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The proposed HISD charter partnership policy change

I don’t have a lot of time to dig into this, but there are a couple of things I wanted to touch on.

Parents, education advocates and a group of Houston elected officials including three Houston ISD trustees on Monday blasted a proposal by other school board members that would change the district’s policy surrounding charters, calling the measure dangerous to public schools and imploring it be taken off an agenda days before its first reading.

Revisions to the policy, which was initially issued in April 2018, would grant parents or guardians the authority to approve or turn down a partnership with a charter, or other entities permissible under the state’s education code, that is initiated by the district’s administration.

A detail of the proposed changes that garnered opposition would create a pathway for 60 percent of parents or guardians of an HISD school “to be served by a new or existing school,” according to a draft of the proposal, allowing them to initiate such a partnership.

The board of education is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal on Thursday morning, which has also drawn criticism as it will occur during working hours. While nearly 60 other policies will have a first reading this week it appeared the charter one was the only to have been presented by trustees; it included a line that called the proposed changes “boardmember-proposed revisions.”

Trustees Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Elizabeth Santos and Myrna Guidry stood with a group of parents and elected officials — including Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and various state representatives — at a Monday afternoon news conference opposing the proposed policy.

“This is not about giving parents voice in our school,” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education that organized the event. “Charter operators will promise the sun, the sky and the moon to get parent buy-in.”

Trustee Sue Deigaard, who represents HISD schools from parts of Montrose to southwest Houston, said the proposed changes could help the district with its deficit, and declining enrollment, as the partnerships give schools systems additional funds through a state law. The policy as it is gives the board and administration discretion over the decisions on such partnerships — and not much say to parents, she said.

HISD, the state’s largest school system, has about 195,000 students and is not projected to increase its enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, administrators told trustees during budget workshops. In 2015, for instance, HISD had about 215,000 students.

“We know from the budget conversations in the spring that we are going to have some really tough decisions ahead, possibly close schools,” Deigaard said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that the superintendent had that tool if he wanted to use that tool.

She added, “Here’s a sort of grounding value that I had in the process, really multiple grounding values: One was — how do we make sure we open up opportunities but make sure that we’re not doing anything that would be harmful. The other grounding principle was when we make these big decisions, such as a school closure or partnership, how do we ensure that we’re doing it with families and not to them.”

[…]

Deigaard said concerns about the policy were valid but in her view the proposal empowered parents to approve or disapprove such a change.

“I think it’s a very real fear for families to think, ‘Oh, my school is going to get partnered off,” Deigaard said. “If that’s not what they want, this policy says they don’t have to have that.”

This all bubbled up after a tweet on Saturday, which made a reference to this change but didn’t have anything specific. I wound up having a conversation with Sue Deigaard, who has always been very generous with her time when I have questions about complicated school stuff. There are a number of things that motivated this, including the possibility of utilizing underused space in existing schools and giving parents who aren’t currently sending their kids to HISD a reason to do so – she mentioned conversations with parents who want a particular type of program or school option that doesn’t currently exist. Countering the enrollment decline, and taking steps to keep HISD as a primary option for parents were a main message I took away from my conversation with her.

At a fundamental level, I trust Sue Deigaard – who, as I have said in previous posts, is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to when we were both at Rice – and I don’t believe there’s any appetite within HISD to give a bunch of power and money to charter schools. Your mileage may vary on these points. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about this proposal, as would be the case for any big proposal. The story notes that Superintendent House may not end up supporting it, if there isn’t sufficient public support for it. If so, then so be it. This is a first reading – it may not make it to second reading. I want to hear more about it. From there, we’ll see where it goes.

(Today is “move kid #1 into her college dorm day”, so I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’ll try to know more about this next time.)

HISD buys stuff for its police

Okay, but I hope the plan to deal with an active shooter has more than this in it.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday evening approved a measure to buy 200 rifles, ammunition and 200 ballistic shields for the district’s police department, which Superintendent Millard House II said last week was not prepared with its current equipment to stop an active shooter.

Trustees voted 6-3 on the purchase after spending roughly an hour in closed executive session discussing the item and about 20 minutes of intense discussion from the dais. Trustee Dani Hernandez proposed postponing the measure by a week because she was “not willing” to proceed without more specific information. That effort, however, failed with a 3-6 vote.

Earlier in the meeting, about a dozen speakers urged the board to delay the vote or to vote no.

“I need more information about the broader safety plan for the district in general. At this time, I don’t believe I have all the information I need,” Hernandez said before the vote. “I don’t think that we have explored all options at this point — safety is essential for HISD.”

HISD Police Chief Pete Lopez told the board last week he was confident in the training the police department had received but he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” The equipment to be purchased would be used to help with scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

“My officers are dedicated to our students and to our staff and regardless if we have the equipment or not, we are still going to respond,” Lopez said after the vote. “This act tonight will allow us to respond in a safer manner.”

The police gear will be for specific situations, not items that police will walk around with, House said.

“The bigger issue here is ensuring that they have all the tools possible so that they can be as safe as possible,” House said, “and provide the kind of safety that we want to provide on campuses.”

See here for the background. While in general I tend to think that most police departments have (and spend money on) too much stuff, I don’t have an opinion on this particular purchase. I’ll accept that they need it in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. I will just say again that all the manpower and equipment added up to diddly squat in Uvalde, so what I want – what I would think we would all want – is to know that there’s a plan in place for this kind of horrific scenario, and training in place to back it up. I still haven’t seen any talk about that, and that concerns me. Buying stuff is the easy part. Please reassure all of us that you’re at least working on the hard part, HISD.

How would HISD’s police respond to an active shooter incident?

It’s a question we would all rather not have to think about, but this is the world we live in. And at this time, the answer that Superintendent Millard House gave to that question was not reassuring.

Houston ISD’s police department would not be prepared should Texas’ largest school district be targeted by active shooter, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday night.

“I don’t know that this has garnered community insight but what I do know is that, if there was an active shooter in HISD, our police department is not prepared,” House said during an agenda review meeting.

His remarks were in response to questioning from Trustee Dani Hernandez regarding an item the board is expected to vote on during next week’s meeting for purchase of items worth more than $100,000. The specific agenda item includes various purchases for the school district’s police department.

House said the district would be buying 200 rifles, 200 ballistic plate shields and rifle ammunition.

“As we study the Uvalde scenario and looked at what … proper preparation that needs to be in place, officers would not have been prepared for what that looks like,” House said.

