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School year ending as it began: Student and educator safety not the highest priority for state officials

As the 2020-21 school year draws to a close, what has been obvious since last August remains unchanged: the safety of students and educators has not been a high enough priority for state officials.

Sure, the state allowed school districts to offer students the option of learning remotely at home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, and most school districts did. But the state never required districts to offer the remote learning option, and many districts began eliminating that option months ago, forcing students to return to campuses during the pandemic or transfer to other districts in the middle of the school year.

The only option that the state did require districts to provide was in-person instruction. Although temporary waivers were allowed for a few districts in COVID-19 hotspots, the penalty for closing campuses, even on the advice of local health authorities, was loss of state funding, something under-funded school districts could ill afford.

The Texas Education Agency published health and safety guidelines on its website, and Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask order, but the state didn’t enforce any of them. Some school districts ignored them, and others made only half-hearted efforts at enforcement.

In a survey TSTA conducted last fall, several hundred of our members from more than 150 districts reported more than 6,000 violations of those safety guidelines, including the mask mandate, social distancing, availability of personal protective equipment and poor ventilation in school buildings.

Then Abbott repealed the mask order, and so did many school districts.

Although the state forced teachers and other school employees to return to campuses, the governor never gave them priority for a COVID vaccine, until after President Biden forced the state to put educators on the priority list – many weeks after the vaccines first became available and well into the spring semester.

The Texas Education Agency directed students who had been studying remotely at home all year for safety’s sake to return to campuses or testing centers to take STAAR tests, which are administered online. Predictably, some students were exposed to COVID at their testing sites.

Now, with only a few weeks remaining in the spring semester, some districts are scrambling to convince the same homebound students to return to campuses for the rest of the school year – and risk exposure again — because the districts need to increase their in-person attendance to avoid cuts in state funding.

There have been more than 135,000 confirmed COVID cases among students and more than 70,000 among staff in Texas schools, according to the most recent state report, which may be a few weeks out of date. The state doesn’t keep track of COVID-related deaths in schools, but the Houston Chronicle conducted its own study and reported in January nearly 40 deaths among Texas educators that had been linked to COVID. Some of the victims may not have contracted the virus at school.

You could say those are relatively low numbers, considering more than 3 million of Texas’ 5.5 million students have returned to campuses for in-person instruction. Or you could ask how many of those cases and deaths could have been prevented if state leaders had made a higher priority of student and educator safety.

Austin ISD risks losing $5 million in state funding if more students don’t attend final weeks of school in person

Clay Robison

Anti-maskers, especially in public schools, are a pretty selfish lot

There obviously are political overtones to the debate over whether to wear anti-COVID masks in public, a debate that has erupted in the public schools since Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath caved in on one of the most important safeguards – besides vaccines – against the spread of COVID.

Much of the debate is driven by selfish, self-centered, me-first, self-entitled parents who don’t want themselves or their children to be inconvenienced, and it is fueled by pandering politicians – beginning with the governor — who are afraid to offend them.

Some of these parents may have children with legitimate health issues that are compromised or aggravated by masks. If so, they should be allowed to get doctors’ notes excusing their kids from the requirement or consider keeping them home, if virtual learning is a realistic option.

But most of these parents either don’t understand or believe the science about the importance of masking during this pandemic or don’t care. Wearing a mask is about protecting other people from the virus as much or more than it is about protecting the wearer. And in schools, those other people include teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other support staff who come in contact with their kids every day.

Because Gov. Abbott delayed giving educators priority for COVID vaccines until pushed by President Biden, many educators are still unvaccinated and some may not be able to receive a vaccine for several more weeks.

Yet, they are still required to be in classrooms, cafeterias and school buses, even in districts where masks are no longer required because their school boards, like the governor, were less concerned about respecting and protecting their employees than they were in keeping selfish parents at bay.

Clay Robison

What is the difference between faux STAAR accountability and real accountability? Gov. Abbott may be about to find out.

After thawing from the worst winter storm and most prolonged (by far) power outages of my long Texas lifetime, I, like many other people, started thinking about accountability, as in who should be held accountable for this utility and government breakdown. Accountability is a word that Texas politicians don’t often like to accept but love to preach. As preached and practiced in the Texas political system, there are two versions of accountability, one faux and the other real.

First the faux.

From about the first or second grade, Texas public school children are introduced to accountability. They may not recognize that particular word, but they do start hearing about something called STAAR, a test they will have to start taking in the third grade. That’s because their state government decided long ago that it was less important to adequately pay for what students need for successful learning than it was to hold their schools and teachers accountable for their ability to pass a standardized test that purportedly measures their teachers’ effectiveness, but actually doesn’t.

