By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Texas school districts must now notify teachers, staff and students’ families of positive COVID-19 cases in classrooms or extracurricular or after-school programs, the Texas Education Agency announced in updated public health guidance Thursday.

This is a change from the TEA’s previous guidance, which didn’t explicitly require school districts to notify parents of a close contact with the virus.

Districts must still report positive cases to their local health departments and the state. Local health officials are also allowed to investigate COVID-19 cases in schools.

While school districts across the state issue mask mandates, the TEA maintains that it will not issue guidance on mask requirements until legal challenges get resolved related to Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning such mandates in schools. In its guidance, the TEA also states that Abbott’s mask order is not being enforced because of ongoing litigation.

When the TEA initially released guidance Aug. 5, it was met with backlash from parents and health experts who didn’t understand why districts wouldn’t be required to tell parents about a close contact. The agency’s initial reasoning was that “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.” But this left health experts questioning the rationale since the more contagious delta variant was not prominent last year.

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 out of 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 children had close contact with someone who contracted the virus, according to the new guidance.

The guidance still allows for remote conferencing 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 waivers. Longer-term remote learning has largely been defunded after it was offered at the start of the pandemic, and efforts to allocate funding for it have so far failed in the Legislature this year.

Remote conferencing differs from virtual learning in that conferencing is done live with a teacher going through material while virtual learning is done through modules or online portals where the teacher isn’t necessarily present.