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Shifting State Rules On Reopening Disrupts 'Good Work' At District Level, Austin ISD Director Says

A sign at Crockett High Schools says the building is closed until further notice because of the coronavirus.
Gabriel C. Pérez

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The Austin Independent School District's "very existence" could be threatened if it doesn't follow rules set out by the Texas Education Agency, the director of academics said Wednesday.

Suzanne Newell said she and her colleagues have been working nonstop to try and get both virtual and in-person learning options ready by the first day of classes, Aug. 18. She said they are “drowning” trying to make the right choices and that changing state guidance isn't making anything easier.

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued nonbinding guidance saying local health authorities do not have the authority to close schools in the midst of the pandemic – contradicting previous instruction from the TEA.

The TEA previously had said if a city’s public health office determines it's too dangerous for schools to have in-person classes, it could order classrooms to be closed.

After the guidance was released, the TEA announced school districts that close because a health authority orders it, without the agency's approval, will not receive state funding.

Under the TEA's rules, districts can provide online-only instruction for the first four weeks of the school year and then apply for a waiver for additional time. If TEA approves the waiver, the district will still receive funding.

“Protecting the health of students, teachers, and staff remains our first priority,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in announcing the change Tuesday.

Austin ISD announced earlier this month that classes will be held virtually for at least the first three weeks of the school year. The back-and-forth on state policy makes it difficult for local school districts to plan.

“That looming threat of our very existence, which is tied to funding, is potentially threatened if we don’t follow rules that are oftentimes based in politics more than in best practice for children," Newell said.

She added that keeping the statewide STAAR test – which gives schools and districts letter grades based on scores – puts more pressure on teachers and students during what will be a very challenging school year.

“If I really had to sum it up, the things that interrupt good work, it’s really those two aspects of what is happening at the policy level,” Newell said. “We’ll be heading down the right path or a productive path and then, ‘Oh and by the way, here comes the next zinger.’ It’s a little bit of whack-a-mole.”

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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