Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath has rejected a proposal submitted by dozens of South Texas superintendents earlier this week that would have given districts the ability to continue a mostly remote instruction curriculum in the event of a COVID-19 surge over the holidays.

In a statement Friday, State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, announced that Morath responded to the proposal in a memo Thursday evening. Cortez strongly criticized the commissioner’s decision.

“I have seen too many people die from this disease. The commissioner’s refusal to work with Valley schools to protect students, teachers, and their families is just shameful,” Cortez wrote. “I implore the commissioner to open a dialogue with Valley superintendents and work out an agreement that will safeguard the health of our children and staff before more lives are lost.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Cortez and McAllen Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez outlined the plan, which would have included a waiver allowing districts to continue online instruction for 100% of families in areas with a hospitalization rate greater than 15% without having district funding affected. It also requested rapid COVID-19 tests be made available for priority students who do choose to attend on campus, with Cortez and Gonzalez citing potential superspreader events over the holidays as a chief motivator for the proposal.

State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, and McAllen Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez

Gonzalez was less critical Friday, saying that he wasn’t disappointed by the commissioner’s decision.

“We understand the commissioner of education has a very difficult job and he’s been doing a great job of leading the agency. We’re very happy with what he’s done for us and the support that he’s given us along the way, so we understand and we’ll just move forward,” he said.

Gonzalez says the district was preparing for a rejection before the news arrived and has made plans to mitigate the impact of a potential holiday infection rate spike, which include giving all staff at the district the option of working remotely from Jan. 4 to Jan. 22, a move intended to reduce interaction during the CDC recommended quarantine window.

“There is an exception for employees previously deemed essential employees. In previous plans, if you have been an essential employee, plan on being an essential employee again,” Gonzalez wrote in a letter to the district community Thursday. “Also, if your supervisor requires you for a specific need, you might be called to report to your work location.”

Gonzalez also encouraged parents to opt for remote instruction for that three-week period.

“We will also have programs running for students whose parents have extenuating circumstances. I want parents to rest assured that we will have systems for everyone and programs for all parents to be able to send their children to school,” he wrote. “Again, we encourage you, if circumstances allow, to keep your child at home for remote instruction if possible. We are trying to limit the amount of people in the schools for the three weeks after we return to be as conservative as we can. UIL athletic and fine arts events will continue for varsity level students.”