COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for Texas Educators

The ongoing response to COVID-19 continues to put school districts and individual educators in uncharted territory. Statewide school closures and distance learning models show how far Texas education law has evolved in the past 11 years, with technology enabling remote work and learning. The end of the 2019-20 school year provides a break from remote teaching but introduces new challenges as districts across the state grapple with summer needs and planning for the upcoming school year.

ATPE has developed this list of answers to frequently asked questions from Texas educators regarding COVID-19. We will continue to update this information as the environment evolves.

Readers should be aware that, as described below, many decisions are made locally. In addition, the situation can change rapidly. The information provided here is the best available at the time of posting and will be updated as circumstances warrant.



LATEST UPDATES

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced school districts may—but are not required to—begin summer school, including in-person instruction at school facilities, on or after June 1. TEA has released guidance regarding how a school district that chooses to have in-person instruction should do so.

Highlights of the guidance include:

  • The decision as to whether to begin in-person instruction is a local one and should take local circumstances into account.
  • No more than 11 persons, including teachers and other district personnel, should be in an enclosed space such as a classroom together.
  • Social distancing, face-covering, and hygiene norms should be followed.
  • Districts should plan for personnel who, due to health risks or other reasons, cannot participate.

Whether an individual teacher or other employee can be required to engage in in-person instruction depends on their position and contract status. Summer school instruction is traditionally a non-contract position, though a teacher might have entered into a binding agreement to participate in summer school. Whether circumstances exist that would give a teacher or another employee the right to refuse to participate in summer school activities, including in-person instruction, is one that has to be answered on a case-by-case basis.

We all hope social distancing and work-from-home rules and guidelines have effectively blunted the effects of COVID-19. All Texans, including educators, are aware of the moves taken in Austin to begin a gradual reopening of the state. Predictions as to what will happen as this process unfolds vary widely. Obviously, it is too early to tell now what conditions will be like in August when the 2020-21 school year is slated to begin for most educators.

There are initiatives and proposals, including TEA-developed resources for school districts, floating around the state regarding potential changes to public education next year. Some involve changes to the school year, some changes to education models. Because of the incredible diversity that exists across the state, it is impossible to make generalizations about how districts will tackle this challenge. Again, because no one knows now what the public health situation will be in August, September, and beyond, it is impossible to make sound predictions. Teachers and other educators should know that any changes that do occur will be locally driven and will therefore take local community and staff interests into account.

ATPE is actively monitoring these developments and will report on them as new information becomes available. Stay tuned to ATPE publications and the TeachtheVote.org blog.



District Requirements and Obligations

What a district is required to do depends to a great extent on whether the actions are preventive (prior to a confirmed exposure) or remedial (after a confirmed coronavirus exposure). What is required will depend on the district’s emergency operation plan and any guidance from other entities, such as the local health department.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided guidance to school districts on cleaning and disinfecting classrooms and vehicles, such as school buses.

Individual staff considering cleaning or sanitizing on their own should recognize that many factors need to be considered, such as possible sensitivities or allergies students or co-workers could have to cleaners, particularly those containing strong chemicals. A good rule of thumb would be to seek guidance from a supervisor or administrator before taking any steps regarding cleaning or sanitizing that would be out of the ordinary.

There is presently no specific legal requirement that staff be notified if an individual has tested positive for the coronavirus. There are also significant general restrictions on an employer or anyone with knowledge of an individual’s medical or health information sharing that information with others, except reporting as necessary to a local health department.

A district is limited in prohibiting personal travel, but teachers and other staff should be aware that travel restrictions have and will continue to evolve as the economy reopens. Mandatory quarantines for visitors to some locations have already been in place, and these may be expanded or continued. Potential travelers need to be aware restrictions may change rapidly, and travel to certain regions or contact with a known outbreak or an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 may affect an individual’s ability to return to work.

A district can make reasonable inquiries regarding travel if there is a legitimate basis for doing so. For example, a district could ask whether a teacher had traveled to an area where a quarantine was required. The inquiry should be limited to obtaining only the information necessary to determine the likelihood of exposure to a contagion like the coronavirus.

The answer is a big maybe; it depends on what the change is. Many districts have revised their job descriptions to include the duties essential to distance teaching. In most cases, the changes have not been dramatic and have consisted of items related to the new normal of technology-based communication and education without physical contact. There have been instances where districts have stated expectations such as 12-hour workdays.

