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TEA commissioner discusses updated guidelines while others react to changes

New guidance allows Texas school districts to have online-only learning for up to eight weeks

HOUSTON, Texas — Texas school districts going online only this fall can now do it for longer thanks to updated guidelines from the Texas Education Agency, or TEA.

"We live in unnerving times and COVID has been a major disruption,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in a video that accompanied a Friday morning press release.

Morath said rising case counts in places like the Houston area sent the TEA back to the drawing board.

We spoke with him later in a one-on-one Zoom interview.

"We obviously have a very dynamic public health situation in Texas and our first priority is keeping people safe," Morath said. "Keeping students and teachers and staff safe.”

That being said, the agency that oversees more than a thousand districts and five million students believes most will begin the new school year with some level of in-person instruction.

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However, those going fully remote can now do so for the first four weeks of school without the risk of losing state funding.

They can extend that to eight weeks with a waiver.

In-person classes must be available to students without access to technology or those who have some other issues.

"We find somewhat of a comfort in knowing that the school districts have a little bit more leeway,” Ovidia Molina, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said.

But she added the union that represents some 65,000 educators and staff believes physical buildings should remain closed until COVID-19 is under control.

"We do not want one child to die, one student," Molina said. "We do not want one public school employee to die because the pandemic is still raging in Texas.”

Morath said it’s not raging everywhere and guidelines are meant to allow individual districts and the families they serve to make their own decisions.

"It’s a very big and geographically diverse state," Morath. "And what I needed in a place like Harris County is different than what’s needed in a Pecos County.”

Greater control is what Houston ISD’s board president said they’ve been after.

“I think it’s giving some more clarity and direction for local districts to make their decisions" Trustee Sue Deigaard said. "And also flexibility that acknowledges the unique situation that each district is in.”

The TEA also released updated safety, cleaning and attendance guidelines today.

And Gov. Greg Abbott announced that $200 million would go to help better connect students with remote learning technology.

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