[…]

Hernandez asked what research was guiding HISD, instead of feelings. House asked HISD police Chief Pete Lopez to share information in response to her question.

Lopez said research showed police who were better prepared helped in stopping a shooter faster. He was confident about training the district’s police force — estimated to be more than 200 employees — had received. But he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” He said they needed scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

The school district has about 195,000 students.

“The equipment that I’ve requested is to provide additional training to teach the officers how to breach the doors, how to use those shields and also quickly enter that room and neutralize the suspect,” Lopez said. “And of course save our students and our staff.”

Like I said, nobody wants to have to think about this. Given that we have to, there are two things that I want to know up front, based on what we have witnessed from Uvalde. One is that there is always a clear definition of who is in command at such a scene. While it’s unlikely that DPS and Border Patrol would show up at an HISD school wit an active shooter, HPD and the Sheriff’s office will almost certainly have officers on the scene. Make sure that there is a written policy that says who is the leader, so that we don’t have a nightmare situation where dozens of cops are waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. And two, the policy must also state that the top priority is going after the shooter, again to avoid a repeat of what happened at Robb Elementary. Everything else, from best practices to training to equipment to whatever else can be provided for. First and foremost, we have to make sure that there’s a commitment to stop the person or persons responsible for the shooting. You wouldn’t think this is a thing that needs to be said, and to be clearly spelled out in an official document for which there would be severe consequences for now following it, but it is and we do. So let’s make sure we have one. Campos has more.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, HISD.

Superintendent House backs off a key piece of his budget plan

Sounds like he heard the concerns.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Wednesday said he would scrap a plan that would have centralized the funding of specific positions and programs, instead asking his administrators to come up with a plan that would let campus principals maintain control over their budgets while requiring they staff key positions and provide critical services.

“I have asked the leadership team to present a revised funding model that will create a more equitable baseline education for all students and maintain HISD’s commitment to campus-based budgeting that meets the specific needs of each unique student population,” House said in a letter to the Houston Independent School District community. “We will set clear expectations and hold each campus accountable for improving educational outcomes and eliminating achievement gaps for all students they serve.”

The letter said schools that have not had the money to invest in those key staff positions will receive additional funding to do so.

“All schools will be expected to provide a baseline education experience to all students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year,” the letter stated.

The development which House called a compromise, was the latest this week after House’s Chief of Schools, Denise Watts, told principals Monday the administration would be “revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy.”

In Wednesday’s letter, House said his decision was the result of hearing from trustees and “many of you.”

See here for the previous update. I’m fine with this, as the main goal of achieving equity is still in there. The details matter as much as before, and we will need to continue talking about how this will be done, what will change, how funding can be ensured, and so on. But this was a good step for the Superintendent to take. The Press has more.

Maybe not so fast on the HISD budget stuff

I’m OK with this.

The Houston Independent School District may reconsider proposed budget changes that would have centralized the funding of certain positions and programs, a top district official told principals Monday.

“Our cabinet team is revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy this week. As a result, we need to pause all budget meetings and your planning based on the previous allocation sheets,” Chief of Schools Denise Watts told principals via e-mail. “It is my hope that we will be able to communicate how to move forward soon. I apologize for any frustration or confusion that this may cause. I appreciate your flexibility and patience.”

[…]

Under the strategic plan, which aims to make the school system more equitable, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the plan calls for the district to centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

During the first workshops about the budget, several trustees had raised concerns about the lack of details they had received about the proposals, the speed at which the proposed changes would occur and how the district planned to pay for the strategic plan, which will be initiated with the help of federal COVID relief money.

“I am happy to hear the district is listening to the feedback,” Trustee Bridget Wade said Monday.

Wade last week tweeted that she was a “no” vote until she saw more research and data guiding the district. “The pause and redirect are a much needed start.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree with Trustee Wade, we need more time and data before we can move forward with this. I’m not making any judgments about Superintendent House’s proposals – as I’ve said, I generally like the goals, but the details very much matter, and so does buy-in from the stakeholders. Big changes need careful handling, and that takes time. I recognize that we can’t take forever, but we should take as much time as is needed, and we should very much listen to the concerns that have already been raised. I am hopeful this will proceed with all due care.

More on the HISD budget plan

Trustees make first contact with the Superintendent’s plans.

More than a month after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II unveiled a strategic plan aimed at making the district more equitable, trustees still have unanswered questions about how to pay for it and concerns about whether parents and community members understand some of the changes that would occur.

Chief among the changes prompting some of those questions is House’s call to centralize funding for certain positions and programs, a shift from the district’s decentralized system that empowers school principals to spend their budgets as they see fit.

Under the plan, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers, in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the district would centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

In interviews and during budget workshops this month, trustees largely have agreed that all campuses should have those staffers and programs but several say they want more information about how the changes will affect principals’ autonomy.

They also want to know how the district will pay for the initiative, which is projected to cost $255 million to implement in the first year of the five-year plan.

[…]

The district plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money and general budget funds to pay for the first year. Funding it in the other years, however, has not yet been discussed in great detail.

“This isn’t the first time that this type of change has been proposed, right? What I would like to see as a trustee is to see there is transparency around the process, that there is community understanding and buy-in,” said Trustee Judith Cruz, currently serving as board president, “and ultimately that there is alignment to the board’s vision and goals.”

Most recently, former Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed centralizing various staffing and budget decisions, but the plan fizzled out after he left the school system in 2018, less than two years into his tenure. His successor, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, said the district needed more outreach before changing its funding model.

The district was expected to create a committee to study resource allocation. It is not clear if it ever did.

Trustee Dani Hernandez asked House during a workshop Thursday if that group ever had been formed and produced any reports. House said he was not aware of any.

“I feel like it’s a lot more of a plan than it previously was,” Hernandez said after last week’s presentation. “I still have a lot of questions about it.”

Administrators have said the change will not be a complete abandonment of the district’s decentralized operations but more of a hybrid model in which principals still will make some budgeting decisions.

Duncan Klussmann, former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said the level of autonomy given to principals that often is associated with HISD could lead to different programming available to students across the district without “guardrails.”

2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board called for structural changes across the district after finding the decentralized model had delivered inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending.

“I think there is a balance that organizations are always looking to,” Klussmann said, “to try to figure out that right balance between campus autonomy and centralization.”

