Matt Pierce Briscoe
The Texas Education Agency has almost every parents, student, educator and school district in their own predicament as they have still yet to announce official guidance for the upcoming school year. While the agency and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath have sent some messages to school officials around the state, the message that he is sending is not sitting well.
What is the big deal? Some Texas school districts are set report back to work in 3 to 4 weeks, pointing at mid-August. There has still be no official guidance from the Texas Education Agency on the guidelines for safely opening school. But what Commissioner Mike Morath did say is that school districts that do not return in the fall will face harsh financial penalties and even lose some of their funding—a critical element to the success of most districts, especially as the current chances of anybody being able to get a bond passed are slim to none at the moment.
So far, Commissioner Mike Morath’s decision to direct the Texas Education Agency to withhold funding unless schools are open in August is seen by many educators as a message that state level administrators think that school staff safety is of no concern.
Part of the problem is that as staff and students return to work, it will be hard for them to practice safe social distancing. Think about a classroom and how tight space already is in most of them. Educators say that to maintain proper social distancing, they would have to hold classes in rooms that are twice the size as they already are if you were to put six feet or so between desks. Many educators rely on the space for much needed teaching materials, supplies and in classroom storage. That space is just not something that most school districts have readily on hand and available.
But then there lies another problem—money. As Commissioner Morath and other state level administrators continue to play dodgeball with their guidance for districts, many are worried that as COVID-19 positives continue to increase here in Texas, that could potentially put full-time educators at-risk for exposure and infection. Would there be any state or federal funding for substitute teachers? The answer is no.
Some communities which are considered to heavily black, indigenous, people of color, or “BIPOC” communities, are facing higher than normal rates of infection for COVID-19. Places such as Corpus Christi, Houston, Dallas and much of the Rio Grande Valley would fit, at least somewhat within that demographic. Educators in those communities worry that they will be more at risk for infection and that there might not be enough state or federal money to cover the cost of recruiting, paying for and retaining properly suited substitute teachers to fill the potential gaps.
A recent statewide report showed the distance and digital learning was not suitable for everybody—especially those in lower income areas. Parts of Corpus Christi and Flour Bluff both fit well within that demographic, too. Most educators around the state seem to agree that while distance or digital learning is disproportionate—it is the safest way to educate Texas children right now as the rate of infection continues to be uncontrolled.
Educators are also concerned about the safety of not only their students and fellow staff, but for their own families. On a recent conference call over 100 Texas public school teachers let their concerns be known that there has been no mention of budgets for PPE, sanitation or hazardous duty pay for them. They are maintaining that there has also been no real concern given for those educators who are considered to be high-risk or live with high risk individuals.
There is also the question of not if, but when an outbreak occurs within the confines of a public school—then what happens? The Texas Education Agency did not have an answer for that one yet either.
As this coming school year draws near there is one thing that is looming far and wide—fear of the unknown and the idea that nobody is listening, and that has educators and families concerned and left wondering through the coming weeks without much to cling onto.