Teacher contracts universally include a clause that allows the district to make reasonable changes to job duties. If the change to a job description would be considered reasonable, then a district would be on solid legal footing to make the change, even in the middle of a school year. A change in the job description would be considered legally reasonable if it were something a teacher could expect to be required to do. So, developing curriculum, using technology such as Zoom to share lessons with students, and communicating with parents and students are all within the normal expectations of teaching—even if the balance is substantially different now. However, there is more question regarding something like being immediately available and "on call" for 12 hours a day. That is not a normal expectation of teachers. As such, there is a much stronger argument that such a change could not be made during the school year.



Working with Students

Section 28.021 of the Texas Education Code states that “[a] student may be promoted only on the basis of academic achievement or demonstrated proficiency of the subject matter of the course or grade level.” However, state law provides that districts have a great deal of flexibility in determining how that achievement and mastery needs to be demonstrated and can, to a very large extent, determine grading policy locally.

Section 28.0216 of the Texas Education Code states that “a school district shall adopt a grading policy” and that the policy must:

  • Require a classroom teacher to assign a grade that reflects the student’s relative mastery of an assignment;
  • Not require a teacher to assign a minimum grade for an assignment without regard to the student’s quality of work; and
  • A grading policy may allow a student an opportunity to make up or redo a class assignment or examination for which the student received a failing grade.

While this law requires that grades be determined by the student’s work, teachers should note that these provisions refer to grades on assignments—not final grades. Because the decision is made locally as to what constitutes sufficient mastery of the subject matter and district policy is given deference in final grades, grading decisions are practically made by the local school board and administration.

Many districts have struggled with the challenges inherent in grading students who may have very different access to resources at home. Because of this, many districts have chosen to adopt policies that students will either pass or receive an incomplete. Because there is so much deference given to local decision making in determining grading policies, flexibility may be required at this time.

TEA guidance on grading can be found at: https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/covid19-guidance-on-grading.pdf

In most cases, a district can require a teacher or other employee to use Zoom or a similar platform.

Distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has required educators to adapt. One of the most common new tools is Zoom, a platform that allows virtual group interactions. Zoom and other similar platforms provide the means to have meetings, such as learning community, grade level, or subject area meetings, between educators. It can also be used to provide group instruction, creating a virtual classroom.

Although these platforms provide great opportunities, teachers and other employees are often anxious with the prospect of using them. The fears range from concerns that the interactions may be recorded and then used negatively in some way, concerns regarding confidentiality, or simply not being comfortable with the prospect of seeing oneself on camera. This latter concern is common enough that the term "Zoom anxiety" has now entered the English language.

While there were early, well-documented security issues with Zoom, those issues were quickly addressed, and the education community, including TEA, has expressed confidence that it can be safely used by teachers, as long as basic security measures are taken. (See Zoom Security Tips and Best Practices for Teachers for guidance on the safe use of Zoom.)

Teachers and other school employees should not use Zoom or any other platform without first receiving authorization from the appropriate administrator, usually their principal. But if that has been received, there is actually very little difference between using Zoom to interact with co-workers, students, or parents and having face-to-face interactions.

Teachers and support staff have done amazing things in finding, developing, and sharing instructional material with their students to continue the educational process. This is critical as districts’ ability to continue receiving state funding is dependent on their ability to plan for and provide educational opportunities to their students.

The challenges posed by distance teaching have required teachers to find new resources. The most important thing for teachers to keep in mind is that material should be consistent with district expectations.

There are few examples of the challenges of distance learning that compare to continuing the services provided for in a student’s IEP. Many districts have tried to address the issue by convening ARD meetings to modify IEPs to reflect what is now possible in this new learning environment.

The law provides no pandemic-related exception for a district’s requirement to provide a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to its student population. But teachers with special education and 504 students need not panic. The law is clear that it is the district’s legal responsibility to provide services. Teachers must do the best that they can and should certainly ensure that the administration is aware of any problems that exist. Teachers also need to try and be flexible with the district’s efforts to fulfill their legal obligation—such as by being available for ARD meetings, even if held virtually.

TEA guidance for school districts regarding special education issues can be found at: tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19%20Special%20Ed%20QA_Updated%20April%2023.pdf



When Schools Reopen in August

It is likely individual districts will adopt local procedures prior to the return to the classroom. If a teacher or other staff member suspects a student is exhibiting symptoms consistent with exposure to the coronavirus, the individual should follow whatever protocol or procedure has been established locally. This will likely involve sending the student to the nurse’s office and isolating the student, but the decision is a local one.

Teachers and other staff members should always be careful in their communications so as not to unnecessarily embarrass, stigmatize, or frighten a student suspected of being ill or the other students. Teachers and other staff should also be careful to avoid racial or ethnic stereotyping, such as treating Asian students differently simply because the coronavirus first appeared in Asia.

