Many Houston ISD stakeholders were hoping for more certainty this week as the Texas Education Agency had planned to release its safety and funding guidance for the 2020-21 school year on Tuesday. But the TEA said Tuesday that the information would not be released until next week – leaving parents, teachers and students waiting for answers.
“I think we have to acknowledge that this is a disconcerting process for everyone,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “Everyone is trying to figure out the best way to move forward.”
Some clues are offered in an interview that HISD interim superintendent Grenita Lathan gave to CNN correspondent and HISD alum Bianna Golodryga at Harvard Elementary. Things that students and teachers can expect to see in the fall, according to the segment and if in-person classes are allowed to be held, are mandatory temperature checks and a station for personal protective equipment.
“I want to remind people that we’re still recovering from 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit and now we’re being hit with COVID-19,” Lathan said, acknowledging later in the segment that “this virus has stumped me.”
Lathan said in the interview that smaller classrooms, with 11 students each, could be the norm and that meals, probably pre-packaged, could be served in the classroom rather than the cafeteria. Regulated hallway traffic and a smaller recess group could be other adjustments.
According to CNN, a similar blueprint is being implemented in other large school districts. In Los Angeles, there will be staggered days, one-way hallways and solo play.
Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said in the CNN segment that the priority in a hybrid schedule should be given to those most vulnerable – economically disadvantaged students, English as a Second Language learners and those with disabilities.
While Lathan encouraged patience as HISD finalized its plans, many parents and stakeholders expressed anger that they were seeing potential plans on the national news before they had been communicated through other channels.
“I am furious that this was released to the nation before our school community,” wrote one on HISD’s Facebook page. “It causes me to question the integrity and trustworthiness of our administration.”
Last week, stakeholders received a survey to give feedback on an 11-month calendar and earlier start date for HISD. The HISD press office did not respond to The Leader’s questions about the CNN interview before press time.
On Monday, another survey addressed the possible need to revise the traditional face-to-face school day and/or school calendar. The survey asked for opinions about online learning, in-person learning, reduced class sizes and information about caregiver availability during the school day. It also informed parents that no final decision has been made and that some options are subject to local board and/or TEA approval.
Parent concerns, budget woes
HISD parent Angela Ryden has a child in both a middle and high school. She said her kids will not be returning to school in the fall unless HISD does some type of modified schedule.
“If online or a mostly online option is not available we will homeschool,” she said. “I expect some type of online to be an option, though.”
Marysia Norris has children in both elementary and middle school. She said if online learning is used, it needs to be rolled out as a standardized platform and approach with transparent curriculum to guide the virtual leaners and parents.
“It is too difficult to execute on multiple platforms and resources with multiple children,” she said.
Suzanne Ragsdale is concerned about how schools will keep families safe.
“I have three family members sick with COVID and one in the hospital ICU right now,” Ragsdale said. “Without a vaccine, I’m just not sure how I can get comfortable with sending the kids anywhere.”
Shannon Benesch and her husband have the flexibility to stay home with their three school-aged children if necessary, but as they both work full-time jobs, it will be a juggling act.
“I feel terrible for parents with jobs that do not have that same kind of flexibility,” she said. “It’s like they have to pick what’s more important – their job or their kids’ educations, and there are costs on both sides.”
Some HISD parents are looking into private school options, saying smaller class sizes would make in-person learning possible.
St. Rose of Lima Catholic School’s Jennifer Saladino said it plans to start school, in person, on Aug. 21.
“We will be spending the entire month of August preparing our classrooms,” Saladino said. “Nothing replaces in-classroom instruction, and we are taking every precaution we can to protect our community and our students.”
The size of HISD, with its 210,000 students, makes planning more challenging. Capo wants to make sure the decision makers at both the state and local level have a broad range of perspectives from the HISD community.
“We are gathering information and concerns,” he said.
One thing he hopes the district is doing is identifying staff and employees who are at the highest risk for complications from COVID-19 and trying to accommodate them as much as possible.
“If we start there, there will be less stress on everyone moving forward,” Capo said.
One important factor that looms over all decisions is money.
In early June, the HISD board of trustees voted 7-2 to pass a $2 billion budget for 2020-21, which includes a $34.4 million salary and benefits package as well as an increase in employer contribution to health insurance premiums for employees.
District VIII trustee Judith Cruz said the budget is for brick-and-mortar school and will probably have to be revisited and amended with revised plans. She said the administration will make plans before the end of the month. And by all accounts, those plans will be expensive.
What is a budget blow for the district is the $1.29 billion that Texas expects to receive from the federal elementary and secondary school emergency relief fund, where most of the money was to be sent to school districts based on their student poverty rates, will now be retained by the state, which has seen its own revenues decline sharply in recent months with the downturn in oil and gas.
“They are supplanting instead of supplementing,” said Cruz, explaining that the district will get its regular funding out of the federal CARES Act funds, instead of getting the CARES Act money on top of what the Texas Legislature promised last session.
“There is some ambiguity of the way the law was written at the federal level,” Cruz said. “But (districts) in other states are seeing that money.”