See here and here for the background. The story goes on to quote an expert who has some reservations about the plan and the speed with which it is moving forward. She and a colleague turned those concerns into this op-ed piece calling to slow things down.

Houston’s school board needs to take the time the city deserves to see if consolidating budget power back to the top is the right way to go. As such, we respectfully call for the board to stand up for the community and ensure a full public vetting process. It’s what such a monumental decision warrants before a well-established budget strategy with a lot of wins is ditched in the blink of an eye.

Those wins include the fact that the current model, known as weighted student funding, advances equity. Under the highly transparent model, the district gives schools more dollars for students with higher needs. Peer-reviewed research proves it: in fiscal year 2019, HISD spent $384 per student more on schools attended by the average low-income student than schools attended by other students. The weighted student funding strategy brought student achievement gains that won HISD the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. (The link between implementation and positive student test scores is documented in our research .) And while the district today clearly has ample room to improve, in a district like HISD with very limited dollars, there’s no wiggle room to get it wrong. It is these successes that led the school board to make weighted student funding a cornerstone of district strategy.

The Houston superintendent’s move goes against the tide of dozens of mega-districts that have adopted WSF in recent years — from Atlanta and Denver to Chicago and New York, Memphis-Shelby County and Metro Nashville — each posting equity gains as a result. Most recently, District of Columbia Public Schools approved weighted student funding, swayed by the evidence backing it. And in 2015, the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a pilot program enabling districts to expand their weighted student formulas to include federal funds as well.

We understand that the natural state of many districts is to centralize power over finances. But HISD’s board has long resisted that pressure, choosing instead to run a system that gives principals latitude in how best to staff their schools to meet differing student needs.

[…]

The district need not jettison weighted student funding to mandate that all schools apply an effective reading curriculum or offer fine arts — things that leadership has called for. The district can absolutely require all schools to offer certain programs or services under weighted student funding; principals simply keep the leeway to decide how best to deliver those offerings at their school. It’s the district’s responsibility to then hold principals accountable for outcomes.

So, a centralized funding model does not win more money for schools. It does, however, incur losses. Principals — who know their students and the strengths of their unique mix of staff — lose their flexibility to decide how to tailor their resources to meet the needs of their diverse students. And a proven track record of equity hangs in the balance.

In working with scores of districts through our national school finance research center, we can confidently say that Houston’s rush to change is unprecedented. We have never seen a big-city district so dramatically overhaul its finance model without at least two years of planning. And while the threat of a state takeover continues to hang over HISD, there is no evidence that the Texas Education Agency is demanding this rapid-fire shift.

As I said before, I generally support the goals of Superintendent House’s vision. I’m fine with taking all the time needed to study it and make sure that we’re not disrupting things that are working well or implementing things that don’t have empirical backing yet. I’m out of my depth beyond that, so that’s all the more reason why I’d say taking more time on this is worthwhile.

HISD’s budget plan

From the op-ed pages, a few words from Superintendent Millard House.

During a listening session at Chavez High School last September, a mother told me in tears that her child had to travel an hour each way to reach a magnet school. When parents and students don’t have options for a great education in their own neighborhood, it should not come as a surprise that Houston ISD has 20,000 fewer students enrolled since the 2016-2017 school year. While the COVID pandemic plays a major role in that number, enrollment had already begun dropping.

We need the trust of everyone in the community to turn things around. And to build that trust, as the superintendent, I must be frank.

When I was hired to lead the Houston Independent School District last summer, I believe I was clear-eyed about the opportunities and challenges I was taking on. If there was one thing that was not clear to me, it was the urgent financial challenges facing our district. Years of poor budgeting practices, unchecked waste and organizational inefficiencies combined with steady declines in enrollment have created a structural deficit that my administration could not have anticipated just a year ago. Now it’s time to do the work and start making the tough calls.

We have assembled a world-class team and built a five-year strategic vision for this district that — if we make hard choices and put students first in our decision-making — will stabilize the district and make it one of the few urban districts in the country that provides every student with an education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for success in life after graduation.

[…]

It is clear there are three things HISD must invest in to stabilize the district:

1. We cannot afford to lose any more students and we must bring new students into the district. Stabilizing and then growing enrollment is the single most important thing we can do to right-size the budget and meet our commitments to the Houston community.

2. We cannot afford to lose more experienced educators. When we lose teachers, kids suffer. We must pay our educators a competitive wage because it’s the right thing to do and HISD will not survive if we don’t.

3. We cannot afford the wasteful spending at the district- or campus-level that has not just created inefficiencies, but also exacerbated inequities across the communities we serve. We must centralize some aspects of school budgets to reduce costs and meet the needs of all children.

See here for more on the strategic plan. There are still a lot of details to be filled in, and of course there needs to be support for both from the community and the HISD Board. I like the overall direction, and I generally agree with the three points outlined above, though decades of “fiscal conservatism” mumbo-jumbo have left indelible scars that flare up in the presence of old saws about cutting waste and finding efficiencies like Harry Potter whenever He Who Must Not Be Named is up to something. We’ll see what the details and the next two budgets look like and go from there. The Press has more.

HISD lifts its mask mandate

A bit earlier than expected.

The Houston Independent School District will lift its mask mandate Tuesday, no longer requiring the use of face coverings at all facilities and buildings, district officials said Monday.

The change in policy at Houston ISD arrived three days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it measures community spread to account for hospitalizations in addition to caseloads. Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last week lowered the county’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant,” the second-highest possible threat level, while Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted a mandate that required city employees and visitors to municipal buildings to wear masks indoors.

“Masks within HISD schools, facilities, and school buses will become optional,” Superintendent Millard House II said in an e-mail to principals Monday morning. “Please encourage students, staff, and any other HISD stakeholders that may need an additional layer of protection or are exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.”

See here for the official announcement. I was expecting this to come in a couple of weeks, but here we are. My kids have been pretty dedicated mask wearers, so we’ll see what they and their friends do. I hope that we have done what we can to improve air circulation in the schools, and I hope this spurs some people to get their kids vaccinated. And I really really hope we don’t have to change directions again this semester. The Press has more.

HISD’s strategic plan

It sounds good. Let’s see what feedback it gets.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Thursday unveiled his long-awaited five-year strategic plan, offering an equity framework that would aim to equip all campuses with library, nursing and counseling staff, as well as fine arts, gifted and talented programming and special education support.

The plan also would increase teachers’ base salaries, offer signing bonuses to new educators, expand early childhood education and reorient how the district communicates with families.

