Plexiglass and 6 feet of distance between each desk keep students socially distant in Abigail Boyett’s third grade classroom.

Credit: Alejandra Casas for The Texas Tribune

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Texas school districts will not be required to conduct contact tracing this year if a student contracts COVID-19, according to new guidelines issued by the Texas Education Agency this week.

The agency still recommends that parents be notified if the district learns of a child who has potentially been exposed to the virus. But with the relaxation of contact tracing, such notification will not be mandatory.

The TEA announced its rules in a public health guidance issued Thursday. While districts must report positive cases to the local health department and the state, the TEA said contact tracing will not be required because of “the data from 2020-21 showing very low COVID-19 transmission rates in a classroom setting and data demonstrating lower transmission rates among children than adults.”

The new guidance allows for remote learning for up to 20 days for students who are sick with COVID-19 or have been exposed to it. If more time is needed, schools can apply for a waiver. Longer-term remote learning has largely been defunded after it was initially offered at the start of the pandemic, and a new bill that would have funded the option died in the state House this summer.

Texas schools vary in when they return to the classroom, with many starting in days or having already begun. Many hoped for a safer and easier return to school after COVID-19 hospitalizations and infections declined in the state. But with the emergence of the delta variant, cases and hospitalizations — including of children — are once again surging upward, especially among unvaccinated populations, alarming some public health experts, parents and teachers.

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The TEA is also allowing schools to conduct rapid tests on staff to mitigate the risk of asymptomatic individuals being on campuses. With written permission from parents, students also can be tested. Parents and school officials are to continue keeping students from being in classrooms if they have COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms. Parents also can choose to keep their kids home for 10 days after learning their child had a close contact with someone who contracted the virus, according to the new guidance.

Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement that the new guidance fails to relieve the anxiety and fears that many face going back to school in light of the inability for districts to mandate masks.

“The approach outlined in TEA’s new guidance fails to holistically address COVID-19 outbreaks at a campus level,” Molina said in a statement. “Even with the reporting requirements for positive Covid-19 cases, the new guidance comes up woefully short to help districts keep campuses, students and employees safe.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status amid rising counts of the delta variant. However, Gov. Greg Abbott has blocked public entities, including schools, from mandating masks or vaccines. The TEA echoed that restriction in its latest guidance. Many health experts are calling for parents to voluntarily mask their children and vaccinate them if they are eligible.

At least one school district is considering flouting Abbott’s order. Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday that he plans to bring a mask mandate to a vote at the district’s board meeting next week — pointing to increasing hospitalizations and infections. Houston ISD is the state’s largest school district and appears to be the first district poised to go against Abbott’s order.

“We know that we’re gonna get pushback for this. We know that people will be angry,” House said. “But what we have to understand is, if we have an opportunity to save one life, it’s what we should be doing.”

Austin ISD also has said that it will require masks on school buses.

A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Abbott announced Thursday his agenda for the second special legislative session, which included education priorities. The governor wants legislation that keeps masking and COVID-19 vaccination voluntary. He also added that in-person learning be available for any student whose parent wants it with the broad language leaving the door open for a bill to pass that could fund virtual learning.

Disclosure: Texas State Teachers Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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