Texas will extend time that schools will be allowed to stay online-only, Gov. Greg Abbott says

Cactus Elementary School in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020.      Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Cactus Elementary School in Cactus on Jan. 28, 2020. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas will give school districts more flexibility to keep their school buildings closed to in-person instruction this fall as coronavirus cases continue to rise, Gov. Greg Abbott told a Houston television station Tuesday.

Public health guidance released last week indicated that school districts had to stay virtual for up to three weeks after their start dates, so they could get their safety protocols ironed out before bringing more students to campus. If they stayed closed longer than that, they would lose state funding.

Abbott on Tuesday said that time would be extended. His comment comes on the heels of a tumultuous week, after state education officials released guidance last Tuesday requiring districts to offer in-person instruction for five days a week to all parents who want it.

"I think Mike Morath, the commissioner of education, is expected to announce a longer period of time for online learning at the beginning of the school year, up to the flexibility at the local level," Abbott said to KTRK. "This is going to have to be a local-level decision, but there will be great latitude and flexibility provided at the local level."

The news, which Abbott said would be finalized in the next few days, will likely come as a relief to superintendents and educators asking the state for more flexibility on when and how they reopen school buildings. Some local health officials, including in El Paso and Laredo, had already demanded schools in their areas start the year with virtual learning until cases go down.

And some larger urban school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are planning to push their start dates later and keep all students online for three weeks, in order to avoid reopening school buildings as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge.

Abbott and Morath have received numerous letters from school board presidents, Democratic state politicians and teacher advocates demanding more flexibility on when to keep school buildings closed and more public health mandates to keep teachers and students safe.

Parents can choose to keep their kids learning virtually from home, but the state provided little guidance for how to protect teachers, more at risk for severe illness due to the virus.