It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to campuses for in-person classes this fall, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said in a Texas Education Agency (TEA) statement Thursday.

Further TEA guidance on the fall is expected this week, and that direction could answer the many outstanding questions of local education leaders. While San Antonio superintendents have said distance learning will continue in some fashion this fall, it is unclear how the State might choose to fund that instruction.

“I probably receive several emails a day asking if we are going to provide a distance learning option in the fall, and what we don’t know is will TEA fund us for that?” North East Independent School District Superintendent Sean Maika said this month.

During a Tuesday night school board meeting, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods told trustees that distance learning will remain part of fall plans because about half of Northside families don’t feel comfortable returning their students to campus. A rise in coronavirus cases also could force a return to remote learning should a campus or entire school system have to close.

“What we’re trying to develop is a system that encourages students to come back to our buildings and educates to the degree that we are allowed to from State guidance as many students as we possibly can in our buildings, in our classrooms, with our teachers,” Woods said. “But we also recognize … that distance learning is going to be the choice at least for some period of time for some families.”

In advance of the TEA’s specific guidance on how school districts should reopen this fall, Gov. Greg Abbott told lawmakers Thursday that in-person instruction will be able to occur. State lawmakers on the call with Abbott said at-home learning options also will be permitted.

The TEA’s guidance, expected Tuesday, could answer districts’ questions about how many students can be assigned per room and what health and safety rules should be enforced – along with the attendance and funding question.

During normal years, the State awards schools funds for average daily attendance, or the average number of students who show up on campus for class. In recent months, the State continued funding as budgeted even though students remained at home and distance learning replaced on-campus classes.

It is not known how the State will count students who choose to remain at home and participate in remote instruction this fall and beyond. It also is not known if the State will provide low-attendance-day waivers because of coronavirus as it does for natural disasters.

At a North East ISD budget meeting in early June, Maika told his board that about one-fifth of district families polled said they would not feel comfortable returning their students to the classroom.

Northside ISD also has been trying to get a count of how many parents feel comfortable sending their students back to class. The district polled families at the beginning of June. Roughly 14,500 Northside parents responded. A separate survey for staff garnered about 6,400 responses.

On Tuesday, district staff told trustees that 47 percent of NISD parents were somewhat or very comfortable sending their child back to school and 48 percent said they were not very or not at all comfortable. On the staff survey, 57 percent of respondents said they were somewhat or very comfortable returning to campus in the fall.

The survey also found one-third of parent respondents wanted to start fall instruction online only. Twenty-seven percent of staff felt the same.

The district also asked those surveyed to rate what would make them feel most comfortable with in-person instruction. The top answers were hand sanitizer, cleaning protocols, and alerts to parents with information on new coronavirus cases.

Woods emphasized that the plans being considered by his district likely would constitute a menu of options that could change to fit the health crisis and parents’ level of comfort. Standing up distance learning as part of this is “an absolute non-negotiable for the fall,” Woods said.

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During the period of time this spring when all students transitioned to learning from home, educators and students said results varied based on a students’ at-home living environment or support system.

So even if a family feels more comfortable keeping their child at home, it may be necessary to encourage students to return in person if academic outcomes suffer, the superintendent said.

“We’ve got to create a system that is nimble enough to allow students to move either because of illness or because of choice from distant [learning] to in-person or vice versa,” Woods said. “We have got to be nimble enough that if a classroom had to be closed for whatever period of time that we could transition those students from in-person to distant [learning] overnight and it would be seamless for the kids and learning would not be lost.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.