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Texas teachers caught in the middle of political battles over schools reopening

Many TEA employees are working from home, but the agency is requiring schools to open for in-person instruction this fall. Teachers say that could hurt their health.

This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. 

Teachers like Jennifer Boyer have become the rope in a political tug of war over reopening Texas schools.

While record numbers of Texans are hospitalized and dying from COVID-19, the question of whether teachers will be pulled back into classrooms next fall, willing or not, has spawned pitched national and local battles over the safety of restarting in-person public education.

Those decisions will largely be made by local school boards and superintendents, but pressure from Republicans — from President Donald Trump on down — to get back to business has teachers feeling left out of the planning process.

“I’m pretty angry. But I’m mostly angry at the high-up decision makers, all the way from the president to our state officials and the [Texas Education Agency],” says Boyer, who works with elementary school gifted students in San Antonio's Northside Independent School District.

Boyer is worried about her own health. She suspects the medicine she takes to keep cancer in remission might put her at higher risk for COVID-19. But she is years from retirement and can’t financially afford to quit.

She watches national and state education officials push to reopen at the expense of her and other teachers’ wellbeing. “I feel like it’s a political decision,” she said.

Under the guidelines Texas education officials released Tuesday, schools will be required to offer five days of in-person instruction per week, forcing some school superintendents to ditch plans they had already created hoping to keep families and teachers safe during the pandemic.

If parents are worried about safety, they're free to keep their children home to take virtual classes. A recent University of Texas and Texas Politics Project poll showed that 65% of Texans said it was unsafe for children to go back to school, including 42% of Republicans polled and 91% of Democrats. Black and Hispanic Texans, who are disproportionately susceptible to the virus, were more likely than white Texans to say in-person instruction was unsafe.

But the state’s public health guidance does not give teachers an avenue to opt out like parents can, and says little about how school districts should protect the teachers and staff who are more vulnerable than children to dying from the virus — leaving those decisions largely up to locals.

The extreme political pressure on school districts to keep their buildings open, even as the number of COVID-19 cases in Texas hits day-after-day record highs, is terrifying for educators and school staff who may have to put their health at risk to keep their jobs.

“Teachers at this point we’re ready to put our collective foot down and we’re not going to be bullied into going back into an unsafe situation,” said Traci Dunlap, an Austin ISD kindergarten teacher. “Unfortunately, I have a lot of colleagues around the state that are talking about resigning, retiring, retiring early, leaving the teaching profession."

Particularly galling for some teachers is the TEA's own behavior. Even as the agency compels teachers back to the classroom, its own offices remain all-but-closed with most staff working from home to protect their own health. As of July, agency staff have had the option to return to the office building on a “voluntary basis” and the TEA is working on next steps for “later this summer and beyond,” according to a written statement from the agency.

“Well, if it’s safe enough for students to come back, isn’t it safe enough for you to go back to work? And if the answer is, ‘No,’ then they need to reevaluate how they’re treating their students,” said Mario Piña, an eighth grade Austin ISD teacher. “Student and teacher safety is number one.”

When Texas unveiled its final plan for reopening schools this fall, the Texas Pediatric Society praised Gov. Greg Abbott for ensuring “in-person instruction is available to every child,” which the organization argues is best for students’ mental, educational and social wellness. And some Republican state lawmakers celebrated the decision as one that gave school districts the most “freedom and flexibility” for their communities.

The debate extends far beyond Texas’ boundaries, as the Trump administration pressures governors and local leaders across the country to offer daily in-person instruction, part of a larger plan to bolster a slumping economy. Trump slammed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week for asking schools to do “very impractical things” with “very tough and expensive guidelines for opening schools.”

Although Texas’ new public health guidance includes requirements for most teachers and students to wear masks, and recommendations for social distancing and sanitizing, teachers said it doesn’t go far enough compared to more stringent CDC guidelines.

They implored state leaders to reconsider expanding online learning and to make in-person learning as safe as possible by mandating smaller class sizes, additional busing and staggered schedules. Already, teachers unions are encouraging their members to look into legal avenues to teach remotely or stay at home, including retiring early, resigning, asking for federal disability accommodations, or filing for family and medical leave. Some school districts, including Houston ISD, the state’s largest, are already reporting teacher shortages, and the bench of substitute teachers is growing sparser.

On a call with superintendents Thursday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath acknowledged superintendents wanted more guidance on how to let more staff work remotely. He suggested they make good use of a three-week transition period Texas is allowing school districts this fall, during which school districts can stay virtual and get their safety protocols ironed out before bringing more students to campuses. Districts that keep their buildings closed past the three-week period will lose state funding.

But the desire for flexibility goes beyond those three weeks. Across the state, local health authorities and teachers are refusing to comply with the state’s orders, arguing it’s not safe to go back as cases rise.

El Paso Public Health ordered all schools to delay on-campus instruction until Sept. 8, more than three weeks after school was expected to start Aug. 3. And El Paso districts Thursday pushed their start dates for remote instruction back to Aug. 17.

In Austin, where cases are climbing daily, the local teachers union is calling for school buildings to be closed for at least nine weeks, well beyond Austin ISD’s Aug. 18 start date. And it’s encouraging teachers to stay home even if district officials don’t agree.

“I would love nothing more than to be able to see my students and do my job in person. But I don’t want my students to become ill with this virus, I don’t want to get sick, I don’t want the people that I care about to get sick,” Dunlap said.

Teachers and parents have been flustered by wavering guidance as state leaders delayed the release of information that would guide school reopening plans, hindering school leaders’ ability to provide accurate and timely updates.

This Tuesday, United and Laredo ISDs in South Texas announced that instruction would be entirely online and interactive starting Aug. 10, calling it the “safest way to deliver quality instruction to students until further notice.” But the state guidelines released the same day require school districts to offer in-person instruction five days a week for all students who want it.

The next day, the Laredo school districts were forced to change plans, posting on Facebook that they would have to amend their plans and would let parents and staff know when they are finalized. By Thursday, Laredo’s local health authority mandated local schools close their buildings until cases subside.

Many districts had been planning for some combination of in-person and remote instruction, including having alternating groups of students on campus a few days a week. Premont ISD, in rural South Texas, had planned to offer in-person instruction Monday through Thursday, using Friday as a day to deep clean buildings and allow students to get used to online learning, according to Superintendent Steve VanMatre. Now they will have to scrap that plan.

When Premont ISD brought about 200 students back to its campuses for summer school instruction, one of few across the state to do so, the county and city had few confirmed cases. But during summer school, the local public health agency reported two school-aged children were infected with the virus, VanMatre said. Those numbers will only be higher in larger, urban and suburban school districts. Within the last two weeks, 14 Corpus Christi ISD employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Caller Times.

And VanMatre knows the fear of infection will rattle his teachers. “I worry that we’re going to lose some quality teachers as a result of this pandemic,” VanMatre said. “I also know that if we’re not intentional and smart with how we manage this with Premont kids, we could lose a generation of students and that’s unacceptable.”

Carliss Muse, a mother and an educator with a congenital heart condition, knows that struggle well. An educational diagnostician at Klein ISD, outside of Houston, she works to help diagnose students with special needs, including some who are immunocompromised. She plans to keep her 16-year-old son home and learning remotely from Katy ISD this fall, and wishes she had the same option.

“Yes, I want my son to be educated. But I don’t want him to risk dying to do that. I don’t want him to risk bringing something home,” she said. “I would like to get back to work again but not at the expense of my health.”

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