Author: suem

State report of COVID cases in schools is misleadingly low

If you breathed a sigh of relief when you saw that students who tested positive for COVID-19 were less than one-half of 1 percent of the students who had returned to school for in-person instruction, it means a couple of things.

One, it means you aren’t one of those kids or a family member. And, two, state leaders’ efforts to downplay the threat that COVID still represents for students and school employees may have worked, at least in your case, because the figures are misleadingly low.

They are misleading because school districts don’t have to require COVID testing of students, and many Texas districts aren’t, as noted in the Texas Tribune article at the bottom of this post. Districts will be reporting only positive results from COVID tests that students or employees voluntarily report or someone else reports to the district. That means many school employees, students and parents won’t know for sure how many people at their schools are infected with the disease until their co-workers or classmates start showing symptoms.

By then, who knows how many other students, teachers, cafeteria workers or others will have been infected. COVID patients are contagious even before they start developing symptoms, which is why testing is so critical. But large-scale testing is still a problem that neither the state nor federal government has adequately addressed. And even if a school district routinely runs temperature checks of students and employees, someone who is infected with COVID but is asymptomatic will not register a fever.

The new reporting system, which will be updated every week by the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Department of State Health Services, is a step in the right direction of keeping the public informed about the COVID presence in public schools. But it leaves a lot to be desired.

The small percentage of students who were reported COVID positive in the first weekly report totaled 2,344 kids. They were among 1.1 million students who already had been back at school for in-person instruction or some other school activity. That is about one-fifth of Texas’ total public school enrollment. Some 2,175 school employees also tested positive.

As more school districts resume in-person instruction, the shortcomings in the reporting system will become more obvious. Also, many school districts are not enforcing health and safety guidelines and are otherwise ill-equipped to guarantee student and employee safety.

So far in an ongoing survey, more than 700 TSTA members have reported more than 4,000 violations of COVID safety guidelines in more than 130 districts around the state. The reopening of schools remains very much a health problem that could quickly get larger as more districts welcome students back to campus.

State releases numbers showing low Texas public school infection rates, but the data is limited

Clay Robison

IDEA charter chain receives more tax dollars than UT-Austin, wants more

The IDEA charter chain, which is seeking state approval to add 27 campuses in Texas and increase its enrollment cap by almost 35,000 students, already takes a huge chunk of tax dollars from the public education budget — $498 million for 2019-20 alone. By comparison, that is more tax money than the Legislature appropriated to the University of Texas at Austin that year.

IDEA’s proposed expansion, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, would be the largest in the history of charters in Texas and would take millions of additional tax dollars from under-funded public schools.

The charter chain calls itself IDEA Public Schools, but it doesn’t operate like public schools. As do other corporate charter chains, it has a non-elected board unanswerable to taxpayers. Real public schools have elected governing boards whose members, unlike IDEA’s, live where their schools are located.

IDEA can selectively pick students. If it can’t accommodate every student who applies for one of its campuses, it creates waiting lists. Real public schools have to accept every child who lives in the district. They don’t have waiting lists. Instead, they seek class size waivers or haul in more portable classrooms.

In reality, IDEA Public Schools operate like private schools. They are public only in the sense that they get tax dollars. IDEA recruits aggressively because every enrollee brings more tax dollars at the expense of the district the charter chain has invaded.

IDEA had about 49,500 students at 92 campuses in Texas last year. Its current enrollment cap is 63,200, and it wants to increase that to 97,985.

The decision is up to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who in past years has given IDEA pretty much what it has wanted. But he has slowed down this request, apparently because of publicity highlighting how IDEA is different from real public schools in other ways as well.

Real public schools don’t lease private jets. But IDEA was all set last year to enter a $15 million, eight-year lease on a private jet for company executives until unwanted publicity killed the deal. Private donors reportedly were going to pay for the high-flying comfort, but private donations to charter schools should be spent to educate students, not pamper administrators.

Real public schools don’t lease luxury boxes for NBA games either. But IDEA used to have one, a box and tickets costing $400,000 a year for San Antonio Spurs games. Publicity killed that one too.

The chain’s then-CEO Tom Torkelson, who admitted those were some “really dumb” ideas, soon resigned from the charter company he had helped found, leaving with a $900,000 payout.

In a letter, TEA told IDEA that some people may consider the above spending “questionable” and cited other administrative issues that “might be indicative of inadequate financial oversight” – issues such as owing the Teacher Retirement System $130,000 and repeatedly failing to meet reporting deadlines for grant money.

