Following last week’s announcement that Houston ISD will not move forward with an 11-month academic calendar for the 2020-21 school year – and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s affirmation that in-person school could commence – HISD interim superintendent Grenita Lathan sent an email to parents with an update on plans which she said will not be finalized until mid-July.
However, a draft document that was posted in the staging portion of the Texas Education Agency website – by mistake, according to the TEA – provides more information as well as guidelines that are heavy on recommendations and light on requirements.
The HISD email stated that due to the continued rise in Houston’s COVID-19 cases, the situation remains fluid.
“During his presentation, (Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath) emphasized that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is working with Gov. Greg Abbott’s medical advisors to establish public health guidance for school districts,” Lathan said. “In the meantime, HISD has formed its own Communicable Diseases Plan Task Force — which is made up of health experts, parents, students, staff, and community members — to help determine guidelines and protocols to resume operations at the campus and administrative levels.”
The same three options as previously communicated are on the table for the 2020-21 academic year: Classes could resume in person; classes could continue to take place entirely online; or classes could be held as a combination of in-person and virtual instruction.
“At this time, HISD has not made a final decision about the opening of the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. However, we will be providing you with an update on July 15,” Lathan said.
According to a report in the Texas Tribune, education officials said that after campuses reopen, they will count students taking virtual classes in the attendance figures used to determine state funding. The instruction can be live or prerecorded video lessons as well as paper assignments. For the first 12 weeks of the year, school districts will not be penalized for major decreases in student attendance.
The TEA’s draft document – which has since been pulled from its website – cited research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that said that while children have been infected with COVID-19 with some severe outcomes, few have been hospitalized or experienced severe symptoms.
“Even if an infected person is only mildly ill, the people they spread it to may become seriously ill or even die, especially if that person is 65 or older with pre-existing health conditions that place them at higher risk,” the draft guidelines state.
The four sets of practices that the draft details are to provide notice, to prevent the virus from entering the school, to respond to a lab-confirmed case in the school and to mitigate likelihood of spread inside the school.
“There will almost certainly be situations that necessitate temporary school closure due to positive COVID-19 cases in schools,” state the draft guidelines. “Parents, educators, and school administrators should be prepared for this in the event that it occurs, while actively working to prevent it through prevention and mitigation practices. … School systems must post for parents and the general public, one week prior to the start of on-campus activities and instruction, a summary of the plan they will follow to mitigate COVID-19 spread in their schools based on (the TEA’s requirements and recommendations).”
Individuals who have had close contact with someone who is lab-confirmed to have COVID-19 should stay at home through the 14-day incubation period. Districts are encouraged to consider having all employees and visitors wear masks or face shields. Students for whom it is developmentally appropriate, as defined by first grade and up, should wear masks or face shields at times when they will be in close proximity to other students for an extended period.
“For students in first grade and above, the determination of whether wearing a mask is developmentally appropriate is up to the student’s parent or guardian,” states the draft.
Social distancing recommendations include placing student desks a minimum of 6 feet apart when possible. When not possible, schools should plan for more frequent hand washing and hand sanitizing and should consider whether increased airflow from the outdoors is possible. Table dividers are options for bathroom sinks as well as cafeteria tables.
While parents and other adults could visit schools, the recommendation is to restrict visits in schools to only those essential to school operations.
A remaining question is how districts will pay for some of these recommendations and whether the lack of stated requirements puts the financial responsibility on local districts. HISD will get its regular funding for the year out of the federal CARES Act funds, instead of getting the CARES Act money on top of what the Texas Legislature promised last session.