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Texas officials scramble to provide school reopening guidelines with only weeks of summer left

A teacher holds a sign outside the Capitol Grounds during the ‘Mask Up, Line Up’ teacher protest on July 15, 2020 in Austin.      Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune
A teacher holds a sign outside the Capitol Grounds during the ‘Mask Up, Line Up’ teacher protest on July 15, 2020 in Austin. Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Weeks before summer break is set to end for millions of Texas public school students, the state still doesn’t have final rules on how schools should reopen this fall, and the picture grew only slightly less murky on Wednesday.

Schools in Houston, the state's largest district, announced they will start the fall semester later than usual and expect students to spend at least six weeks learning virtually before possibly bringing some back into classrooms. The state made clear that it won't financially penalize districts that don't open for in-person classes within three weeks of starting their school year if a local public health agency orders classrooms to remain closed.

And amid the evolving reopening turmoil, several hundred teachers protested outside the state Capitol Wednesday demanding that their safety be taken into account.

Last week, the state's education agency had said all schools must offer in-person instruction for all students who want it this fall, allowing districts a transition period of just three weeks at the start of the year to hold classes virtually and get safety plans in place. It didn’t take long for them to rethink the initial approach, as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to spike across the state.

This week, officials began slowly pulling back on those stringent requirements. Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that districts can expect more flexibility on opening classrooms. And state education officials told The Texas Tribune Wednesday that they would continue to fund school districts choosing to stay completely virtual for more than three weeks, if local health officials mandate it.

The conflicting mandates ping-ponging between state and local officials are frustrating many parents, students and teachers trying to plan for a fall semester during a raging pandemic. In the middle of the confusion, school superintendents are crafting their own plans for reopening this fall, sometimes going against established state guidance.

For example, all 209,000 students in the Houston Independent School District will start the year with six weeks of virtual classes right after Labor Day, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan announced Wednesday. But even that plan is subject to change, if state or local officials issue other guidance overruling it.

“We’re doing what’s best based on the data available in our community,“ Lathan said at a press conference. Houston ISD parents can also opt out of in-person instruction for the fall semester and school year.

Public health officials warn that reopening school buildings in areas with a lot of community spread will exacerbate the virus’ impact. Harris County’s public health officials have not issued a mandate to keep classrooms closed, but several other cities have, including El Paso, Austin and Laredo. Those districts will continue to receive state funding as long as they offer remote instruction for all students.

More and more districts across the state are pushing their start dates back later into August or September and choosing to stay entirely virtual for at least the first few weeks.

Parents are starting to make decisions on whether to opt out of in-person instruction for the grading period or school year with limited information and looming deadlines. A University of Texas and Texas Politics Project poll showed recently that 65% of Texans said it was unsafe for children to go back to school.

And teachers, among the loudest critics of reopening, have argued the state’s decision to mandate in-person classes puts their health on the line. State guidance allows parents to opt out of in-person learning, but says little about how school districts should protect teachers and staff. Local teachers associations are encouraging their members to look for legal avenues to stay home, including resigning or retiring early, instead of being forced back into classrooms while cases are rising.

A couple of hundred teachers, many from Central Texas, held a socially distanced protest at the Texas Capitol in Austin Wednesday to advocate for schools to open safely. They sat, masked, lined up along the black gate surrounding the Capitol buildings, stretching multiple blocks.

Jenny Peña, a middle school math teacher in Austin ISD, said teachers are protesting for the safety of everyone in a school community, including students, parents and staff. “We are being the voice of reason right now,” she said. “If you’ve never seen a child in a casket, I don’t recommend it … I cannot recommend burying a student for something that was very preventable.”

Student leaders in Houston ISD, members of a districtwide student congress, have also been pushing the administration to keep school buildings closed, worried they could transmit the virus to teachers and staff. “I would never ever want to be a student and carry that weight upon my head and know I possibly could have gotten my fellow student or my fellow teacher ill and they got their family member sick and their family member perished,” said Jennifer Hamad, a 17-year-old rising senior at Heights High School in Houston ISD.

They’re carrying out their own rolling survey of parents, teachers and students, which shows that more vulnerable parents, including those without childcare and those struggling to feed their children, are more likely to send their children to school in person this fall.

Hamad and her peers are urging the administration to keep schools closed for as long as the virus continues to spread across Houston, while ensuring equitable access to food and technology for students who need it.

Allie Goulding contributed to this report.

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