Lt. Gov. Patrick says districts should have local control on reopening

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has vocally advocated to re-open Texas as soon as possible, is willing to admit COVID-19 has changed since then and that local school districts should have more control when it comes to students returning to classes in person this fall.

"A month ago, there was clearly no reason that every student or most every student shouldn't be able to come back to the classroom," Patrick told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg in an interview on Wednesday. "We obviously have a spike in some areas in the state where that may be slowed down, so I still want every kid back in the class and I think a lot of parents do. And I think a lot of teachers want to come back as soon as they can... So I haven't changed my position, it's just the data has changed a little bit on the ground."

Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state with more than 210,000 students, on Wednesday announced it would start the 2020-21 school year all virtually.

And although Patrick said the choice should be up to local leaders, it shouldn't be open ended.

"What we don't want to have happen is for any school district to say, you know what, we're just going to do this virtual for a long, long time," Patrick said. "As soon as the health conditions in that district are at a position where the teachers and the students and the parents feel safe, we need to get them back in the classroom."

HISD said students won't return to the classroom until at least Oct. 16. All students will begin the school year virtually when classes begin Sept. 8, a two-week delay to the original start date.

RELATED: Fort Bend ISD will begin 2020-2021 academic year online

Both Fort Bend and Alief school districts have also said the first three weeks of school will be held online only and have asked the Texas Education Agency for an extension to how long they're allowed to provide online-only instruction.

In public health guidance released last week, the TEA gave districts a three-week transition period, which allows districts to "temporarily limit access to on-campus instruction" and offer only online instruction rather than a combination of online and in-person classes. Under the current plan, after three weeks, districts would have to open their doors for in-person learning or risk losing state funding.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott told 13 Investigates "(TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath is expected to announce a longer period of time for online learning at the beginning of the school year and flexibility at the local level."

Alief ISD said on Tuesday it is hopeful that it will be allowed to instruct students online only during the first grading period, or the nine weeks of school.

RELATED: Abbott says state education agency to extend online only option for districts

Although Patrick said he understands some teachers may be concerned, he also said it is safe for students - especially younger children - to go back to school in person.

"I would prefer a school district at this point to say we're going to do our best to get back as soon as we can and not set a date today because things can change dramatically in a month. At the same time we have agreed to give them flexibility those first several weeks.," Patrick said. "But I think for the school districts that are saying, well, we're going to wait for six weeks or October 1. I would hope that if things are much better than they expect that they won't stay on that guideline, that they will come back sooner."

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said in a video announcement on Wednesday that the district's decision was made after hearing from health experts, parents, students, staff and community members. She also said the rising number of positive coronavirus cases in the area also played a role in the decision and that the information released Wednesday could change if the cases or state and local recommendations change.

"Despite the challenges we all face due to the COVID-19 pandemic, safety, flexibility and the academic success of all of our students remain at the forefront of our decision making," Lathan said.

RELATED: HISD won't return to the classroom until October 16

Patrick, however, said it's important for students to be in the classroom and it'll be up to parents to make sure their voices are heard to get students on campus.

When students return to school in person, Patrick, who wore a mask when he arrived at our interview on Wednesday, said he is fine with a mask mandate in schools.

And, if a district has a confirmed COVID-19 case on campus, Patrick said the district will have flexibility to close for a day or two so it can be sanitized, as long as the district still meets the set number of days it's required by law to instruct students.

"It's a new world for superintendents, for teachers, for students, and for parents," Patrick said. "I think we set up a pretty good guidance but I guarantee you in week one or week five there'll be some situation that comes up that is new so we'll all work on that together. The key is we really want to give flexibility to the superintendents, the school board and the parents."

Even if districts decide to do virtual learning at the onset, Patrick said the state is committed to making sure it's an effective system.

"The state is putting in about $100 million to build a framework out that will be free to the schools in order to do virtual learning," Patrick said. "So we're going to do everything we can to make sure every child has that opportunity, whether it's funding laptops or iPads, which we're going to do, hotspots so people have internet, but even in the best of circumstance, if you have three or four kids at home, you have one iPad and they're in different grades, that's an issue."

He also said Texas is committed to funding COVID-19 related needs in Texas classrooms as well as remaining committed to what it promised during the last session.

"We added $3 billion to this school year, including teacher pay raises we're fully funding. What we committed to and we've needed to help with the federal government and some of those federal dollars to do so because obviously our sales tax receipts are way down," Patrick said. "In addition to that, we already have $400 million set aside to pay for COVID expenses. And if we need more from schools, they send us the receipts, we'll do more. We're setting $200 million aside to buy laptops."

School districts have complained CARES act money allocated for schools got hung up at the state. Patrick said if the state didn't keep it, the budget is so short that Texas would have to cut other education funding. When asked about a special session to deal with education or other COVID-19 crises, Patrick says now is not the time.

13 Investigates surveyed districts across the state to see how they're handling back-to-school plans, from transportation to face masks and whether or not they'll be online or in-person.

RELATED: 13 Investigates survey shows back to school in flux for millions

We heard from more than 125 school districts that are home to about 2.5 million students. Each either responded to our survey or provided a statement. Of those who responded to our survey, 84 percent say they expect more than half their students to return to in-person learning on the first day of class; 90 percent expect to offer a mix of in-person and virtual learning.

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