DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - Superintendents of the state's largest school districts are pushing back against a planned return to campus next month, urging the Texas Education Agency to give local officials more flexibility to adapt to the pandemic: including online instruction without financial penalties.
In a letter dated July 9 and directed to Governor Greg Abbott, the Texas School Alliance (TSA) and the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents (TUC) shared what the group described as "grave concern" regarding funding for school attendance.
The TUC represents the largest districts in the state and the letter was signed by TUC Chair Dr. Kent Scribner, Fort Worth ISD Superintendent and Dr. Michael Hinojosa, Superintendent of Dallas ISD.
The appeal urges state leaders to give local districts "the flexibility to make sure that any approach taken is safe for students, staff, and families without the fear of losing funding. We encourage Texas to allow school systems to begin the 2020-2021 school year with full online learning for students for a minimum of the first six or nine-week grading period without state aid reduction."
The request comes one week after the Texas Education Agency released guidance for the upcoming year, guidance that stakeholders from parents to educators have said leaves key questions unanswered.
"If we don't do in person, we lose a significant amount of funding," says Dallas ISD School Board President Justin Henry. "And as a public institution, that probably doesn't have a lot of money lying around, it'd be very difficult to pay instructors and do the things we were doing for our kids."
School leaders are arguing that in order to create a stable budget environment, they need "rules for attendance and funding that will allow districts to plan for next year without fear of significant loss of funding."
They're asking for the Education Commissioner to "waive student attendance accounting requirements" to insure that schools continue to receive funding for students who are learning at home due to school closures.
They also want to set for a floor for average daily attendance to guard against staff reductions.
Finally, there is an appeal for flexibility so districts can design plans for instruction that reflect local health conditions writing, "Some school districts may be able to hold school in person every day, but others may need to use a hybrid approach that would have groups of students learning in school and from home on alternating days. In our most vulnerable districts where the virus is currently spreading at alarming rates, it may be necessary for districts to be fully online for some significant periods of time during the year."
Trustee Henry says he and other board members are actively soliciting input from constituents, but there is no clear consensus as every family is managing different concerns.
"I'm getting it from all over the place," says Henry. "Some were adamant that we must go back to school and some parents are adamant that you must not go back to school. They're worried about kids not learning... and some are saying I'm going to keep my kid at home until next school year."
With Covid cases surging, DISD parent Sanita Garrett is among those urging caution, worried that districts will struggle to provide enough PPE to keep students and educators safe. And then there's human nature.
Garrett says in spite of repeated conversations, teens and 'social distancing' does not always compute, especially when her middle school daughter spots a long separated friend.
"She sees her friends and runs, and all I see are hugs and I am literally cringing," shares Garrett with a laugh. "So, no they're not ready."
The appeal to the state comes as Dallas ISD leaders have also approached trustees to consider delaying the start of the school year. That meeting is tentatively scheduled for July 23.
Trustees are encouraging families to get in touch and make their ideas, opinions and concerns known.
"In-person instruction is absolutely the best way to reach our students," said teacher Jessica Lugo, who spoke at the HEB ISD school board meeting Monday night. "In the short term, I'm concerned about bringing all of us back together as conditions stand right now."
The district presented its draft plan on how to safely return to the classroom in a few weeks.
"I know you guys are working out the details, but listening to this plan, I just have to tell y'all, I just want to cry," said Trasa Cobern, who is an HEB ISD teacher. "This whole thing is just awful."
The HEB ISD Superintendent Dr. Steve Chapman is one of the names on the letter to the governor, along with the leaders of the Fort Worth and Dallas ISDs.
They also want Gov. Abbott to set a floor on average daily attendance so funding at least remains the same as last school year.
The superintendents asked the governor to respond to their requests by this Friday.
CBS 11's Caroline Vandergriff contributed to this report.
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