HISD officials plan to outline the monetary details of the plan during a March 3 meeting to workshop the upcoming academic year’s budget. House said administrators have a “solid handle” on how the plan will be funded but declined to elaborate until that information is presented to the board in two weeks. Some initiatives will be funded with federal COVID-19 relief money.

“We know that everything that HISD does has a bearing on this great city,” House said. “When I say I am excited about the entire plan, I really am excited about the entire plan — from being able to compensate our educators in a manner that I know and think they deserve (to) being able to set a base system in terms of how we support our schools and a staffing plan, as well.”

The plan calls for increasing the range of teacher’s salaries by several thousand dollars over the next couple of years. Currently, teachers make between roughly $57,000 and $84,000, according to numbers shared Thursday. Under House’s plan, that range would increase by the 2024-25 school year to between $64,000 and $90,000. Additionally, the plan would implement raises for police officers, principals and assistant principals while updating the master pay scale for all of the district’s other support staff.

HISD also will offer signing incentives for new teacher hires; those with at least two years of experience who sign by April area expected to receive $5,000, and others would get $4,000. Teachers hired through August are expected to receive a $2,000 signing bonus. Meanwhile, current teachers who commit to teaching three more years at HISD will get signing bonuses each of the next three years — $500, $1,000 and $2,500, respectively.

[…]

The plan calls for centralizing the funding of specific materials and services to ensure all schools contain them, including fine arts and athletic programs; gifted and talented programming; special education supports; and substitute teachers.

The plan also would create a baseline of staffing to secure all campuses have 11 key positions staffed: principal, nurse or associate nurse, assistant principal or dean, counselor or social worker, librarian or media specialist, student information representative, physical education teacher, art or music teacher, administrative assistant, clerical worker and wraparound specialist.

The move appears to be a direct answer to community members, staffers and parents who attended a series of community forums last fall to make the case for nurses and librarians at all campuses.

See here for some background, and here for the message Superintendent House sent to parents. A copy of the strategic plan workshop is embedded in the story. The broad outlines of this sound good, but of course the details really matter. HISD has certainly tried to revamp its magnet school program in the past. It’s hard to do because it creates winners and losers, or at least the perception of such, and people who like what they have now aren’t usually all that happy to see it get changed. In five years’ time I won’t be an HISD parent any more, but I still care very much about getting this right, which among other things means doing it with the participation and buy-in of the community. I wish the Superintendent and the Board all the best with this. The Press has more.

HISD may lift the mask mandate after spring break

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD students will get an extra day spring holiday and will complete the last day of the first semester before the winter break next school year under a calendar approved by the board of trustees Thursday.

The board also faced a parade of speakers demanding the district lift its mask mandate. The item, however, was not on the board’s agenda.

Superintendent Millard House II said the district planned to continue following COVID infection and spread data and, if trends hold, may reassess its policies in early March and potentially lift the mask mandate by the time students return to classrooms after spring break.

“When school resumes on March 21, a scenario exists where masks will be optional,” House said. “We can only get there, as we know, if we all pull together and continue our efforts of mitigation that we know work.”

First, my kids (or at least the one who will still be in HISD next year; the other will be off at college) definitely appreciate having the fall semester end at the start of winter break. Neither of them liked having to deal with finals in January. I suspect they are not alone in this.

Second, HISD had previously considered lifting the mandate at the end of 2021, but chose to keep it in place as omicron began surging. The intent was always to review the policy and scale it back or take it down when it made sense to do so. Some other large urban districts have already taken this step. It’s a complex decision, one that needs to balance evidence that masking has some negative effect on kids, especially younger kids, with the reality that even a “milder” form of COVID can still wreak havoc as teachers and support staff get sick and have to isolate. Hopefully the numbers will stay down enough for this to make sense, and if we’re really lucky maybe we’ll get a longer lull before (sigh) another variant comes along. Here’s hoping for the best.

Back to school, kids

It’ll probably be fine. And honestly, there’s no appetite for anything else.

Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.

The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.

At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”

Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.

Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”

In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.

In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.

“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.

She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.

HISD’s mask mandate has been a big success, though it hasn’t really been tested by omicron yet. If people are properly wearing appropriate masks, they can protect themselves pretty well. Better ventilation and doing whatever possible outside is helpful. I’d feel a lot better if a whole lot more kids were getting vaccinated, but maybe getting them back into schools will nudge a few more in that direction. Some universities have pushed back the start of in person classes for their spring semester in favor of online learning, but I just don’t see that as viable for the independent school districts, at least not at this time. Mask, ventilate, vax, test, and isolate as needed, and we can get through this. I’m hoping for the best.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.

HISD will keep its mask mandate

This is in response to that recent Fifth Circuit ruling about mask mandates in schools and whether Greg Abbott’s ban on them violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Houston Independent School District will keep its mask mandate in place, district officials said Thursday, despite a federal appeals court ruling halting an injunction on Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting such requirements.

“The ruling does not impact the requirement that students, staff, and visitors must wear masks while on HISD property. This mandate remains in place for HISD schools,” the district said in a statement. “While we are heartened that we have maintained the lowest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the state and vaccinations are now available for our youngest students, HISD’s mask mandate will remain in place for students, staff, and visitors in all HISD schools, buildings, and buses regardless of vaccination status.”

HISD plans to review the mandate at the end of its semester after the holidays, Superintendent Millard House II said last month.

House implemented HISD’s mandate shortly before the start of the school year and the board of trustees voted to express support for it.

The district, by and large, has avoided significant backlash from individuals opposing the mandate, outside of a handful of parents who have addressed House and trustees at board meetings and during a recent series of community forums.

The district’s statement noted that HISD and other districts sued over the governor’s order in state district court. The lawsuit, it said, is based on state law regarding the authority of Texas school districts to make health and safety decisions for their students. It remains in litigation.

See here for more on the Fifth Circuit ruling. As noted, Superintendent House did say that HISD would consider lifting its mask mandate after the holidays if conditions continue to improve; who knows what will happen now that the omicron variant is out there. The federal lawsuit really didn’t have much bearing on HISD anyway, since they were among the plaintiffs that had sued Abbott in state court over his mandate ban, and won an injunction that as far as I know is still in place; besides, Abbott and Paxton don’t have any authority to enforce it anyway. The district and the Superintendent are doing the right thing. Keep on keeping on. The Press has more.

