Speaker Bonnen: The solution to the COVID-19 school opening conundrum is to allow local districts to decide
Students at Odessa High School line up outside as they wait to enter the school Wednesday morning Aug. 12, 2020 during the first day of the school year in Odessa Texas.(Ben Powell)

Speaker Bonnen: The solution to the COVID-19 school opening conundrum is to allow local districts to decide

The state will stay out of the way of local decision-makers.

Dennis Bonnen is the speaker of the Texas House. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

As a young man in Angleton public schools, I was what people once called “a handful” thanks to my dyslexia and a “spirited” personality. To put it mildly, my teachers earned their pay conveying learning strategies that would eventually carry me through college and into public life. The resulting respect and appreciation I have for teachers only grew deeper this year when my wife and I instantly became teachers in our own right, as the sole faculty of Bonnen Day School in our Lake Jackson home. In the process, we learned a very crucial lesson: Teaching is simultaneously challenging and incredibly valuable. And doing it well is its own beast.

As the fall term gets underway, there is a lively conversation happening across the state, with many parents sharing real concern that their kids are falling behind in the absence of quality instruction. (Notice I don’t simply say “instruction.”) Unfortunately, many of those parents who are rightfully focused on how their kids will receive the highest quality of education have been crowded out by bickering about delivery methods. This bickering is going on among people who are seemingly more devoted to finding ways to avoid educating Texas children than to creating safe ways to resume meaningful instruction.

Drowned out by the shouting match are the voices of parents who are simply not equipped to be teachers or lack the resources to do it effectively. They include parents working full-time jobs at home or in essential roles in the health care, service or construction industries (jobs that, incidentally, many of the most vocal of critics wouldn’t do on a dare). Many parents of children with special needs are struggling to provide necessary individualized instruction at home while grappling with the health threats that group instruction might pose for their vulnerable children. These are all parents who would like to have a balanced conversation about quality instruction and safeguards without political rants, social media attacks and close-minded stubbornness.

I have received a significant volume of correspondence from both sides, with parents and teachers demanding the safety of virtual-only learning balanced by nearly equal amounts who desperately desire a return to the familiarity, routine and proven success of in-classroom instruction. Let me assure you, those goals are not mutually exclusive.

The solution lies in empowering local school districts to implement strategies that don’t simply check the box but actually ensure a superior education is available to all Texas schoolchildren. The Texas Education Agency has listened to a broad array of voices, explored technology options for educators, and worked to balance safety with the need for instruction. And the so-called Big Three (the governor, lieutenant governor and yours truly) have been supporting local education decision-makers working with teachers, parents and school boards to find an approach to the fall term that doesn’t let kids fall behind.

The top priority is not simply to get Texas children educated, but to ensure they are offered the very best learning opportunities. Whether your child’s public school wants to start everyone in-person on one day in August, would prefer to delay a couple of weeks using virtual instruction or even take a hybrid approach to reduce classroom loading, the decision is up to empowered local authorities. The state will stay out of the way of the local education decision makers who must get it done, while providing the resources and funding necessary to get it done right.

As we navigate these unfamiliar waters together, I hope my fellow Texans will take a minute to reflect on the situations of all Texas families, not just their own, and muster up some compassion before sending that next Tweet or posting that next Facebook rant. Even more important, I hope parents and teachers will take the time to collaborate and share their thoughts with local education officials, placing less emphasis on the learning platform and greater focus on the quality of instruction.

We all want what’s best for Texas children and teachers, both in terms of health and education, so let’s back away from those extreme positions and work together on sensible, science- and data-driven solutions for a generation of children whose education and future ability to feed their own children could be the next casualty of this virus. As parents, as leaders, as members of the broader Texas community, if we aren’t educating our kids, we’re selling them short, and that’s a shortfall that can last a lifetime.

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