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Dean, other state lawmakers target STAAR test

Republican state Rep. Jay Dean of Longview is among a bipartisan group of 68 House lawmakers asking the Texas Education Agency to cancel the STAAR exam or at minimum not use student scores to rate schools or districts this year.

A letter written by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, asks that the state apply for waivers from the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the standarized test, which is administered to students in third through 12th grade, the Texas Tribune reported.

Dean was joined in signing the letter by state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

Should the test still be administered during the coronavirus pandemic, it “should only serve as a diagnostic instrument to see where our students stand academically as opposed to an assessment instrument to determine district and campus sanctions,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

The letter is addressed to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, but it’s “just as much a letter to the governor,” Bernal told the Tribune, adding that Gov. Greg Abbott “very easily could call the play to change the landscape right now.”

“If we take our time talking to educators — not administrators — but educators, counselors, parents and students, of course, that the last thing they all need right now is the extra and added stress of STAAR,” Bernal said.

Dean said Wednesday that concerns voiced in October by Longview-area superintendents at a forum with Dean and other area lawmakers influenced his decision to sign the letter.

“I’m not saying that we don’t need accountability, but with the COVID, so many kids are out of school (and) there’s so much virtual versus in-person, it’s just a mess,” he said. “The only thing I agreed to was, look, we need to suspend this right now until we can get a better handle on where everything’s at. I am not saying that we do not need measures and accountability to determine where schools are with kids, but common sense tells me with everything they’re having to deal with that’s a difficult proposition.”

Dean said Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty is drafting another letter on the issue that “will clarify some things,” and he will support that letter.

“We have all, since my first session in 2017, we’ve all had issues with the STAAR test because there’s been lots of issues with it every year. What we need to do is evaluate and assess if that’s the right program to determine where each district is from an accountability standpoint,” he said. “I’m a big fan of, besides STAAR, there’s a bunch of other testing companies that get us to the same place as far as accountability. One of the things we’ve discussed ... is setting these specifications and allowing each school district to determine which one of the testing programs they want to use. Pre-COVID that’s been discussed for a number of years, and I think we need to continue to pursue that.”

Dean said he has heard from many superintendents about the issues schools are facing because of the pandemic.

“I think we need to take a pause and allow districts to deal with this and come back and determine what is the right program to be held accountable,” he said. “Right now 5% of all Texas students are unaccounted for — 5%. That is a huge number. So how do we do this testing when we have 5% of students unaccounted for?”

Talking to State Board of Education members Wednesday morning, Morath said much is still up in the air over how the STAAR will be administered and used to rate school districts.

But he seemed to reject the idea of canceling the exams altogether, saying they would be a useful way of determining how much learning students have lost during the pandemic.

“Absent the STAAR test, you’re not going to have a valid, reliable view of grade-level mastery of student skills,” he said. But he added that the question of how the state would use those results to rate schools and districts was “much more open.”

Bernal said the commissioner needs to clearly lay out what role STAAR testing will have this year if he intends to require it.

“I don’t know if there’s any comfort in a yet to be revealed approach to accountability right now, all the while teachers, counselors, students and parents are in the pressure cooker of trying to deal with STAAR,” Bernal said.

Last spring, Texas applied for and received a waiver from the federal government allowing it not to administer the STAAR. It is unclear whether President Joe Biden’s administration will offer similar waivers in 2021.

Texas has already committed to allowing elementary and middle school students who fail the exams this spring to move up to the next grade, with district permission. Usually, student scores on the test determine whether high school students can graduate, whether some elementary and middle school students can move on to the next grade, and whether schools can remain open.


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Careers on Wheels: Event teaches Longview ISD students about mobile jobs

Students at Ware East Texas Montessori Academy on Wednesday experienced a special type of career day.

The Careers on Wheels event brought in people who mostly work from their vehicles, including representatives from Longview Animal Care and Adoption Center, Yellow Checker Cab, the U.S. Army and Champion EMS.

Ware Principal Josh Worsham said the school could not do a typical career day because of COVID-19, but this event gave students a chance to learn about unique jobs while maintaining social distancing.

“Our students get some ideas of job opportunities in the future, see what these people do when they’re driving around town. They get to see first hand exactly what that business is like and what it’s like to work in that industry,” Worsham said. “It’s a good opportunity for them to get some experience and see something different and maybe ask some questions they never got to ask before.”