HISD will consider lifting its mask mandate

After the holidays, depending on how things go.

Houston ISD will consider changing its mask mandate policy after the winter break in the wake of expanded vaccine eligibility for youngsters and improving pandemic conditions in the city, Superintendent Millard House II said Monday.

House noted there have been spikes of COVID-19 infections following holidays since the pandemic began and said he would like to get through the winter holidays before deciding whether to lift the face-covering rule.

The district will seek feedback from the community about whether it should modify its mandate before making a decision, he said.

“We would like to get through the holidays and then we will come back from the holidays and consider what the data is telling us at that particular point,” House said. “And if we are continuing to push forward in the right direction — like we are heading right now — there will be consideration around, you know, not making the mask mandate mandated.”

[…]

Earlier this month, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reduced the threat level of COVID from “severe” to “significant” due to a decrease in new cases and hospitalizations. She encouraged unvaccinated persons to avoid gatherings, wear a mask and get a vaccine while asking those fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors due to significant transmission.

The Texas Medical Center reported 43 new hospitalizations on Sunday. Approximately 56.7 percent of the county’s population is considered fully vaccinated, per county data; that reflects nearly 69 percent of population aged 12 and older who are eligible for the vaccine. Across Texas, 54 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Dr. Omar Matuk-Villazon, a pediatrician and Chief Medical Officer at the UH College of Medicine, said he has heard from children who are excited to get a shot because they see it as a way to get rid of masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools, but he said discussing paths to getting rid of mandates is a worthwhile conversation.

“Let’s have every kid who wants to be protected get protected and then let’s decide after that,” Matuk-Villazon said. “We may lose public health care trust. … We need to have a plan.”

At HISD, House has repeated since implementing the mandate less than two weeks before a full return to in-person instruction in August that it could be changed, depending on the circumstances of the pandemic. During recent town halls, he told some parents who asked him to consider changing it that it was his hope to, when the time is right.

Since the start of school, the district of nearly 195,000 students, has logged 3,569 cumulative cases among kids and 496 among staffers. As of Monday, it reported 241 active cases, 213 of which were students and 28 staffers.

As the story notes, some area districts have already lifted their mask mandates, while others haven’t made any plans to do away with theirs. HISD is also partnering with the Houston Health Department to provide vaccines for children ages 5 and up at select schools. I’m basically fine with this plan, and if you’ve listened to any of my HISD candidate interviews, you know this combination of “more vaccinations plus a sufficiently low case rate” was the consensus view for when the mask mandate should be eased up. I don’t think we need to be in any rush, so waiting to see if there are any post-holiday spikes is a good idea.

HISD really has done a good job of keeping everyone safe so far this semester. I can tell you, the number of calls and emails I’ve gotten about confirmed cases at my kids’ schools is far less than it was last spring. We should want to get to a point where it’s safe to let people go maskless. I hope this means that the vax rate among HISD teachers and staffers is sufficiently high to pursue this, and I would be very happy for them to continue to enforce masking among those who aren’t vaxxed. They’re the risky ones, after all. In the meantime, let’s set this goal, and then work to make it reachable. It’s worth doing.

Runoffs will be on December 11

As is usually the case, the second Sunday in December for municipal and school board/community college runoffs.

Runoff elections will be held Dec. 11, the Harris County Elections Department announced Friday.

Four Houston ISD board seats, and individual council races for Bellaire and Missouri City, as well as a trustee race in the Houston Community College System will be decided in runoffs after none of those candidates won more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

Early voting is scheduled to begin Nov. 29 and end Dec. 7. Voters can cast ballots between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. during early voting, except for Dec. 5 when polls will be open from noon to 5 p.m.

Election day voting hours will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and permit individuals in line by the cutoff time to vote even if their ballot is not cast until later.

Elections officials said they must wait for a Nov. 8 deadline before completing a final canvass of results and officially announcing runoff races. Four of five open HISD board seats were forced into a runoff, per unofficial returns.

The runoffs include four HISD trustee races, one Houston Community College board seat, and a single city council race in Bellaire and Missouri City.

The HISD runoffs have the potential to bring significant change to the Board of Trustees, though I think in the end the effect is likely to be fairly small.

Three incumbents — Elizabeth Santos in District 1, Sue Deigaard in District 5, Holly Flynn Vilaseca in District 6 — all were the leading vote-getters in their races, but failed to garner at least 50 percent of the ballots cast. Trustee Anne Sung in District 7 finished about 4 percentage points, or 631 votes, behind challenger Bridget Wade in unofficial returns. Neither passed the 50 percent threshold.

The only HISD race decided by voters Tuesday was for District 9, where Trustee Myrna Guidry fended off two challengers with nearly 61 percent of the vote.

The outcome of the runoffs, which will be scheduled for next month, could alter the board just as the district has reached a sense of stability with new Superintendent Millard House II preparing a multi-year strategic plan and the district considering its first bond referendum in nearly a decade.

The district still faces a potential takeover threat by the Texas Education Agency, but that effort remains tied up in litigation.

Two paths led to runoffs, said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of education nonprofit Houstonians For Great Public Schools.

First, she said, there have been national conversations led by conservatives to encourage people to run for local office, sometimes by playing to racial divides and appealing to grievances, such as those surrounding mask mandates to fight the spread of COVID-19.

At the same time, and more locally, Jenkins said there may be voters who are happy with the district’s direction and current stability but wary of any board members “steeped in the dysfunction of years past.”

[…]

“I am still cautiously optimistic about what is to come no matter what the results of the runoffs are,” Jenkins said. “I am hopeful not just for stability and improved governance, but I am hopeful that the bold ideas of a new superintendent will be really supported and will be given shape by the vision and direction that the board gives him.”

I’m the least worried about Sue Deigaard, who came very close to getting fifty percent. Elizabeth Santos is in a similar position as she was going into the 2017 runoff, except this time she’s facing a Latina instead of an Anglo opponent. I think she’s a favorite to win again, but it’s not a sure thing. This is the one race where the ideology of the Board member won’t change that much either way, at least on the current hot button issues like masking and whatever the “critical race theory” debate is supposed to be about.

