School District Leaders Demand Flexibility for New School Year Amid COVID-19 Spike

Two letters were sent to Gov. Greg Abbott covering a slew of concerns on funding, safety and attendance guidelines

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A battle is brewing over the start of school in Texas.

The board presidents of the 10 largest school districts in the state have sent a warning letter to Gov. Greg abbott, pushing back on the state's planned reopening of school next month and expressing concerns over funding.

The letter – dated July 13 – was sent on behalf of district board leaders from cities like Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston.

“Conditions have changed dramatically in the last four weeks, and they continue to worsen daily,” the letter reads. “It is clear you recognize the ever-changing situation as we’ve seen the daily developments in both numbers of cases, pulling back from opening certain businesses, mandating masks in the majority of counties, etc. School districts and their communities are facing the same worsening conditions, and these recent circumstances are far more acute than when districts across the state were closed initially this past spring.”

According to the board presidents, recent funding decisions by the Texas Education Agency do not reflect the flexibility they need for school districts to accommodate students and teachers through the pandemic’s ever-changing conditions.

“School districts require stability to open without fear of financial losses, and we need flexibility to open school in a manner we determine is best for each community,” they stated in the letter.

The letter is in a follow up to another letter sent last Thursday to the governor by the Texas School Alliance and the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents. That letter was signed by Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner, Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa, and HEB ISD Superintendent Dr. Steve Chapman.

The district leaders are requesting the governor to set forth a plan for the coming school year that would address several concerns.

First, they want the state to waive attendance accounting requirements for 2020/2021 school year to ensure school districts receive funding for students who are learning at home due to school closures.

According to the July 9 letter by Dallas, Fort Worth and HEB superintendents, this is exactly what was done in the spring.

“Now that health conditions are significantly more volatile, we encourage the state to respond in the same manner and ensure districts do not experience loss in funding while dealing with intermittent school closures,” their letter states. “The number of students that will be in remote instructional environments will undoubtedly be significant and the burdensome attendance accounting will be difficult for teachers and staff.”

Second, district leaders want the state to set a floor on average daily attendance (ADA) so funding at least remains the same as 2019-2020.

School leaders said an ADA floor would provide the greatest level of certainty and stability. 

“We recommend not allowing ADA for any district to fall below the final ADA count for the 2019-2020 school year.  This would mean that no district would need to contemplate reductions in staffing or other budget cuts this fall at a time when students and their families will need more support from their schools,” according to the letter.

Finally, districts said they want the ability to design a curriculum that meets the needs of individual communities, as cases surge in some parts of the state but remain low in others.

“Some school districts may be able to hold school in person every day, but others may need to use a hybrid approach that would have groups of students learning in school and from home on alternating days,” the letter states. “In our most vulnerable districts where the virus is currently spreading at alarming rates, it may be necessary for districts to be fully online for some significant periods of time during the year.”

Gov. Abbott took part in a live interview with NBC 5 Monday evening regarding the recent spike in cases, unrelated to the letters. When asked about concerns the school districts had in reopening to in-person instruction too early, he seemed to express support for flexibility.

"No one knows what COVID will be when schools start. As a result, that's why TEA and local school districts like Dallas ISD know the thing they will focus on most is flexibility. If COVID is spreading like it is right now, the local school board has the ability to delay the opening of schools or to require that when schools do open, they use these distance learning strategies."

He's referring to online classes and that's what these school district leaders said they want more clarification on.

In their letters, they also state they want more official guidance to be set in place that allows them to do what they need to do to protect students and teachers.

District leaders are asking Gov. Abbott to respond to their requests by this Friday, July 17.

In the coming days, the Dallas ISD board of trustees says they plan to meet to discuss the reopening of schools.

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