He said the representative from Yellow Checker Cab explained to students about how to get a cab and how much it costs. The city’s animal control department brought a snake, Buddy, and a dog, Pearl, for the students to pet.

“I know they love seeing the snake and the dog and all that, but really it’s about talking to the people that work in those industries every day and getting to talk about what life would be like,” Worsham said.

Fourth-grader Kaliyah Pearson said she enjoyed going to each vehicle and exploring the careers.

Employees from animal control brought tools they use to catch animals they get calls about.

“We got to see what type of tools they use and pet the pet snake,” she said. “The coolest part was that all those tools they use to catch bats.”

Kaliyah said she was not scared to pet the snake and liked petting Pearl the dog.

“I think she was pretty,” she said. “She could hide in the snow.”


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COVID-19 in East Texas
NET Health: Four new COVID-19 deaths in Gregg County, 47 new cases
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COVID-19’s recent resurgence in Gregg County continued Wednesday as public health officials announced four new confirmed virus deaths in the county and 47 additional confirmed cases.

Regional health organization the Northeast Texas Public Health District, known as NET Health, reported the county’s confirmed deaths increased from 61 to 65. The number did not include 43 deaths for which coronavirus is the probable cause.

NET Health on Wednesday also reported Gregg County’s community spread level of COVID-19 remained at “substantial” with a seven-day rolling rate of new virus cases substantially higher than the previous week.

The health district has been weekly updating a map that shows community spread levels in Gregg and the six other counties it serves. On Wednesday, the map for the previous week showed a seven-day rolling rate of 60.05 COVID-positive cases based on population. Rates of 35 and above are considered substantial community spread, which signifies large-scale, uncontrolled community transmission, according to NET Health. Smith, Henderson, Rains, Wood and Van Zandt counties also had substantial levels of community spread of the virus.

Gregg County’s 47 new confirmed cases brought its cumulative total to 3,059, which does not include 1,487 probable cases in county residents. A positive result from a rapid test that is not laboratory confirmed is considered a positive case.

In the past week, Gregg County has seen its highest single-day increases in virus cases since early August, with two days of 50 or more new cases and 80 new confirmed cases this past weekend.

On Wednesday, there were 673 confirmed active cases in Gregg County, 885 probable cases and four active cases in Gregg County Jail inmates. Recoveries in the county remained at 2,321 after an increase of 94 announced Tuesday.

NET Health on Wednesday announced nearly 145 new confirmed cases in Smith County residents but no new confirmed deaths in the county.

With the new cases, the county’s confirmed cumulative case county increased to 5,573, which does not include 3,204 probable cases in county residents.

Confirmed recovery numbers were one less than reported the previous day by NET Health at 3,810. Confirmed deaths remained at 129, which does not include 59 deaths for which the coronavirus is the probable cause, according to NET Health.

Hospitalizations in Tyler, which have spiked in recent days, on Wednesday were at 191 for patients with confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19, down from 214 on Tuesday.

Harrison County Judge Chad Sims on Wednesday reported just five new cases in his county and no new recoveries.

The county has had 1,203 total confirmed cases, 1,067 recoveries and 35 coronavirus-related deaths. On Wednesday, the county had 101 known active cases.

The state on Wednesday reported 7 new cases of the coronavirus in Rusk County and no additional deaths. The county has had 1,146 positive cases, according to the state, and 29 COVID-19 deaths.

Upshur County’s coronavirus cases remained unchanged from the previous day for a cumulative total of 573, and the county’s deaths remained at 17.

Statewide

Texas is sending medical staff to overworked hospitals by the thousands — more now than at any point during the pandemic — as a worsening surge of cases leaves virus patients waiting for beds and large public buildings were ordered shut Wednesday in one West Texas city where fire officials are building shelves to store the dead.

More doctors and nurses may still be needed as Texas rapidly accelerates toward 8,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients for the first time since a deadly summer outbreak.

“We’re in trouble,” said Dr. Ron Cook, the heath authority in Lubbock County, which is averaging more than 450 new cases a day over the past week.

He would not rule out the county of 320,000 residents soon needing mobile morgues like the border city of El Paso, where jail inmates have begun earning $2 an hour to transport bodies amid a skyrocketing number of virus deaths. “We’re close. The fire department has made some shelving units for us. We’ve gone to extra efforts to try to find more space,” Cook said.

