Education

The Belton and Rogers school districts on Tuesday evening approved Sept. 8 as the planned start date for the 2020-21 academic school year.

The districts’ decisions came hours after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance earlier Tuesday stating local health authorities do not have the ability to “indiscriminately” delay on-campus learning.

“If this is the schedule you guys want after hours and hours of gut-wrenching deliberation … then that’s enough for me, and I’m going to support it 100 percent,” Belton Independent School District trustee Ty Taggart said Tuesday after calendar revisions were approved.

Paxton’s guidance came after Stephenville Mayor Doug Svien requested advice on local health authorities and the power in ordering school closures.

“We note several local health authorities have issued orders purporting to delay in-person instruction at public and private schools for the upcoming school. But nothing in the law gives health authorities the power to indiscriminately close schools — public or private — as these local orders claim to do,” Paxton said. “It does not allow health authorities to issue blanket quarantine orders that are inconsistent with the law.”

Some Bell County superintendents — including Bobby Ott of Temple ISD and Matt Smith of Belton ISD — expressed their displeasure about the continually contradictory statements from the state regarding school reopening plans.

Ott stressed how these conflicting updates are confusing for administrators.

“Ever since COVID-19 started there’s been a lot of messages that have been made and walked back from several different entities,” Ott told the Telegram. “It is a bit confusing, because you start to wonder who actually the decision-making authority is. Is it the attorney general, the Texas Education Agency, the local health district or the governor?”

Matt Smith echoed Ott’s sentiment and spoke about the importance of listening to health professionals.

“The majority of us rely on doctors’ advice and opinions on health safety matters on a regular basis,” the Belton superintendent said. “The order from Bell County Public Health District resonates with me and while their authority may be questioned, I don’t want to underestimate the value of the opinion of medical professionals in our county that live here as well.”

During Belton ISD’s Tuesday board meeting, trustees also elected to push the last day of school to June 9, 2021, with graduation set for the following day. The last day of the first semester is now Jan. 22 instead of Dec. 18.

Smith said Belton ISD will implement more teacher work days to better prepare educators for the instructional adjustments.

“The teacher’s preparedness is weighing on my mind heavily,” he said. “We’re asking them to entirely change the way they deliver instruction to our students. If I don’t have teachers who feel well prepared and trained in order to make sure they can do what’s right for kids, we won’t have exceptional learning for those students.”

But like Belton ISD, Ott said Temple ISD is still working toward a Sept. 8 start date despite Paxton’s comments.

“I don’t want to add more disruption and complications. We’re really trying to get to a place that’s steady, consistent and normal,” Ott said.

“Right now, I am very happy and satisfied with the collaboration between the health district in Bell County and Temple ISD,” he said. “We are in a great relationship, and I know we’re on board working together toward the same goal.”

Bell County Health Authority Dr. Janice Smith said the health district will continue to hold discussions with area superintendents as they review Paxton’s letter.

“We are currently reviewing Attorney General Paxton’s letter. We are also continuing discussions with the area superintendents,” Janice Smith said. “I believe we are all seeking the best cooperative and collaborative approach in our collective efforts to best plan for, and provide for, the health of our children, families and communities.”

Salado ISD Superintendent Michael Novotny said his district is planning Sept. 8 for the first day of school.

“That will continue to be our plan,” Novotny said.

Rogers ISD trustees — who said they have changed their calendar three times in the past 10 days — also approved a Sept. 8 start date during a Tuesday board meeting.

“In light of today’s information coming from the Attorney General, I think it’s better that we stay with this (Sept. 8) start date ... Because our teachers need as much time as possible to be prepared,” Rogers ISD Superintendent Joe Craig said.

Texas will not provide funding for online-only courses to districts that elect for a fully-online learning platform — if “solely” in response to a local health authority’s order, the Texas Education Agency said.

“A blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction,” TEA said in their updated guidance on Tuesday.

However, TEA said other “valid funding exceptions” could still apply for some school districts.