Schools with good STAAR scores get good accountability ratings under this contrived system, and schools with consistently bad STAAR scores are threatened with sanctions, takeover by a corporate charter chain or even closure. Meanwhile, the state leaders who have failed to provide enough educational resources, health care and other support services necessary to give millions of children — especially disadvantaged kids — a chance at success in school dodge their own accountability and skate (usually) through the next election.

Most people, if they bother to vote, let them get away with it. They don’t have children in public school, they are happy with their own neighborhood schools, they and their families are doing well. Or, perhaps, they are snookered by the myth of Texas “exceptionalism” that Gov. Greg Abbott and like-minded officials peddle, and they ignore the realities of poverty, inadequate health care and an outdated, under-funded infrastructure system that Abbott and a succession of public officials have ignored.

Now, maybe, just maybe, single-digit temperatures, days without electricity, melting snow to flush toilets and other life-threatening misadventures may finally direct their attention to the fact that the so-called Texas “miracle” that Abbott, Rick Perry and countless other Texas politicians have been claiming for years is, in reality, a state with very thin clothes. Or, more precisely, a very neglected infrastructure.

I am sure the disaster has gotten the attention of the high-tech billionaires and other business CEOS who have been moving their companies to Texas because of its lax regulatory climate and (for them) low taxes. They got incentive deals, but you don’t get what you don’t pay enough for, and in this case, it was electricity.

What will it be next? How much longer can an under-funded public school system produce all the highly educated employees these new and expanding companies will need? More STAAR testing won’t do it.

Abbott’s first reaction to the winter disaster was preposterous. He went on Fox News to blame the power grid failure on frozen wind turbines and solar equipment in a fossil fuel state, where only a small percentage of electric generation is produced by green energy. In truth, the power outages in Texas’ go-it-alone electric system were caused by the failure to winterize power-generating systems, including natural gas pipelines.

After his initial denial of reality, Abbott took responsibility for the fiasco and demanded that utility companies be required to start taking these preventive steps, requirements that Texas governors, legislators and regulators should have demanded and began enforcing years ago.

The Legislature also will demand changes from utility companies and state regulators in a public hearing this week, where there will be much political posturing and outrage by lawmakers who also share the blame for lax industry regulations and outdated infrastructure.

This time, though, we are talking about real accountability, which at this point belongs to Abbott and the Legislature. Voters will decide whether that accountability is enforced in the next election. Then we will see how well most of us remember the big freeze.

Clay Robison

Who is going to educate the governor?

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the Legislature to take steps to “ensure our schools teach students the civics knowledge they need to be engaged productive citizens.” It is important, he says, that students “be educated in how to participate in our democracy.”

There is nothing wrong with a good civics education, provided it is not used as cover for an ideological immersion. But the most important participation in a democracy is voting, and this is where the examples and actions of elected leaders are more important than a classroom.

If Abbott really is concerned about voting and the democratic process, he would actively encourage every eligible voter to cast a ballot AND publicly honor the election results. Instead, he seems quite comfortable with Texas’ history of voter intimidation, and his silence following the recent election was a lousy example for school kids.

The best example for anybody, including children, after the election would have been for Abbott to have spoken up publicly and forcefully to refute the lies that Donald Trump and his allies were spreading about the election having been “stolen” from the former president, lies that ultimately contributed to the Jan. 6 riot at the national Capitol.

But Abbott didn’t make any public attempt to honor democracy by setting the record straight. The democratic example that the governor should have set then for the school children he now wants to impress was missing. Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz behaved badly. But Abbott was complicit in his silence, as his political allies attacked the very essence of the democratic process.

Now, the governor is undermining faith in democracy even further by declaring “election integrity” an “emergency” for the Legislature to address, even though election fraud is a very minor problem.

Texas instead has a sad history of voter intimidation, including under this governor, and Abbott now is seeking more laws to intimidate people who are inclined to vote the “wrong” way. That is not election integrity, and it is not democracy.

And guess who is eager to help the governor? None other than Rep. Briscoe Cain, another democracy denier who went to Pennsylvania after the election to help Trump’s fraudulent cause, and now has been appointed chair of the House Elections Committee by Dade Phelan, the new speaker.

In truth, the governor and many of his political allies are woefully in need of their own civics education. Maybe some of our young people can teach them. No one else has been able to.

Clay Robison