Texas has sent hundreds of additional doctors and nurses to Lubbock to staff overflow medical tents outside hospitals and relieve weary frontline workers. The mayor Wednesday ordered the closure of large municipal facilities through the end of the year but said he would not lockdown businesses, which Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has prohibited.

As the number of cases in Texas soar, Abbott has shown no appetite for retreating to shutdown measures as he did this summer when hospitalizations were on a similarly bleak trajectory. He scheduled a news conference in Lubbock for Thursday, his first about the virus since September.

Worries about the rising caseloads extended far beyond West Texas.

More than 5,400 extra medical personnel have been deployed across Texas, said Lara Anton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. That doesn’t capture the waves of extra help surging into Texas, as the military and volunteer outfits have also dispatched extra hands to America’s second-biggest state.

Texas has seen more than 20,140 virus deaths to date, the second highest in the county, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by nearly 3,300, an increase of more than 50%.


Pfizer: COVID-19 shot 95% effective, seeking clearance soon
  • Updated

Pfizer said Wednesday that new test results show its coronavirus vaccine is 95% effective, is safe and also protects older people most at risk of dying — the last data needed to seek emergency use of limited shot supplies as the catastrophic outbreak worsens across the globe.

The announcement from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, just a week after they revealed the first promising preliminary results, comes as the team is preparing within days to formally ask U.S. regulators to allow emergency use of the vaccine. Anticipating that, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is on standby to publicly debate the data in early December.

The companies also have begun “rolling submissions” for the vaccine with regulators in Europe, the U.K. and Canada and soon will add this new data.

Pfizer and BioNTech had initially estimated the vaccine was more than 90% effective after counting a group of the earliest infections that occurred in its final-stage testing. With the new announcement, they have accumulated more infections — 170 — and said only eight of them occurred in volunteers who got the actual vaccine rather than a comparison dummy shot. One of those eight developed severe disease, the companies said.

“This is an extraordinarily strong protection,” Dr. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s CEO and co-founder, told The Associated Press.

Even if regulators agree, he dispelled any notion that an end to the pandemic is around the corner, warning “we are now awaiting a hard winter.”

“The available vaccine doses are just too small to ensure that we could make a significant difference to the society” right away, Sahin said. But next year if several companies’ vaccine candidates also work, “we might be able to get control of this pandemic situation late summer 2021.”

The companies have not yet released detailed data on their study, and results have not been analyzed by independent experts. Also still to be determined are important questions such as how long protection lasts and whether people might need boosters — leading experts to caution that people should focus less on the specific numbers and more on the overall promise.

Earlier this week, competitor Moderna Inc. also announced similar effectiveness of its own COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which is made with the same, brand-new technology — using a snippet of the genetic code of the coronavirus to train the body to recognize if the real virus comes along.

For both, “there’s every reason to be enormously optimistic,” said Dr. Paul Offit of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of FDA’s advisers.

“When these vaccines roll out, you’re only going to know it’s effective for a limited period of time,” he cautioned, adding that more follow-up information will come. “You don’t want to oversell it, but you don’t want to undersell it.”

All eyes are on the progress of potential vaccines as the grim infection toll jumps in the U.S. and abroad as winter weather forces people indoors, in the close quarters that fuels viral spread.

Pfizer and BioNTech said the vaccine was more than 94% effective in adults over age 65, though it is not clear exactly how that was determined with only eight infections in the vaccinated group to analyze and no breakdown provided of those people’s ages.

Sahin said there were enough older adults enrolled in the study and among the placebo recipients who became infected that he is confident “this vaccine appears to work in the higher-risk population.”

While initial supplies will be scarce and rationed, as the supply grows Sahin said the companies have a responsibility to help ensure access for lower income countries as well.

In the U.S., officials expect enough doses of both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines to vaccinate only about 20 million people at first. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will determine who is first in line, expected to include health workers and older adults.

Whatever that prioritization, Gen. Gustave Perna of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed pledged a “fair and equitable” distribution across the U.S. of FDA-authorized doses as they become available. Pfizer would handle shipping of its own doses; the warp speed program will help with support and distributing additional companies’ vaccines if and when they become available.

In addition to the protection findings, Pfizer and BioNTech also said no serious vaccine side effects have been reported, with the most common problem being fatigue after the second vaccine dose, affecting about 4% of participants.

The study has enrolled nearly 44,000 people in the U.S. and five other countries. The trial will continue to collect safety and effectiveness data on volunteers for two more years.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they expect to produce up to 50 million vaccine doses globally in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

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AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.