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Houston ISD campuses remain open in spite of district’s own COVID-19 threshold to close

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 10/26/2020 By Shelby Webb, Staff writer
a group of people looking at the camera: A student has his temperature taken before entering Booker T. Washington High School, 4204 Yale St., on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020 in Houston. Monday was the first day of in-person classes in Houston ISD. © Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

A student has his temperature taken before entering Booker T. Washington High School, 4204 Yale St., on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020 in Houston. Monday was the first day of in-person classes in Houston ISD.

Houston ISD campuses remained open for in-person instruction Monday, despite county COVID-19 statistics meeting a threshold that district officials had said would trigger the immediate closure of schools.

In the district’s reopening plan, Houston ISD officials wrote that employees would work from home and students would learn virtually if Harris County’s COVID-19 test positivity rate averaged more than 7 percent over a 14-day period. On Monday, Harris County’s COVID-19 dashboard put the 14-day average percent of positive tests at 7.4 percent.

The county’s positivity rate is the only metric listed on HISD’s COVID-19 gauge, which serves as a guide for district-level decisions.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday that the city’s 14-day positivity rate was 6.5 percent, up from 5.9 percent on Oct. 15.

Houston ISD officials did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview on Oct. 16, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district’s communicable disease committee and instructional continuity committee were evaluating the gauge and “reviewing the data in the city as it relates to COVID cases, hospitalizations, looking at the county’s metrics, looking at the City of Houston’s metrics.”

However, Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said communication from the district has been scarce and has led to confusion among teachers and staff members.

“If they were going to use other metrics, they should have been a lot more clear in their gauge protocols,” Capo said. “They’re sending mixed messages and are eroding any trust they had with the community and employees.”

Schools in Texas’ largest school district reopened for in-person instruction on Oct. 19, but 16 campuses closed the following day due to a handful of presumptive positive and confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. On Wednesday, officials walked back their criteria for closing campuses due to infections, requiring at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19 before shutting down individual school buildings. Previously, a single suspected or confirmed case would trigger a campus closure.

Michelle Williams, president of the Houston Education Association and a math interventionist at Kashmere High School, said she worried Houston ISD officials were “moving the goalpost” on their COVID-19 plans by not closing down campuses after the county positivity rate rose above 7 percent.

“Teachers come with it and expose students, and vice versa, and then it goes home and you have more community spread,” Williams said. “If you look at the coronavirus, it’s an exponential growth model. Based on what’s happening across the nation, we know the positive rate is going to increase.”

Schools across the state are limited in how long they can close after COVID-19 infections under current Texas Education Agency guidance. School districts themselves set their own criteria for when to close individual campuses due to positive cases of COVID-19, but TEA rules say campuses can be closed for a maximum of five days.

Entire districts were allowed to spend the first four weeks of the school year online, and school boards could apply for a waiver that would allow them to remain virtual for an additional four weeks. Houston ISD’s waiver to keep students learning remotely expires Nov. 2. Texas Education Agency officials did not immediately respond to questions about district-wide closures outside of the 8-week waiver window.

However, TEA did grant a two-week waiver extension to El Paso ISD and several other school districts after that area experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases that has strained local hospitals. El Paso education officials said on Twitter that TEA would monitor COVID-19 conditions and review the waiver extension on a week-to-week basis.

Unless such a waiver extension is granted to Houston ISD, the district cannot close all of its schools due to community spread of COVID-19 alone after Nov. 2.

“I’m confident if they have done it for one school district, they’ll do it for HISD,” Williams said.

Capo was less certain.

“Right now, from what I’ve seen from the state, I don’t know that it matters how much the COVID cases are rising,” he said. “They want the schools open, and that’s what they’re going to do. I hope that they prove me wrong.”

shelby.webb@chron.com

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