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Teach the Vote's Week in Review: Sept. 10, 2021

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Date Posted: 9/10/2021

The ATPE Governmental Relations team recaps this week’s education news, legislative updates, and regulatory developments.

SUICIDE PREVENTION: Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, aimed at raising awareness of suicide and how to prevent it. ATPE’s member-adopted Legislative Program has long supported suicide prevention efforts in schools, including training for educators. Additionally, one of ATPE’s legislative priorities for 2021 was advocating mental health resources for public school students and staff.  For additional information on suicide prevention, check out the resources from the International Association for Suicide Prevention, Texas-specific support from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – Texas, and this Fall 2016 ATPE News article on how to spot student mental health crises.

SPECIAL SESSION: Gov. Greg Abbott announced this week that the Legislature will convene for a third special session Sept. 20, 2021. In addition to redrawing the state’s legislative, congressional, and State Board of Education districts, Abbott’s agenda for the next special session features three items that relate to public education. These include a revival of legislation dictating how transgender students can compete in University Interscholastic League (UIL) events and whether state or local governmental entities, such as school districts, can mandate COVID-19 vaccination. Abbott also called on legislators to provide appropriations from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which sent $12.4 billion to Texas public schools.

Gov. Greg AbbottBILLS: Some education legislation passed during the second special session has gone into effect, while other bills still await final approval. Senate Bill (SB) 15 expanding virtual education and SB 7 authorizing a “13th check” for retired educators were signed by Gov. Abbott on Thursday, Sept. 9, and are now effective. Read more about the implementation of SB 15 below. SB 3, the civics curriculum and teaching bill; SB 9 relating to instruction on the prevention of child abuse, family violence, and dating violence; and House Bill (HB) 5 providing supplemental appropriations and the payment mechanism for the “13th check” all await the governor’s signature.

VIRTUAL: Thursday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released correspondence to school districts outlining how virtual learning under SB 15 will be implemented, pending formal rulemaking. Though no district is required to offer virtual learning, those that do must meet certain requirements, including having an overall rating of C or above in the 2018-19 school year or the latest year for which a rating was given. Additionally, districts offering virtual learning must have an on-campus option and allow their virtual students to participate in UIL activities. Districts must also provide professional development on virtual instruction and cannot coerce a teacher to teach remotely or to teach both virtual and on-campus classes during the same class period.

Students must also meet criteria before a district can receive state funding for their participation in virtual learning. For instance, if a student received most of their instruction virtually last year, they must demonstrate grade-level proficiency through the previous year’s STAAR test or a STAAR beginning-of-year test, have had a limited number of absences, and have earned a C or better in foundation curriculum courses last year. State funding for a district’s virtual students is capped at 10% of their total student enrollment, and Commissioner of Education Mike Morath indicated to superintendents this week that he is unlikely to waive this requirement. Districts also will not receive funding for virtual instruction of prekindergarten students.

SB 15 expires Sept. 1, 2023, making it likely the Legislature will revisit virtual schooling during the 2023 regular session following the report of the Texas Commission on Virtual Education, which is due to legislators by Dec. 31, 2022. TEA also announced it will offer a Sept. 17 webinar to help school officials learn more about SB 15.

FEDERAL: Thursday evening, President Joe Biden gave remarks detailing his six-part plan to address the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan seeks to support safe school reopening by requiring staff in Head Start programs and schools operated by the Department of Defense or Bureau of Indian Education to be vaccinated; encouraging schools to adopt vaccine mandates for employees; investigating potential discrimination against students with disabilities in states with prohibitions on mask mandates; testing students and staff regularly for COVID-19; and supporting the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) work to approve a vaccine for children under 12.

President Joe BidenBiden said his plan also includes “having the back” of school districts that have funding withheld or are financially penalized due to their implementation of COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as mask mandates. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) released more detail Thursday about “Project SAFE (Supporting America's Families and Educators),” stating that ED will award grants directly to school districts “as expeditiously as possible and on an ongoing basis.” As we told Community Impact newspaper earlier this week, ATPE is not aware of any Texas school districts that have had their funding withheld, but we would support federal relief to make up any such losses.

LAWSUITS: As the federal government pledges to help schools battling COVID-19 in states where mask mandates have been prohibited, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton today announced the filing of lawsuits against six school districts that have attempted to impose mask mandates. Richardson, Round Rock, Galveston, Elgin, Spring, and Sherman ISDs are the targets of the lawsuits, according to Paxton's press release. Earlier this week Paxton took to Twitter, threatening that “lawsuits are coming” against school districts implementing mandates that conflict with the governor’s executive orders prohibiting mask mandates. According to the Austin American-Statesman, at least 85 school districts around the state have imposed local mask mandates in response to rising COVID-19 case numbers.

ELECTIONS: The timing of the 2022 Texas primary elections will depend on when legislators finish the redistricting process. Under legislation passed this summer, the party primaries will be held March 1, April 5, May 24, or a date to be determined by the Texas Secretary of State, depending upon when the redistricting legislation is signed by the governor. Read more about how the process may play out and the history of redistricting and its impact on Texas primaries in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

In other news, Gov. Abbott has set September 28 for a special election in House District (HD) 118, recently vacated by former State Representative Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio). Early voting will begin September 20. The governor has yet to set a date for the special runoff election in HD 10, where former State Representative John Wray (R-Waxahachie) advanced to a runoff against fellow Republican Brian Harrison. View profiles of the candidates here on Teach the Vote.

COVID-19: This week the Texas Tribune’s Brian Lopez wrote about the impact of COVID-19 on teacher staffing. In the article, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier shared our concerns about the pandemic’s toll on teachers’ mental health, noting “teachers have been put through tough situations, such as being responsible for the health and safety of kids, the politics around mask-wearing and then dealing with parents who harass teachers for policies out of their control.”

As also reported this week by the Texas Tribune, school districts are shutting down in higher numbers due to COVID-19 infections than in the previous year, partly because some mitigation tools have been removed, such as the ability to require masks, as well as limitations on state funding for students in virtual learning.


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