Schools prepare to start year remotely; Parents have options for their children

Teachers, parents, students and school officials got a better idea late last week of how Texas will approach opening schools safely as coronavirus infections and deaths rise in the Rio Grande Valley and across the state.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath released a statement on school funding Thursday afternoon that allows schools to open in a 100% distance learning setting, so long as certain conditions are met. The guidance allows for an eight-week, distance-learning-only transition period.

The statement said that TEA previously announced a funding waiver framework that fully funds instruction for the entire year for any family that requests remote instruction. But it said that school systems must also provide daily on-campus instruction for families that want to come on campus “with several critical exceptions designed to maximize the health of students, teachers, and staff.”

The exceptions include the eight-week transition period, a provision that a school can be closed for up to five days due to a confirmed COVID-19 case, during which funding would continue for online-only instruction, and that beyond the five-day exception, funding could continue if the school is part of a legally authorized closure order.

Also, high schools can offer alternating on-campus and remote instruction to reduce the number of students in the building at one time.

The guidance came after Attorney General Ken Paxton released non-binding legal guidance saying local health officials do not have the power to require school districts in their jurisdictions to close because of rising COVID infections. Together the two actions put school districts in the position of opening schools on the state’s timeline or risking funding.

Gov. Greg Abbott has not directly addressed the question of reopening schools, leaving it to Morath and TEA to convey the state’s plans.

Meanwhile, the Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Association of School Administrators both released statements calling on state leaders to leave decisions about opening schools safely, as much as possible, to local leaders, and not to tie funding to opening schools for in-person learning.

As it stands, students in the Brownsville Independent School District are to start classes on Aug. 25 via 100% distance learning. Orders from Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino and Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez prohibit in-person classes until at least Sept. 8, and a resolution passed by the BISD Board of Trustees on July 27 calls for no in-person classes through Oct. 8, which corresponds to the eight-week window in the TEA guidance.

Los Fresnos schools, several of which are in or near Brownsville, are to reopen Sept. 8, also under an online-only plan for the first four weeks of school. The district said it would consider an additional four-week, online-only period as conditions warrant.

Both districts have posted detailed plans for the coming school year on their websites.

BISD said it would launch a reopening website on Monday.

BISD families may request remote learning for the entire semester or entire year. The parents must commit to remote learning beginning Aug. 10. A student who commits to remote learning, may not return to face to face instruction until the end of the six weeks period. Students who attend face to face learning, may choose to move to remote learning, also at the end of each marking period, the district said.

BISD also said it will develop a module course for parents titled “Virtual Learning Online Course” that must also be viewed by parents who request distance learning ( ). The course will be available Monday on the district main website.

In a statement BISD said it has worked diligently on developing its plan for reopening. “The priority is the health and safety of our students and faculty and this plan will address and provide guidance for school leaders to reopen their campuses safely and in accordance to health and safety protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the State of Texas,” the statement read.

Because the virus that causes COVID-19 can infect people of all ages, school system leaders like BISD should do everything feasible to keep students, teachers, staff, and our communities safe, the statement added.

The Reopening Plan document contains information on four sets of practices recommended by TEA that minimize the likelihood of viral spread, including some that are requirements for all schools and others that are recommendations, including:>> PROVIDE NOTICE: Requirements for parental and public notices.>> PREVENT: Required practices to prevent the virus from entering the school.>> RESPOND: Required practices to respond to a lab confirmed case in the school.>> MITIGATE: Recommended and required practices to reduce likely spread inside the school.

Here are important dates on the BISD academic calendar for the 2020-2021 school year.

Aug. 19-20: Teacher virtual staff development

Aug. 21: District virtual staff development

Aug. 24: Teachers will prepare classrooms for virtual learning on a voluntary basis

Aug. 25: First day of school to be virtual until further notice

Dec. 18: Last day of first semester

Jan. 4, 2021: District staff development (in person or virtual)

Jan. 5: Teacher preparation day

Jan. 6: First day of school

June 10: Last day of class for students

June 11: Last day for teachers