IDEA has responded, claiming it has taken steps to clean up its act. But TSTA is urging Morath to reject the expansion request. With a pandemic and economic downturn slashing billions of dollars from state revenue and tightening under-funded school budgets, this is no time to be giving a corporate charter chain like IDEA more opportunities to snag tax dollars.

The total UT-Austin budget for 2019-20, by the way, was $3.3 billion, but only $374 million of that was state general tax revenue, compared to $498 million in tax money that the IDEA chain received. UT-Austin received much more revenue, $674 million, from tuition.

Clay Robison

Why should educators bet their lives on “trust me” behavior?

In the dangerous rush to get teachers and students back into classrooms prematurely, pages upon pages of health and safety guidelines and protocols have been written by school districts and colleges to reassure educators and parents. But as long as the pandemic continues to pose a deadly threat, even scientifically and medically based guidelines aren’t enough to bolster confidence.

A faculty member at Texas State University in San Marcos, which reopened this week, explained why.

“I feel like all the school reopening plans are based on models of idealized human behavior as opposed to real human behavior. They’re predicated on the assumption that people will follow the rules,” Nicole Taylor, associate professor of anthropology, told The Texas Tribune.

How rash is that assumption? Let us recite but a few examples.

Several prominent universities in other states opened and were soon forced to reclose their doors after many students made it clear they were more interested in partying than social distancing. Unfortunately, it’s not just students.

In Texas, Gov. Abbott’s mask-wearing order is being widely ignored by people of all ages. Some sheriffs have even openly refused to enforce it, and the governor is seemingly powerless to do anything about it.

A few months ago, you may remember, a couple of state legislators, for selfish, political reasons, got haircuts in open, political defiance of Abbott’s order that had temporarily closed barber shops and hair salons. They skated untouched, but a hair salon owner in Dallas reopened prematurely and got put in jail – until Abbott quickly caved in and the Texas Supreme Court ordered her release.

Now, that same hair salon owner plans to use her overnight fame as a rule-breaker to run for the state Senate and may get elected.

At least one school superintendent in Texas has told parents concerned about the safety of their children that he didn’t “believe” in masks. He refused to wear one during a meeting and said he would let school employees and students decide whether to wear them, despite the governor’s order.

Refusing to wear a mask has become a political badge of “honor” for Texans who are happy to risk our country’s future with four more years of a President Trump while all but ignoring a deadly disease, as Trump has mostly done.

To make matters worse, some school districts and universities are relying on students and employees to voluntarily self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before they come to campus. This “trust me” loophole is huge.

Schools and universities can – and should — publish guidelines and protocols about masks, social distancing and hand-washing. But human behavior is critical, and many educators aren’t willing to bet their lives on that.

Clay Robison

Students and educators are afterthoughts for Trump, until he needs them

Despite President Trump’s war against the U.S. Postal Service, his reelection campaign chose that form of delivery to mistakenly send my wife a “Keep America Great” fund-raising appeal. I intercepted it before she had a chance to trash it because I wanted to see what was on the president’s mind, other than reelection and, of course, the education of America’s children. After all, how do you keep America great without supporting a strong public education system?

Turns out the letter and an enclosed survey, addressed to “Patriotic Conservative,” said not a word about the education of America’s children. The president had other priorities to trumpet. Like attacking the World Health Organization, China and Planned Parenthood. Like lying about the “fraud and abuse” in voting-by-mail and the “dangerous caravans” of refugees at the Mexican border.

He also wanted to know what Patriotic Conservative thought about designating Antifa as a terrorist organization and whether President Trump’s performance in office had lived up to his/her expectations.

And then there was this question, “In your opinion, has the media been truthful in its reporting on President Trump?” (The presidential skin is still thin.)

Trump also lied in his letter about “moving swiftly to revive the American economy while battling a once-in-a-century pandemic unleashed by the Communist Chinese.” The Chinese didn’t unleash it, and Trump has spent more time ignoring and downplaying the severity of the coronavirus than he has trying to fight it.

Once the coronavirus is brought under control, with little thanks to Trump, education will be key to reviving the American economy, and Trump didn’t address education at all in his fund-raising appeal. He didn’t because his only interest in education is privatizing public schools and, now that his reelection campaign is struggling, using students and educators as political props in a dangerous charade to fool voters into thinking the country is returning to normal.

The reopening of schools is essential to that charade, and that is why Trump is pressuring governors and school districts around the country to open prematurely for in-person instruction while thousands of Americans are still being infected and dying from COVID-19.

Many schools around the country have reopened and then soon shut down again with the discovery of infections that were endangering the health of students, educators and their families. But Trump persists.

How many educators and students do we want to see sacrificed? The answer is zero.

Clay Robison