Houston ISD will start the upcoming school year Sept. 8 and utilize online-only learning during the first six weeks, interim superintendent Grenita Lathan announced Wednesday. She said HISD plans to begin on-campus instruction Oct. 19, although that date is subject to change based on COVID-19 conditions in the region.
Lathan said HISD got the go-ahead from the Texas Education Agency, which previously said schools in the state had to offer on-campus, in-person instruction within three weeks of beginning online learning, to start the 2020-21 academic year with an extended period of remote coursework. HISD board president Sue Deigaard joined other trustees in a letter sent to Gov. Greg Abbott asking for greater flexibility for school districts.
Lathan said that the decision was a result of discussions and planning with various stakeholders.
“It was due to (me), No. 1, being a citizen … a wife, a mother, a friend and the leader of 28,000 employees,” she said.
Lathan said the goal was to provide a quality education and to safeguard the health and safety of students, family and staff. She also said it was important to her that staff feel comfortable coming to work.
Of the 7,300 teachers who responded to a district survey, only 14 percent said they would feel comfortable returning to campuses on the original start date of Aug. 24, according to Lathan.
Online learning will be asynchronous, which Lathan said means that students will be able to work at their own pace, and get live support and instruction from their teachers. There will be some teachers, who Lathan called “academic angels,” working from home for the year, either at the school or district level.
“Grades will count,” she said. “Attendance and participation is a must.”
Later she clarified that the attendance policy will have some flexibility so students who are ill will not feel pressured to come to school.
Lathan said in-person instruction will happen in a “phased-in approach.” Students and staff will be screened daily for COVID-19 and will be required to wear masks. Some staff may be required to also wear gloves.
“Everything will be provided,” Lathan said, later stating that she hoped the district would be reimbursed at 100 percent for expenses.
During the question-and-answer session of a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Lathan said that while details are still being ironed out, it is more likely that teachers will move classrooms in between lessons, not students.
Lathan said that 18 model campuses will have classrooms set up so teachers can get familiar with how things will look when they return.
“Things will vary from campus to campus,” Lathan said, noting that in some elementary classrooms with a ratio of 22 students to one teacher, only nine students will fit with the appropriate distancing.
On Aug. 24, the district will call parents to ask if they want the in-person option in October. Parents will be able to confirm their choice a few weeks before school starts. Parents can also decide to do the whole year online.
At the end of July, there will be a class for parents to take so they understand how online learning will work.
Because of the later start date, the 2020-21 school year will end June 11. Ten minutes will also be added to each school day. School day times may change as well to accommodate in-person students and maintain distancing protocol, Lathan said.
To allow for spacing students appropriately on buses, they will initially only transport homeless students and those with special needs.
Extracurricular activities will not start until in-person school does.
“If we need to play football in January, we’ll do it,” Lathan said.
More information about HISD’s reopening plans can be found at houstonisd.org/reopening.