I think Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca is also the favorite to win in District VI, mostly because her opponent is a clueless perennial candidate, but the margin in round one was a lot closer than I would have liked. She’s going to need to work it to win, and I really hope she does because Kendall Baker would be a disaster on the Board. As for Anne Sung, she’s clearly in trouble. Running behind a candidate who has more money than you is never a good spot to be in. This is the one race in which the Chron will have to redo their endorsement, and I’ll be very interested to see if they care more about Bridget Wade’s opinions on those hot button issues or the quality of Anne Sung’s apology in the Saavedra/Lathan open meetings fiasco. They either overlooked or didn’t notice the “critical race theory” issue with their initial endorsement, so we’ll see.

As for HCC, we’re stuck with Dave Wilson again sigh but at least the runoff in District 8 between incumbent Eva Loredo and challenger Jharrett Bryantt isn’t a threat to the board’s functioning. Please remember that these elections are as important as the November elections, and make a plan to vote if you live in one of these districts.

Superintendent House’s listening tour

I like what he’s been doing.

During his first week as Houston ISD’s superintendent in July, Millard House II said he welcomed feedback from everyone, especially those who long have been left out of important discussions.

He has been receiving a steady stream of feedback on small comment cards and at microphones at a series of town hall meetings.

Residents, employees and parents have complained to the leader of the state’s largest school district about campuses that have been neglected, asked him about how he plans to address issues, both new and old, and have urged him to prioritize children.

Specifically, House has heard about transportation woes exacerbated by a driver shortage, the district’s struggles to appropriately educate students with special needs, the neglect of school libraries and unequal access to resources and funding across the district.

The issues have been brought to House’s attention at a series of town halls he hosted in recent weeks.

The discussions are expected to inform conversations about his first strategic plan for HISD as its superintendent. In a brief interview, House said the gatherings were just the first step in collecting information for the plan, the first draft of which he hopes to have ready in the next couple months.

As speakers lined up at microphones, House cautioned audiences he still was new to the role and did not know everything.

“I am just over the 60-day mark, so I am not going to have answers for you this evening,” he said Wednesday at Booker T. Washington High School. “My purpose in being here is to hear you and then to infuse what you are providing to me as a superintendent and let you hold me accountable when it is all said and done.”

At each meeting, House emphasized the strategic plan will not be his or the Board of Education’s but “our” plan.

From the rest of the story, he seems to be doing a good job hearing what people are telling him and taking action, often getting the person asking the question involved in the solution. Each of the HISD trustees and candidates I’ve interviewed so far has had positive things to say about Superintendent House. It’s early, and whatever plan he comes up with to deal with things like special ed and improving underperforming schools and more equitably distributing HISD resources will surely have its share of critics. But he seems to be going about this the right way, and of course we all want him to succeed. There’s a lot on the line here, and we have no time to lose.

More on the Mac Walker ballot name situation

Good move by HISD.

Mac Walker

Houston ISD on Tuesday took responsibility for failing to include the nickname of a trustee candidate when it entered his name in a county elections office portal.

Lee “Mac” Walker, vying for district 7, said last week he learned of the issue when a voter asked whether he was on the ballot. On his application to run, he listed his preferred name — Mac — as the name he wanted identified on the ballot. He has been campaigning under the nickname.

He is listed on the ballot, however, simply as Lee Walker.

“HISD acknowledges and takes responsibility for the error in inputting Mr. Walker’s name into the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office Entity Portal,” district officials said in a statement Tuesday. “Corrective actions and systems in the Office of Board Services have been put into place to ensure that this does not happen again.”

County elections officials said last week the name cannot be changed on the ballot, citing the resources and time required to perform a logic and accuracy test for the entire election before voting begins.

HISD said it will use both Walker’s legal and preferred name in election notices it is required to publish in a newspaper, on the bulletin board used for posting board meeting notices and on its website.

The district said it additionally will publish election notices in the Forward Times, La Voz and Vietnam Post and mail notices of the Nov. 2 election to registered voters in all five of the single-member districts having an election.

See here for the background. Sometimes you make a mistake that can’t be corrected. When that happens, you can at least make amends, and do everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s what HISD has done here, and as someone who wants fair elections, I appreciate it. It’s not the best of all possible situations, but it was the best they could do given what had already happened. That’s all you can ask.

Looking for the missing students

More important than usual this year.

The state’s largest school district recorded a first-day enrollment of 172,091 students, a significant decrease compared with previous years. It is not uncommon for enrollment to lag, even to its lowest point of the year, in August.

While numbers reported later in the fall typically provide a more accurate depiction of a district’s student body, HISD’s enrollment in recent weeks has slowly risen to about 190,000 as of last week, according to House, but remains lower than the nearly 200,000 who finished last school year.

Still, [HISD Superintendent Millard House II] said before embarking on the home visits Saturday, the district is on pace to reach its target of about 197,000 students.

“Student reengagement efforts are ongoing, and it is our goal to facilitate outreach to the families of all students who have left HISD,” he said. “We are not here to judge, we are here to support. That is very important for us to understand. So, as we knock on doors this morning, we are here to ensure that we get these babies back in classrooms so that they can get the kind of support they need.”

HISD is not alone.

The Texas Education Agency registered a decrease last year of statewide enrollment from the previous year for the first time since it began collecting enrollment data.

There were roughly 5.37 million students enrolled in schools across Texas last year, a 2.2 percent decrease — about 122,354 students — from the prior year, agency officials wrote in a June report.

[…]

Such problems — having an outdated address or phone number as a student’s contact information — are par for the course for Burl Jones, a student outreach worker at HISD, who said he goes on “wild goose chases all the time” as he tries to get students back into classrooms.

COVID-19 made it worse. Some students did not have access to the internet early on, and some parents remain skeptical of vaccines or health protocols.

“Sometimes, people will be there, they won’t answer the door. Or you have an address on file for them and they don’t actually live there,” Jones said. “That is what it is out there, man, that is the real world. … I do what it takes to find them. It’s like, I am an investigator. I don’t give up. I get a joy out of recovering these kids.”

HISD also has held several phone banking sessions, including in partnership with Houston Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest employees union.

I’m sure there are more kids homeschooling this year than usual, but for sure there are kids who are simply missing from the rolls. We know there were many kids last year during remote schooling who never logged on, for whatever the reason. Kids have already lost a lot of ground, so it’s extra important to make sure no one gets left behind. I sure hope they can find everyone.

We really need a mask mandate at every school district

Or we can just accept a lot more hospitalized kids. Easy choice if you ask me.

