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TEA: Public schools must reopen campuses in August with few exceptions

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 7/8/2020 By Jacob Carpenter and Shelby Webb, Staff writers
a man wearing a suit and tie sitting at a table: Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, pictured in 2019, announced plans Tuesday for reopening the state’s schools. © Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, pictured in 2019, announced plans Tuesday for reopening the state’s schools.

Texas public school districts must reopen campuses for in-person instruction in August to continue receiving state funding, unless the governor issues a school closure order or a confirmed case of COVID-19 on an individual campus forces a brief shutdown of the building, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Tuesday.

The mandate ensures that families wanting in-person classes will have the option for children to return to campuses during the novel coronavirus pandemic, though students may continue learning from home if they choose. Districts can restrict the number of students who receive on-campus instruction for the first three weeks of their school year, a period designed to “facilitate an effective back-to-school transition process,” TEA officials said.

“On-campus instruction in Texas public schools is where it’s at,” Morath said during a conference call with superintendents. “We know that a lot of families are going to be nervous, and if they are nervous, we’re going to support them 100 percent.”

The mandate came as Morath released public safety guidance for the 2020-21 school year, requiring staff and students older than 10 to wear face coverings in compliance with Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandatory mask order, and encouraging the use of social distancing in buildings, among numerous other protocols.

TEA leaders are leaving many health and hygiene decisions to superintendents, a long-expected decision given the varying spread of the novel coronavirus in different corners of the state.

However, state officials issued some mandates Tuesday, including a requirement that teachers and staff self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before entering a campus.

“It's important we do this in ways where we can mitigate risk so everyone can remain safe, and this is what this guidance is meant to do,” Morath said.

The guidance arrived amid a spike in Texas’ number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, which prompted Abbott to issue a mandate last week that all people older than 9 years old wear masks in public buildings or outside spaces when social distancing is not possible, with a few exceptions.

In an interview with Dallas’ Univision affiliate last week, Abbott suggested that students could be ordered to remain home depending on the severity of Texas’ COVID-19 outbreak, though he did not specify the conditions that would prompt him to shut down campuses. Abbott ordered the closure of all Texas schools from mid-March through the end of the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic.

“A key word for education this coming year is flexibility,” Abbott said Tuesday evening in an interview with KENS-5 in San Antonio. “We will need to be flexible based upon the facts on the ground.”

No perfect solution

Decisions over reopening schools have pitted public health concerns against the benefits of in-person classes.

Some school employees and parents fear the resumption of in-person instruction will cause the virus to spread more rapidly, particularly if classes restart in areas already experiencing an outbreak. While children display symptoms of COVID-19 at low rates, public health officials are not yet certain about how often they are infected and spread the virus to adults.

The state’s four largest teacher unions and organizations each leveled criticism of the state guidance Tuesday, arguing Texas education leaders are moving too quickly to reopen campuses and failing to require enough safety protocols. Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said allowing up to 100 percent of a school’s students to return to campuses will put kids and teachers at risk.

“There is no way under those circumstances you could guarantee social distancing or even have a chance at it,” Capo said. “To act like kids can’t get (COVID-19) is a farce, and the adults in those schools are probably even more at risk than the kids.”

At the same time, educators widely agree that in-person classes are far better for students’ academic, behavioral and social development. Reopening schools also would allow working parents to more easily return to jobs, which President Donald Trump and members of his administration emphasized during a White House roundtable discussion Tuesday.

“We’ve got to get people back to work, back to school, back to health care, because we can't stay locked in our homes forever,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.

The long-awaited TEA guidance gives Houston-area school leaders more clarity as they complete their local plans for the 2020-21 school year.

Sheldon ISD Superintendent King Davis already had scheduled a conference call with teachers and staff to unveil district plans on Wednesday, but those logistics now will have to be tweaked.

“I will say it’s a little bittersweet,” Davis said. “I’m certainly happy to get more guidance, but as it relates to some of the guidance itself, it creates some hurdles for us to overcome.”

Davis’ district and many others throughout Texas were planning to offer a “hybrid” model to families wanting in-person instruction, with those students traveling to campuses some days and learning from home on others. The method would help limit the number of people in school at one time.

Sheldon officials, however, have abandoned those plans after state officials mandated that students must receive five days of in-person instruction if they want it. Now, Davis worries that social distancing will be difficult to practice if a majority of students opt to return for on-campus instruction.

Choices for children

The coming weeks will involve difficult decisions for parents like Rita Martinez, the mother of three children attending Houston ISD schools on the city’s north side. Martinez’s youngest child, a soon-to-be second-grader at Berry Elementary School, suffers from a congenital heart defect and asthma, both of which put him at higher risk for medical complications from COVID-19.

While she has no qualms about keeping him home, her two older children, who attend Henry Middle School and Waltrip High School, both had bad experiences with online-only learning to finish the previous school year. Still, she fears sending her eldest children back to school, worried that they could bring home the virus to her 7-year-old.

“My anxiety is extremely high, because what works for one child might not work for another child,” Martinez said. “I’m going to have to sit down and make an individualized plan for each kid.”

If current COVID-19 conditions persist into late August, when HISD classes resume, Martinez said she would keep all three children at home.

Jenn Arnold, on the other hand, is unconcerned.

Like Martinez, her three children in Katy ISD struggled to adapt to online learning — both socially and academically. Her 17-year-old and 11-year-old sons were A and B students when schools shut down, but their grades dropped to the point where they were required to take summer classes online.

Arnold said she is thankful to have the option to send them back full time.

“They need to be in school,” Arnold said. “It’s not healthy for them to be out.”

Families cannot be asked to commit to in-person or at-home learning until two weeks before the start of their school year. If a family chooses virtual-only learning, then wishes to switch to in-person instruction, school districts can require students to remain at home through the end of each six-week grading period.

jacob.carpenter@chron.com

shelby.webb@chron.com

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