Updated at 4:15 p.m. on June 18, 2020 to include statements from the Texas PTA and Association of Texas Professional Educators.
The state will not require students to wear facemasks, shields, or be tested for the deadly coronavirus when Texas schools re-open for in-person classes in the fall.
“It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement released Thursday. “But there will also be flexibility for families with health concerns so that their children can be educated remotely, if the parent so chooses.”
The details on how districts should proceed with health protocols are expected to be released next Tuesday. Frank Ward, a spokesperson at the Texas Education Agency, said many decisions will be left to local leaders.
“There’s an emphasis on local control,” Ward said
Some districts, including Dallas ISD, are planning on having students use facemasks and shields, although the district and many others are still in the planning stages of laying out their policies.
Schools across the country shutdown in March officials tried to curb the spread of COVID-19. That meant educators had to quickly scramble to provide lessons online, which was difficult as not all students had access to reliable internet connections or devices.
District leaders across Texas have been planning for various scenarios on how to move forward as they await official guidance from the state.
The Dallas school district has created a first draft of its own guidebook for reopening schools that sets out safety and security guidelines as well as three instructional models it could use. That includes providing students with masks and using Plexiglass barriers in several settings.
Last week, DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that the district was in a holding pattern on which model to choose, waiting on state guidance, particularly on how class time would be counted for online-only instruction. Attendance calculations are the engine behind the state’s school funding formulas.
On Thursday, the district shared that it had “already defined our safety measures based on the guidelines that have been suggested” by the county and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and would move forward with masks and face shields, Plexiglass dividers, frequent disinfectant spraying and temperature checks.
The Fort Worth and Garland school districts announced this week that they will offer both in-person classes and virtual learning. FWISD noted that its online classes will be different than the rushed lessons this past spring, with teachers getting more training. Those teaching online will do so from a classroom setting.
During several interviews with TV outlets around the state this week, Texas .Gov Greg Abbott reiterated that it is his goal to have students back in schools by the fall.
“The best case scenario for education is that students will return to the school setting in classrooms with teachers with other students, and engage in activities like they were at the beginning of school last year,” Abbott told El Paso’s KVIA-TV on Tuesday. “There will be better safety standards in place, standards that will ensure that they reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
Abbott shared a similar message to state lawmakers on a call Thursday morning, as first reported by The Texas Tribune.
Since Abbott’s push to reopen businesses across the state in early May, Texas has seen a steady rise in COVID-19 cases. Dallas County hit an all-time high with 413 new cases on Wednesday, which county officials attributed to an increase in large social gatherings.
Teacher and parent groups in the state largely took a wait-and-see approach about Thursday’s news, wanting to see the scope of the TEA’s guidelines.
In a recent survey by the Association of Texas Professional Educators, 63% of the 4,200 respondents — all educators — listed the health and safety of students as one of top priorities to returning for the 2020-21 school year. Just over 60% of educators also included their own personal health and safety as a top concern.
In a statement, ATPE said it hoped that the state’s guidelines would empower school districts to “implement health and safety protocols and requirements that meet the needs of their community, and take into consideration the impact of the pandemic in their area and the recommendations of medical experts.”
The Texas PTA shared a similar sentiment in a statement, stating that they were “counting on our local school districts to do what’s best for their communities.”
“At this point, our advice to parents is what it’s always been – you should make a decision based on your child’s best interests,” the Texas PTA statement read.
Austin bureau chief Robert Garrett contributed to this report.