Teachers, particularly teachers who employ objects that will be shared between students, such as goggles in a science lab or athletic equipment in P.E. class or athletics, need to consult with their administrators regarding making changes to their curriculum or activities. If a student expresses a concern regarding sharing equipment, etc., a teacher should look to the administration for guidance on how to proceed.



Your Health and Employment

President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) March 18, and the law went into effect April 1 and remains in effect through December 31, 2020. The law covers a lot of ground. Two provisions are most important to teachers and other district staff members:

  • The Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act expands the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to cover some situations specific to novel coronavirus, such as a parent’s need to care for their children who would normally be in school or childcare.
  • The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act provides a legal entitlement to paid sick leave for some employees who are absent for work due to certain coronavirus-related reasons.

These laws are new and remain untested. To learn more, read ATPE’s analysis of these two new laws.

The term "closure" is complicated because the term has been used to describe campuses being closed during distance learning—when much of the staff is actually working. But it also can mean a period when there was no work being done.

If teachers or other staff are working, whether at home or at their regular worksite, they should be paid because they are working. If the question is compensation for a period when there was no work going on, which occurred at some districts the week after spring break, teachers and other contract staff should review their contracts. In most cases, a district will be required to provide the expected compensation to a teacher or other contract staff member if a school was closed but the teacher was “ready and willing to work” but for the closure.

Texas Education Code §21.401 provides that a contract between a certified educator and a district must be for at least 10 months and must provide for a minimum of 187 days’ service. Some districts have opted out of this provision under their local District of Innovation plans. Section 21.401(c) provides that if the commissioner does grant a waiver of the number of instructional minutes, the reduction cannot reduce an educator’s salary. This could, however, mean the educator would be required to work the “makeup time” should such makeup time be designated.

A district is not legally required to pay non-contract staff during closures where the individual was not actually working, though districts may legally pay the staff upon a determination that there is a legitimate interest in doing so, such as staff morale or retention.

If a school district has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, a district can likely make the employee stay home. Again, to be reasonable, the belief must be based on actual evidence, not mere concern, even if it is in good faith. Evidence that an individual traveled to an area of quarantine or had actual contact with an infected individual or individuals could be the basis for a reasonable belief of a direct threat. Conversely, simply having traveled or simply being on a cruise ship that had no verified contagion on board would likely not be a reasonable belief based on objective evidence. Again, the situation is evolving as health officials learn more about the transmission of the coronavirus.

It should be noted that a district can likely make any member of the staff stay at home regardless if they are a direct threat to health—as long as they are paid as if they are at work.

If a school district has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, a district can likely make the employee stay at home and use available sick leave or, if the employee has no sick leave, use unpaid leave. However, as noted above, if there is no evidence that the employee poses a direct threat to health, the district should likely pay the individual as if they were at work.

Generally, a district is not required to allow a staff member to be absent simply due to that staff member’s concern regarding an illness. However, if a staff member has a condition that would make an illness such as the coronavirus particularly dangerous, such as a person with a compromised respiratory system, the district would be obligated to consider an absence as a reasonable accommodation of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If a school district has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, a district can likely make the employee be tested. Again, to be reasonable, the belief must be based on actual evidence, not mere concern, even if it is in good faith. Evidence that an individual traveled to an area of quarantine or had actual contact with an infected individual or individuals could be the basis for a reasonable belief of a direct threat. Conversely, simply having traveled or simply being on a cruise ship that had no verified contagion on board would likely not be a reasonable belief based on objective evidence. Again, the situation is evolving as health officials learn more about the transmission of the coronavirus.

Current Texas state law provides that a worker may be eligible for unemployment benefits when pay is reduced because their work hours are reduced and the reduction is not due to disciplinary action. There is a long-standing exception for regularly scheduled business closures, however. A school employee who is not working because of the regularly scheduled summer break will normally not be eligible for unemployment benefits. You can find more information regarding Texas unemployment benefits at https://texasworkforce.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/unemployment-eligibility-faq/.



ATPE Meetings and Events

The ATPE Board of Directors voted during the May 16 board meeting to hold the 2020 ATPE Summit as a virtual event.

Previously scheduled for July 9–11, ATPE will now meet virtually July 6–10. Read the official announcement here.

Visit atpesummit.org for additional event details; the site will be updated frequently with new information as it becomes available.



 
The legal information provided on this website is for general purposes only and is accurate as of the date of publication, May 27, 2020. It is not intended as a substitute for individual legal advice or the provision of legal services. Accessing this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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