AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The state’s top teachers group criticized state guidelines for starting the school year Friday, saying they would unfairly punish districts that choose to stick with online instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The comments from the Texas State Teachers Association come after Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the state’s other Republican leaders on Friday endorsed the guidelines from Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Texas Education Agency.

Texas health officials said more than 8,800 new confirmed cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 were reported Friday, bringing the total in Texas since the start of the pandemic to almost 421,000 cases. More than 141,000 of the confirmed cases are active. The state’s rolling rate of positive tests remained steady Friday at 12.12%, up fractionally from Thursday.

The true number of cases in Texas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The state reported nearly 300 new COVID-19 fatalities Friday, bringing the overall death toll to almost 6,600. Texas patients hospitalized with COVID-19 totaled 9,336, about 40 more than Thursday.

The Texas Education Agency guidelines limit school districts to four weeks of exclusively online instruction unless a district gets a waiver from the agency. School districts would decide when and how to start their school year, but the state would set the number of days and hours of instruction required.

Health officials are relegated to a purely advisory role unless a school is found to be contaminated by the coronavirus, in which case a health authority may close the school for disinfection.

“With a pandemic still raging across Texas, the Texas State Teachers Association demands that the state prohibit any school district from beginning classes, in-person or remotely, before Sept. 8," said association President Ovidia Molina. “After that date, districts should be allowed to reopen buildings to in-person instruction only after consultation with local health authorities, teachers, other school employees and parents and with strict safety standards enforced. Districts that choose to provide only online instruction must not be penalized with a loss of state funding.”

“If they really want to put the health and safety of students and educators first, this is what the governor and TEA will do, not impose artificial limits on online learning and financial penalties on districts,” Molina added.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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