HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Thousands of students logged on to remote learning as the Alief Independent School District offered a remote only start to the year. The Texas Education Agency gave school districts an eight-week transition period that allowed them flexibility to make back-to-school decisions locally, based on what's best for their communities.
For Alief ISD, who started classes on Aug. 6, that eight-week period of more local control is coming to an end as some students return to class in person this week.
Alief ISD's Superintendent HD Chambers said districts - with the input of health officials - should keep local flexibility, especially when it comes to how it'll offer classes and track student success.
"It's a fine line. You know, you don't want to just say 'let us do what we want.' It turns into the Wild Wild West out there and there's no oversight at all, but then there's also the other end of the spectrum, where the requirements are so strict and tedious that you have a hard time meeting them all," Chambers told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg.
The TEA issued its first back-to-school public health guidance on July 7, saying districts could offer on-campus instruction and remote learning. Nearly 30 Texas school districts responded to a state survey saying their start date was between July 27 and August 7, leaving them less than a month to prepare.
The day before the TEA released its first guidelines for the 2020-21 year and in the week that followed, about 550 emails were sent to the state agency's disaster email address, set up for superintendents to submit immediate questions or concerns. 13 Investigates obtained about 150 of those emails on public health guidance, school safety, funding, extracurricular activities and waivers.
The questions range from wanting more clarity on implementing guidance and what to do if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, and how funding will be impacted during the 2020-21 year. Districts also asked for help with how to interpret the guidelines, saying in some instances the guidelines contradict local health officials, state leaders or even the TEA's own recommendations.
On July 15, one school employee, who said an administrator at her campus tested positive for COVID-19 asked the TEA, "Do the administrators need to let us know they have contracted the virus so we can go get checked? Will the campus be shut down because more than one administrator has contracted the virus?'
The TEA eventually updated its guidelines to provide some clarity - districts have to report all confirmed cases to the state. The latest state data available shows 3,720 students and 3,053 school staff have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sept. 20, affecting less than one percent of students and staff.
But, the questions kept coming. Since the start of the pandemic, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has responded to about 5,000 emails and phone calls from school administrators, the agency said.
From attendance and enrollment to public health, districts say keeping up with every update from the state has been difficult.
Dr. Brian Woods, a superintendent at Northside ISD in San Antonio, said some of the TEA's constantly changing decisions may be the result of "political pressure to operate the system in a way that satisfies the needs of the politicians, especially given that we're up against a pretty significant election here in just a few weeks."
"You've got these kind of countervailing forces, one of which says, let's focus on safety. Let's not move too quickly. Let's test our protocols before we put lots of people back in the building. Then you've got another group saying for, for political reasons, we need to move faster. We need to get kids back quicker," Woods said. "Some of the start, stop, halting response (from TEA) has been a result of these two kind of countervailing forces about how it's safe to operate."
Politics in play
When it comes to what specific health advice the state is considering when making decisions that impact more than 5 million Texas students, the TEA is blocking efforts to make that information public.
The TEA told 13 Investigates it "worked closely with and relied on the guidance and input of the Governor's medical advisors: Texas Department of State Health Services commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt, Abbott adviser Dr. Mark McClellan, UT-Austin Dell Medical School's Dr. Parker Hudson, and UT System executive vice-chancellor for health affairs Dr. John Zerwas."
However, when 13 Investigates asked the TEA for any medical advice and guidance used to help design, determine, implement or roll out its initial back-to-school plan for public schools, the TEA said there were no documents between the state agency and doctors showing how decisions were made. The TEA sent some guidance it had distributed from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and alluded to a letter from a group of pediatricians, but didn't send the letter.
"TEA has conducted a good faith search for any and all information related to your request and has not been able to locate information that may be responsive to your request," the agency said in response to our open records request. "TEA does not have documents responsive to your request. Medical advice or guidance was orally communicated to TEA by the Governor's Strike Force to Open Texas."
13 Investigates also asked the Texas Department of State Health Services for any communications with the state education agency. The TEA wrote a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton advocating for the information to be withheld.
In a Sept. 15 letter to Paxton, the TEA said the information should not be released to the public because it "reflects communications between TEA and DSHS in their official policymaking capacities concerning various aspects of the COVID-19 response, including reopening public schools. TEA and DSHS share a privity of interest in the matters at issue. Further, the information at issue does not contain purely factual information that is severable from the advice, recommendation, and opinion portions of the documents."
In Harris County, Chambers said local superintendents have had multiple discussions in conjunction with county and city health officials when deciding what's best for their students. But, when it comes to the TEA, he's not aware of any health officials the district has conferred with.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commissioner Morath had been holding daily - now weekly - phone calls superintendents across the state.
Chambers said he's attended most of the calls, which have covered everything from public health guidance and personal protective equipment to attendance, funding and school reopening plans. But, he's not aware of any physicians or medical experts who were also on those calls giving updates directly to superintendents about the state's back to school plans.
"The commissioner has weekly calls that he reports out and kind of gives updates to the field, but if there has been a medical expert on that call, I'm not aware," Chambers said.
Chambers said there always will be friction between school systems and compliance agencies, in this case the TEA, when it comes to "meddling, for lack of a better word, into local decisions."
"It seems to me that as we've progressed through this going all the way back to March, that there has been swings in many cases from listening to science and health and experts in the medical field to, in some cases, decisions being based on political conversations or political positions, depending on what political party you're a part of," Chambers said.
Chambers said the TEA has been responsive to some concerns, like not requiring daily attendance submissions, which give teachers more time to ensure the accuracy of their attendance counts.
But, he said, some of the guidelines are still burdensome, especially for teachers.
"It just puts a lot of pressure on teachers to not only teach the class but also monitor and maintain whether students have actually been enrolled in school that day," Chambers said. "I don't disagree that there needs to be some form of monitoring of attendance, but it is really hard to prove attendance based on students having to produce work when just the opposite occurs in school. When you're in person, if the student's there, they're there."
Woods said he's not as critical of the TEA today as he was a month ago at the height of back-to-school decisions. He said that's because some school districts are seeing "relative success" so far.
"Most of the districts in the biggest cities are still operating mostly virtually, but in some of the suburban areas outside of our cities, we've seen good examples of at least three or four weeks of instruction with relative success and there's nothing that, of course guarantees that that success will continue, but as of now, it seems like they're operating fairly successfully."
Still, Woods said the pandemic happening in the same year as a major political election has caused some individuals to allow politics to interfere with decisions impacting millions of Texas students.
"If you've been a watcher of Texas policy and politics and you see some of these decisions have been made around after eight weeks, everybody has to come back and after 12 weeks, you're not held harmless from a funding perspective if you've taken an enrollment hit, or you're having a hard time locating kids that were displaced due to the pandemic," Woods said. "Those are clearly political decisions. They're being made not by folks in the agency, but folks up the food chain."
With remote only learning coming to an end at Alief ISD this week, Chambers said more flexibility at the local level would help districts do what's best for their students.
"There are parts of the guidance TEA has given us that has said, 'local school boards, local communities, you need to make decisions based on the conditions in your community.' However, when you get ready to make that decision, you have to ask for permission to use or to execute that," Chambers said.