The number of Texas children hospitalized with COVID-19 hit an all-time high over the weekend, with 345 on Saturday and 307 on Sunday, the highest two-day stretch recorded during the pandemic, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The data follows a national trend of rising pediatric COVID hospitalization rates. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday shows the highest rate of increase among teenagers and children 0-4 years old. The study also found unvaccinated adolescents were 10 times more likely to need hospitalization compared to their vaccinated peers.

Children under 12 are ineligible for any of the available COVID-19 vaccines.

School reopenings and “pandemic fatigue” are two primary reasons for the statewide increase, said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas and author of the popular blog “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

“The more that kids interact with each other, the more this is going to transmit,” she said, adding, “We really need to step up our mask game. Parents really need to invest in good masks to wear for their school.”

She urged parents to buy N95 masks for their children and to “lead by example” with their own mask-wearing habits.

Multiple studies have shown masks help reduce COVID transmission indoors. The CDC study also recommends universal masking in schools, where cases are soaring in Texas. The state health department on Aug. 29 recorded 51,904 COVID cases among Texas students since the 2021-22 school year began.

I mean, we’re a year and a half into this pandemic. We do know all this stuff already. I get that some people are tired of doing pandemic things, but 1) if said person is not vaccinated then they can just STFU right now, as this is all their fault, and 2) as the kids say, we may be done with the pandemic but it’s not done with us.

Thankfully, HISD is doing it right.

While outbreaks have forced some districts to close schools already, Houston ISD has fared comparatively well two weeks into its school year.

By midday Friday, the state’s largest district of nearly 200,000 students had confirmed 1,085 active cases among students and staffers, according to its dashboard.

The most important mitigation strategy the district could implement is one it already has in place — ensuring people wear masks, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday.

“As we look at the data in our schools, yes we have COVID cases,” House said during an agenda review meeting. “But if we look at the percentage of spread in our schools in comparison to the number of kids that we have, it looks — it does not look bad in comparison to some of the other schools that don’t have mandates in place.”

Health professionals agree the mask mandate may be helping HISD reduce the risk transmission inside its classrooms, even as kids younger than 12 remain ineligible to be inoculated and the delta variant continues to spread mostly unchecked in the Houston area.

“I attribute it to that,” said Dr. Quianta Moore, Huffington Fellow in child health policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “There are some schools that the parents and the community are wearing masks and they are also having low transmission.”

As I said before, I don’t want to get overconfident, but again, we know that masking helps. Given the risks, the current legal status, and the complete lack of consequences for defiance, I can’t think of any good reason for a school district to not have a mask mandate in place. We’re either trying or we’ve given up.

HISD starts its year

Good luck, kids. You too, parents.

For the second straight year, Houston ISD is set to welcome back nearly 200,000 students in the midst of a pandemic.

The similarities between last year and Monday’s reopening end there, however.

HISD entered the 2020-21 school year with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Harris County on a downward slope. Nonetheless, the district began the year online and did not open its campuses until October. Nearly half its students finished the school year learning remotely even as case numbers had waned toward the end. Those who returned to campus remained masked up, socially distanced, and in some cases, behind plexiglass.

This year, the district is plunging right in, offering limited remote learning to vulnerable kids, requiring face masks but relaxing social distancing requirements while the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations are rising higher than ever, driven by the highly contagious delta variant and a lagging vaccination rate in Harris County.

Many of those cases involve young people, including some under 12 unable to be vaccinated. Eighteen percent of all the new cases in the Texas Medical Center this month have been children, President and CEO Bill McKeon said.

A look at COVID numbers in the surrounding districts, most of which have been open for less than two weeks, provides a glimpse into what the largest school district in the state could face when it opens its doors Monday.

A week and a half into the school year, Conroe ISD reported 1,487 students and 143 employees were isolated with symptomatic or test-positive COVID-19. Fort Bend ISD disclosed 536 total cases among students and staff. At Spring ISD, officials had 139 active student cases on the seventh day back.

On Friday, HISD had 157 active cases. The district finished last year with 2,037 total cases among students and another 1,600 among staff, according to state figures.

“We are really shoveling water out of the boat as we go because the cases are going up. The cases are jumping into the boat while we are shoveling them out of the boat,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II said of the region’s surge. “We are doing the best job we can, being as strategic as we can — keeping students and staff first in every decision that we make.”

It is what it is at this point. I forget where I saw it, but I came across the observation that HISD and other school districts were planning over the summer to emphasize making up for lost ground this year, and instead they’re having to deal with another form of the pandemic. The school year starts as the case rate is as high as it’s been since February, young kids still can’t be vaccinated, and the district is fighting to be able to enforce its mask mandate. I’m happy with the way Superintendent House has handled this so far, and I’m cautiously hopeful that we can get through the worst of this and be in a good place when we do. If you have schoolkids like I do, good luck and stay safe.

Yes, the wastewater is also pointing to a COVID surge

In case you were wondering.

There is more COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater system now than at any time in the pandemic, city officials said Wednesday, the latest warning that the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said there is more than three times as much virus in the system as there was last July. The volume also is higher than in January, during the most recent spike. Persse said that wastewater data, a precursor to other data points, show the surge will only grow worse in the coming weeks.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before,” Persse said. “The wastewater predicts what we’ll see in the positivity (rate) by two weeks, which predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks.”

[…]

The findings came during a news conference in which the city announced it will partner with Harris County and up to 17 school districts to vaccinate students over 12 and their families every Saturday in August, an effort they are calling “Super Saturday.” The inoculations will occur in school buildings throughout the region.

Persse described the state of the surge in stark terms, pointing to dire situations in area hospitals and rising cases and hospitalizations. The Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital declared an “internal disaster” Sunday night amid a nursing shortage and an influx of patients, circumstances officials said are occurring in other area hospitals, as well.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon earlier this week said the region is “headed for dark times,” and the hospital system has exceeded its base intensive care capacity, opening unused wards to care for new patients.

“If you are currently unvaccinated, you need to consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself, and others, and most particularly your own family,” Persse said. “If you are not vaccinated… your chances getting through this without having to become either vaccinated or infected, is essentially zero.”

Just over 64 percent of Houstonians over 12 have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to city data, and 54.3 percent are fully vaccinated. The numbers among youth residents are more paltry, though: 28.1 percent of 12-17-year-old Houston residents are fully vaccinated, and 38.5 percent have received their first dose.

“If your child is 12 or older, stop and get them the shot,” said Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II. “Increasing vaccination rates among our communities will help ease the worries of our families and their children returning to school.”

