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Ken Zarifis
stated on July 8, 2020 in a press conference:
Says Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath is requiring teachers to return to classrooms while “he has closed his offices at TEA through January.”
true false
Ken Zarifis speaks during public comment time of the Austin Independent School District board of trustees meeting, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman) Ken Zarifis speaks during public comment time of the Austin Independent School District board of trustees meeting, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Ken Zarifis speaks during public comment time of the Austin Independent School District board of trustees meeting, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

By Lara Korte July 10, 2020

Are Texas education officials working at home while asking teachers to go back to classrooms?

If Your Time is short

  • The Texas Education Agency announced new guidelines for the fall semester that mean some teachers will have to return to classrooms.
  • But Commissioner Mike Morath has been working at the agency's office since March. Starting in July, all staffers with the agency have the option of returning to the office.

This week, the Texas Education Agency announced it would give parents a choice of sending their kids to classrooms or continuing to teach them online for the fall semester. Regardless of what they choose, in-person instruction will be offered on a daily basis, the education agency said, meaning many teachers will be back in schools come August.  

The news didn’t sit well with many educators across the state, including members of Education Austin, the area’s school employees’ union.

During a July 8 press conference, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis criticized the agency’s decision.

"What is selfish is a commissioner that requires teachers and workers returned to unsafe environments," he said. "That is the person that is selfish. All the while he has closed his offices at TEA through January. The hypocrisy of this is palpable."

Similar allegations have circulated online since the TEA’s announcement, but are they true? Is the Texas Education Agency requiring teachers to return to work while their office is closed through January?

TEA gives staffers choice to return this month

When asked about the source of the info, Zarifis said he had seen it referenced in several social media posts and on the TEA website. Later, Zarifis said he misspoke, and said he was unable to find any post that mentioned the offices staying closed through January. 

The TEA website says agency employees began a mandatory telework policy on March 17, and the office is not accepting visitors at this time. But Morath and at least 30 other employees have been working in the office since March, according to TEA spokesman Frank Ward.

"Commissioner Morath and other Texas Education Agency staff whose job duties require them to be in the office have been working from the William B. Travis Building since March — just as they did before the pandemic hit," Ward said in an email. 

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Also, starting this month, all TEA staff have the ability to return to the building on a voluntary basis this month, Ward said, but did not specify how many people had chosen to return so far. 

"Based on local public health conditions, the individual and the family needs of our team, and the agency’s organizational needs, we are currently determining additional next steps for our staff for later this summer and beyond," he said. 

Meanwhile, the number of teachers who will be physically in classrooms this fall depends on the local needs of students and parents in each individual district, said Ward.

While the agency is requiring districts to offer in-person classes, some parents may opt to keep their children at home, and thus, lower the demand for teachers who are physically in classrooms.

Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate, all people on campus over 10 years old will be required to wear masks, presuming that the order is still in effect when classes resume. 

Our ruling

The president of the Austin school employees’ union said the leader of the Texas Education Agency is requiring teachers to return to classrooms while keeping his offices closed through January. 

While the new rules for the fall semester do mean that some teachers will have to go back into school buildings, it doesn’t look like Morath is hunkering down through January — in fact, he’s been in-office since March, along with other staff who are deemed essential. 

Although it’s unknown how many TEA staffers are back in the office at this moment, they did have the option to begin returning this month.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Ken Zarifis, at an Education Austin press conference, July 8, 2020

Text message exchange with Ken Zarifis, July 9, 2020

Email exchange with the press office in the Texas Education Agency, July 8, 2020

Email exchange with TEA spokesman Frank Ward, July 9, 2020

Phone calls with TEA spokesman Frank Ward, July 9, 2020

The Texas Education Agency, "TEA office hours during COVID-19." July 9, 2020

Tweet from user @FrozenNoober, July 7, 2020 

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