The changes were announced a day after Texas set its daily record for virus deaths, with 129, and reported more than 10,000 new confirmed new cases for a third 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 putting students and staff in danger.
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 new COVID-19 cases have postponed the first day of class until after Labor Day.
“The health & safety of students, teachers & parents is the top priority,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted shortly after the announcement.
President Donald Trump and his administration have demanded that schools fully reopen right away, 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 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.
Abbott said Thursday that Texas was potentially seeing signs of the spread slowing after hospitalizations quadrupled throughout June and July, 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.