California also issued strict guidance that makes it unlikely that many schools will resume in-person instruction this fall, raising the likelihood of empty classrooms in the country's two biggest states despite President Donald Trump's demands that schools welcome back students at the start of the school year.
The changes in Texas were announced hours before the state set a new daily record for virus deaths, with 174, and reported more than 10,000 confirmed new cases for a fourth consecutive day. It also follows a backlash from teachers and parents who criticized Texas' earlier timeline that had students returning to classrooms by August or September as rushed and reckless.
Under the new guidelines, Texas schools could hold online-only instruction for up to the first eight weeks of the school year, potentially pushing a return to campus in some cities until November. That includes Dallas and Houston, where school leaders concerned about the surge of COVID-19 cases have postponed the first day of classes until after Labor Day.
“The health & safety of students, teachers & parents is the top priority,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted shortly after the announcement. Trump and his administration have demanded that schools fully reopen right from the start, calling for new guidance from federal health officials and slamming schools that want to bring students back for only a few days a week.
Texas' largest teachers organization dismissed Friday's announcement as underwhelming, saying it is based on an artificial deadline. “Educators, students and their parents need assurance that school buildings will not be reopened until it is safe to do so. Right now, with the pandemic still raging across Texas, we don’t know when that will be,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement.
The Texas Education Agency said students who are not equipped for virtual learning, particularly those whose families lack reliable internet access or a computer, will still be entitled to on-campus instruction once the school year begins.
The state's Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, said he doesn't think private religious schools need to comply with local public health orders prohibiting in-person classes as several cities have already done. He cited "constitutional and statutory protections unique to religious individuals and communities at all times, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Abbott said Thursday that Texas could be seeing signs that the spread was slowing after a June and July in which hospitalizations quadrupled, which has stretched hospitals and ICU units to full capacity. One of the hardest-hit areas remains the Texas-Mexico border, where officials are looking at converting hotels into medical units.
It has been nearly three weeks since Texas shut down bars again, and Abbott said the leveling off of Houston hospitalization rates in recent days is encouraging. “We’re certainly not out of the woods yet, but this could be a glimmer of hope coming if people will continue wearing face masks wherever possible,” Abbott told Houston television station KRIV.