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Schools are going to reopen, like it or not

It’s gonna be crazy.

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.

[…]

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.”

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, some more concerns from the teachers.

Teachers, who may be more susceptible than students to COVID-19, were concerned upon hearing last month that state leaders considered it safe to return to school. Earlier Tuesday, the Texas State Teachers Association put out a statement asking Abbott to “slow down and put safety first” before reopening campuses this fall.

After the final guidelines were announced, the teachers association said they don’t go far enough. “Children younger than 10 will still be exempted from wearing masks in schools. Teachers of those children should be able to decide whether they want their students to wear masks,” said Clay Robison, spokesperson for TSTA. “Teachers who fear they will compromise their health by returning to campus should have the choice of teaching remotely, and it doesn’t look like TEA guidelines will require that.”

And the Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement criticizing the TEA for not providing “more explicit guidance” or including educators and parents in the decision-making process.

The guidance released Tuesday requires school employees to “meet the work expectations set by their employers” but does not include many specifics for at-risk teachers who may not feel safe going into schools.

Let’s be clear that nobody involved in this decision really knows what’s going to happen. As with everything else so far, it’s a lot of hope and not much else.

A draft version of this TEA guidance that wasn’t supposed to be made public was revealed last week. I drafted a post about it, then never got around to publishing it. But waste not, want not, so click on to read what I wrote then, which largely still applies. I hope this goes well. I fear it won’t. I worry for everyone involved.

This was from a week ago, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s inoperable now.

Texas public schools will be required to provide in-person instruction for students this fall, but state education officials have delayed releasing final public health guidelines for keeping them safe on campuses during the pandemic.

“We are unable to give final guidance today on on-campus instruction. We are actively monitoring the situation, and we will try to get out final information as quickly as possible,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said during a Tuesday briefing of school superintendents who had been expecting him to outline the agency’s reopening guidelines.

A draft document found on the Texas Education Agency’s website Tuesday showed agency officials are envisioning a largely hands-off approach to helping school districts bring students back to campus this fall, imposing few mandatory safety precautions but recommending that staff and students wear masks, sanitize their hands regularly and stay 6 feet away from one another.

The light-handed oversight role parallels the state’s overall approach to the coronavirus pandemic under Gov. Greg Abbott, with local officials, parents and students expected to devise their own strategies for protecting their health.

“These are draft documents. They were posted in the staging portion of the TEA website by mistake as part of an internal document review,” the agency said in a statement. “As we continue to closely monitor the public health situation, we are, in fact, still soliciting feedback on this guidance. No final decisions have yet been made. Additional guidance will be provided soon.”

Local school officials have been waiting on state guidance so they can begin making decisions as they plan for the start of a new school year. “I understand the pause in releasing those guidelines considering what’s going on with what seems to be a resurgence, particularly in our large, urban areas,” HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief Independent School District, told the Texas Tribune. “At some point, we gotta know because we have to make decisions.”

[…]

Many of the public health guidelines in the TEA’s draft document are suggestions and not mandates for how school districts can keep communities safe during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the draft, Texas will require school districts to publicly post summaries of their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19, based on the guidance, though the plans are not subject to government approval. And school districts are required to separate students who show COVID-19 symptoms at school until they can be picked up by a guardian, and clean the areas used by anyone potentially infected.

According to the draft guidance, school districts should require staff and students to “self-screen” for COVID-19 symptoms, including taking their own temperatures, before going to school each day. And school leaders should ask students at the beginning of each week whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have had close contact with someone who tested positive.

“Regularly performing a forehead temperature check of otherwise asymptomatic students in school is not recommended, but the practice is also not prohibited by this guidance,” the draft document states.

Some school districts, especially larger ones in urban and suburban Texas, have already decided to offer hybrid programs, teaching some students in person and some remotely.

At this point, given that we’ve had to pause reopening due to a surge in coronavirus infections, it should be clear that non-mandatory “guidance” based on voluntary compliance with best practices is a recipe for failure. We need to do better than that.

TEA officials recommend — but do not require — that local school leaders implement several health and safety protocols to fight the spread of the coronavirus. They include placing desks at least six feet apart, requiring students and staff to wear face masks, taking the temperature of teachers and other staff members at the start of each day and setting aside times for hand washing, among others.

The guidance does outline several mandates: people with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 must remain home while sick and meet three conditions before returning to school; school leaders must notify local health officials and school community members of individuals who were on-campus and tested positive; educators must provide instruction on hygiene practices on the first day of school.

“While it is not possible to eliminate all risk of furthering the spread of COVID-19, the current science suggests there are many steps schools can take to reduce the risk to students, teachers, staff and their families significantly,” the draft states.

[…]

The draft guidelines drew mixed reviews from the state’s largest teachers unions and employees groups.

Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said state leaders should issue a mask mandate for all people on campus. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association argued the TEA “must provide clear, enforceable parameters” for reopening schools that are set by state health care professionals.

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said his organization wants to see more flexibility for teachers concerned about returning to in-person classes.

“We would simply urge the state and school districts to listen to their employees and the recommendation of medical experts as they start developing these plans,” Holmes said. “There’s not going to be any one-size-fits-all plan for every district in the state — and even if they did, it probably wouldn’t work for every pocket of Texas.”

At least half a dozen other states have released guidelines on how local schools should work to reopen for in-person instruction as the pandemic continues.

I do think the goal should be to get kids back to school, at least for those whose health allows it. The state should be very flexible in allowing swing schedules and extended learning at home for those who need it, and in particular should be as accommodating as possible in counting st-home students in the attendance formulas that define how schools and school districts should be funded. Masks should be mandatory, available space should be used to maintain social distancing – there’s already plenty of experience from day care centers that we can learn from to keep everyone safe. Key to this is going to be a lot of willingness to adapt and change as new information comes to light, and to be as open and transparent as possible, to win the trust of parents who have every right to be scared and doubtful. We should want to have our kids back in school in the fall for many reasons – they need the social interaction, too many kids were never able to do distance learning this spring, many kids rely on schools for meals and other wraparound services, and of course parents need to be able to get back to work – but we need to do it safely, and we need to not leave any of that up to chance. We can’t afford to mess this up.

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3 Comments

  1. S. V. says:

    TEA themselves will not reopen until Jan 2021. Now, how it that being a leader? I ask them to come to a classroom and sit in everyday. Even though Morath is commissioner, he obviously does not know how schools really work.

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