The end of October marks two weeks of in-person classes for Houston ISD, and already a number of teachers and parents are questioning the wisdom of continuing. At issue is the district’s own criteria for in-person learning, as stated in its reopening plan, and what some see as a backpedaling of its own guidelines.
According to the reopening plan, the bar for going back to virtual learning was a COVID-19 test positivity rate for Harris County of more than 7 percent over a 14-day period. At the beginning of the week, the Harris County COVID-19 dashboard posted a 14-day average positivity rate of 7.4 percent. Houston’s city numbers were lower for the 14 days, at 6.5 percent.
On Monday, interim superintendent Grenita Lathan sent parents an email stating that HISD was updating both the COVID gauge and the process they will use to transition between levels. The gauge had moved from the most severe red to orange just before students returned in person on Oct. 19. COVID Gauge Level 2: Orange indicates “a significant and uncontrolled level of COVID-19 in the community as determined by local health officials.”
“To ensure a holistic and data-driven approach, movement between all colors will be based on a careful review of multiple metrics from both Harris County Public Health and the Houston Health Department, as well as an ongoing assessment of reported cases and data trends in our district,” read the email.
The week before, the district announced it will no longer close campuses with one reported confirmed positive or presumptive COVID-19 case. Instead, a campus will close if two or more confirmed positive cases are reported.
HISD parent and Lindale Park resident Tish Ochoa has kept her daughter home to continue virtual learning for the current six-week period and says she is disappointed that HISD has decided to move the goalposts on considerations for closure.
“I think it’s deeply unfair to go back on their word to school staff and (the decision) will lead to increased community spread,” Ochoa said. “I understand we all want children to be served and that there is pressure from (the Texas Education Agency) to not close down schools. But I urge the district to put the needs of the children and teachers of Houston first.”
There are also parents happy to have the opportunity to continue in-person learning.
“I actually think it is going alright for us personally,” said one middle school parent. “I tried to mentally prepare my kids before face-to-face started to ensure they knew it was not going to be anything like before. The hardest part for them was getting used to the ‘one way only’ in hallways and doors.”
Even so, she does not feel like HISD did enough to prepare the teachers to do double duty.
“It does not seem balanced from an attention perspective to have students virtual and face-to-face in the same class,” she said. “(It is) frankly challenging for the teacher to deliver to different audience types. The school itself is doing a fantastic job to ensure the kids remain safe.”
Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the mixed messaging has resulted in an erosion of trust among teachers and parents.
“If the health department had different metrics, then (HISD) should have been sure about them from the beginning,” he said.
Even before Lathan’s Monday email, teachers were opposing what they say are unsafe working conditions. A group called Educators for a Safe Reopening organized a “sick-out” protest of about 100 teachers on Oct. 22.
The group’s requirements for a safe learning environment included a mandatory 6 feet for social distancing, meals eaten outside or in large open, well-ventilated areas and classrooms with an optimized HVAC system. The group also advocates for a school-wide quarantine if someone on the campus contracts COVID and no TEA sanctions for teachers or staff who resign during the 2020-21 school year.
Capo said the HFT did not have any role in organizing the protest but that some of its members participated. He also said representatives from Educators for a Safe Reopening were coming to speak at the HFT’s Nov. 2 board meeting and that he does not rule out more drastic action from HFT in the future.
“If (our members) want to take risks, we will take those risks with them,” Capo said.
The HISD COVID-19 Dashboard showed 163 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, with 114 of those coming from staff and 49 from students. It also reports 89 active cases with 39 active student cases and 50 staff cases. Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet, Hogg Middle School, Heights High School, Helms Elementary, Oak Forest Elementary, Katherine Smith Elementary and Williams Middle School have active cases, according to the dashboard.
This week, El Paso ISD got a two-week waiver from the TEA to continue virtual learning because of the city’s rising infection rate. The TEA said so far, it has not received a waiver request from HISD.