited quantities of procured PPE, the district should outline what types of PPE will be considered acceptable and should prioritize state-provided PPE for the families and staff who have the greatest need. District policies must include how noncompliance with PPE policies will be handled.
District policies should address effective methods of hygiene for preventing the spread of COVID-19, such as frequent handwashing, the use of hand sanitizer, and encouraging individuals to cough or sneeze into the crook of an arm. Hygiene practices should be differentiated by developmental ability to take into consideration the necessity for younger students to be watched while washing their hands, as well as consideration for special populations who may need assistance.
8. Use of Testing and Screening
The district policy should include how students will be tested and screened and who will carry out this process, making sure to include consideration for staff training in this area. Staff who are at high risk of severe infection should not be assigned to screening roles.
9. Regular Cleaning and Disinfecting
The district policy should include a schedule for regular cleaning and disinfecting, including how supplies will be distributed to school employees and required protocol for all categories of school employees.
10. Post-Exposure Protocol
A district policy should include protocol for persons who test positive, persons who are exhibiting symptoms or who are believed to be an unconfirmed positive, persons who have come in contact with a person who is confirmed positive or is exhibiting symptoms/believed to be an unconfirmed positive, cleaning and disinfection, classroom closure, and campus closure. These policies should be designed to minimize disruptions to learning and the use of personal leave among staff (i.e., allowing staff to work remotely if they must stay home).
11. Staff Policies for Sick Leave and Other Forced Absences
Leave policies are essential to easing the stress and anxiety felt by educators and other school district employees who may become sick or who have a school-age person in their household who could become sick. Policies should include the process for educators to work virtually should they be required to stay at home, as well as other leave policies such as pooling personal days so that staff can access days beyond their own accrual. Staff must not be financially penalized for being forced to quarantine as a result of exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19. A district’s policy on leave should be clearly articulated to all staff.
12. Staff Child Care
School employees rely on childcare that may have been previously coordinated by the district. Childcare is essential to the continuity of district operations by allowing school employees to work without disruption, which in turn allows students to learn and be supported without disruption. District policies should include a plan for childcare, including health and safety guidelines, that is not limited to the guidelines published by the Texas Department for State Health Services.
13. Addressing Students’ Social, Mental, and Emotional Health
Student needs outside of academics are at an all-time high. District policies should include how the district plans to bolster social, mental, and emotional supports for students. This may include training for teachers, who are often on the front lines of addressing these student needs.
14. Addressing Staff Mental Health
Teachers, administrators, and staff already operate in a high-stress occupation, which has been amplified by the unknowns and uncertainties of the pandemic. The district policy should address how the mental health needs of employees will be supported.
15. Educational Expectations
The district should have expectations for student learning in remote settings that contemplate the uncertainty of the coming year. Students and teachers will face unprecedented challenges that will impede learning. Therefore, educational expectations should focus on maintaining structure, continued student engagement, safe and healthy spaces, and fulfilling students’ basic needs to lay the foundation for as much learning during this time as possible.
16. Access to Virtual/Distance Instructional Settings
The district should outline how students will be placed in virtual/distance educational settings, while ensuring access for students whose parents choose either a virtual or in-person setting. Parental choice regarding placement is essential, but parents wishing to place their children in in-person instruction must be required to comply with district policies, such as those pertaining to health screenings and the use of PPE. Districts should prioritize providing PPE and other necessary resources for compliance to students in the most need. District policies should also address how and when students can move between virtual and in-person settings, as well as staffing for virtual and distance settings.
17. Educator Certification Candidates and Student Teachers
ATPE appreciates the flexibility the state has provided to educator certification candidates to help them complete their programs and requirements for student teaching or practicums during the pandemic. We ask that school districts, while continuing to maintain safety protocols, similarly assist these future educators with any reasonable adaptations they may need to find opportunities to engage with students and by facilitating their virtual access to cooperating and mentor teachers for support and guidance.
18. Other TEA Mandates
The local district policy should include TEA mandates that have been disseminated through guidance and official correspondence, such as mandatory exclusions from school property for students, staff, and parents who have been exposed or who have been infected by COVID-19.
19. Other Policies
The district policy should include any other areas of concern to district parents, educators, students, or other stakeholders as shown through the district’s feedback collection process.
ATPE appreciates the willingness of state and local officials to consider these recommendations developed with the ongoing input of our approximately 100,000 members. We believe this plan represents a baseline for minimum standards that should be enhanced with expert medical advice, balancing the need for both state guidance and local flexibility.
As always, we welcome any opportunity to participate in the development of policies to address the need for a safe and reasonable approach to reopening schools and mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on student learning in the 2020-21 school year and beyond.
i ATPE RESOLUTION #1:
RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to safeguard the health and safety of students and educators by delaying in-person instruction until Texas has demonstrated a flattened curve in the number of COVID-19 cases; and
RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the state to require local school districts to include educators and parents in the development of plans for the safe re-entry of students and district employees; and
RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and our U.S. federal government to allocate emergency funds for substitutes in case of mandatory quarantine requirements for district personnel.
Adopted by the ATPE House of Delegates during its annual meeting, July 9, 2020.
RESOLVED, that ATPE urge the State of Texas and the U.S. Department of Education to waive requirements to administer the 2020-21 STAAR and TELPAS due to the disruption of in-person instruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adopted by the ATPE House of Delegates during its annual meeting, July 9, 2020.
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