This is another one from earlier in the month, as things were really starting to get bad. We are familiar with this project, and it has been a big success. I just wish it had better news for us, but this is where we are. Getting more of those 12-and-older kids vaccinated would make a big difference as well, so I hope that effort is successful. We’re on our own, so we’d better act accordingly.

HISD warns of “consequences” for not complying with their mask mandate

Consequences are, well, a natural consequence of non-compliance.

Houston ISD students and employees who refuse to wear masks when the school year begins could face discipline and be forced to temporarily learn online under new guidelines released by the district.

With exceptions and reasonable accommodations made for people with a “documented medical disability,” the district’s updated back-to-school plan, released Friday evening, says that those who refuse to comply with the mask mandate will face consequences.

HISD Superintendent Millard House II implemented a mask requirement on all students, staff and visitors to all campuses and facilities last week, with the support of the board of trustees.

Under the new rules, laid out in the district’s “Ready, Set, Go” plan, if a student is not wearing a mask, one will be provided. Students who refuse to wear masks will be “placed in a separate area” and their parents or guardians contacted. Students who continue to refuse to use face masks will be directed to stay home, marked absent and offered temporary online learning. Kids who refuse to wear face coverings on buses also may have their transportation privileges suspended.

An employee who refuses to wear a mask will be sent home for one day on administrative leave. A second occurrence will result in the employee being sent home and his or her personal time docked. If an employee violates the mandate a third time, he or she will face discipline, be sent home and personal time docked.

[…]

Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she thinks HISD Superintendent Millard House is making the right move with the new rules.

“I feel that he’s trying to do what is best for staff and students,” she said. “Employers have a right to do what they think is best for their employees.”

However, like all disciplinary actions, the union will defend its members who face consequences for not wearing masks.

“We would defend any member facing any disciplinary action,” she said. “We have an obligation to do that.”

See here for some background; I missed the story where HISD approved the proposal. I agree completely with this approach. Put the burden on the people who refuse to comply. There’s no better way to maximize compliance. We’ll see what the legal situation looks like on Monday, but I fully support this approach.

The alternative looks something like this:

With the official return of students to campuses in Katy ISD slated for Wednesday, Aug. 18, the district reports it currently has 100 reported cases of COVID-19 throughout the district.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, the hardest-hit campuses are among the biggest in the district including:

Katy High School with six cases, including three staff members and three students.

[…]

While not mandated, the district encourages students and staff to wear face coverings when indoors, particularly for kindergarten through sixth-grade students until a COVID-19 vaccine is approved for students those ages.

Social distancing is encouraged, when possible.

Or this:

A small school district in West Texas has apparently become the first in the state this school year to temporarily shut its doors due to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community.

An official of the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District, with fewer than 400 students, announced Monday that it will close as of Tuesday and aims to reopen Aug. 30.

“This decision was made to ensure the safety of our students and staff as well as to make certain that we have appropriate staff available for each campus,” Superintendent Tracy Canter said in the statement.

Two small East Texas school districts — Bloomburg and Waskom — also planned to cancel classes at some schools this week due to the coronavirus, The Dallas Morning News reported.

[…]

The district’s back-to-school plan said masks were not required but were strongly encouraged.

Over the last week, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Pecos County, where Iraan is located, have risen from 9.5% to about 14.5% of hospital capacity, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

This is what “voluntary compliance” will get you. Give me mandatory compliance, if you want better results.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

Fort Bend joins the lawsuit parade

Come on in, the water’s fine.

As the Delta variant drives a pandemic surge, Fort Bend County officials on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local government from implementing public health mandates.

“I’ll do all I can to protect the public health, and the people of Fort Bend County,” Judge KP George tweeted. “I hope others will join me in following the science and listening to local doctors and the CDC to act swiftly and decisively.”

The county filed a lawsuit in district court requesting a temporary restraining order to challenge the Republican governor’s order. George, a Democrat, and other county leaders had scheduled a news conference for Wednesday afternoon.

County commissioners met in a closed special session at 3 p.m. Wednesday to deliberate with an attorney and discuss potential responses to rising COVID-19 infections, according to the meeting agenda.

The story has no further detail, so I will just assume this is along similar lines as the others so far.

We now have our first official response from the powers that be, and as one might expect, it’s arrogant and jerky.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday he plans to appeal a pair of rulings by judges in Dallas and San Antonio that allow local officials in those cities to issue mask mandates, with possible decisions from the Texas Supreme Court by the end of the week.

The temporary rulings override Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that bars local officials from requiring face coverings. They came in response to legal challenges from top elected officials in the Dallas and San Antonio areas, who argued Abbott overstepped his emergency powers by preventing the local mandates. The rulings also pointed to a rapid ongoing rise in COVID hospitalizations across the state, particularly in large cities.

Paxton said Wednesday he expects a quick ruling in his favor from the state’s top civil court.

“I’m hopeful by the end of the week or at least early next week we’ll have a response from the Texas Supreme Court,” Paxton told conservative radio host Dana Loesch. “I’m going to tell you right now, I’m pretty confident we’re going to win that.”

[…]

Paxton argued on the talk show Wednesday that the Texas Legislature had granted Abbott the power to ban local COVID restrictions, including mask mandates, through the sweeping Texas Disaster Act of 1975. He also downplayed the early court win by Jenkins.

“The reality is, he’s going to lose,” Paxton said. “He may get a liberal judge in Dallas County to rule in his favor, but ultimately I think we have a Texas Supreme Court that will follow the law. They have in the past.”

We’ll see about that. For what it’s worth, there was one Republican district court judge in Fort Bend who wasn’t challenged in 2018, so there’s at least a chance that he could preside over this case. The crux of the argument here is that it’s Greg Abbott who isn’t following the law. I agree with Paxton that the Supreme Court is going to be very inclined to see it Abbott’s way, but I’d like to think they’ll at least take the plaintiffs’ arguments into account.

Later in the day, we got the first words from Abbott as well.

“The rebellion is spreading across the state,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Abbott — under intense pressure from some on his right to hold the line against local officials who want to require masks — now is trying to quell that rebellion.

Hours after Jenkins signed his mandate, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton announced they would go to court to block Dallas County’s top official — asking the 5th Court of Appeals to overturn the state district judge’s decision that allowed Jenkins to move forward. The two men threatened to sue any government official who defies Abbott’s order.

“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement.

Yeah, that’s what has gotten us to this situation in the first place. I will confess that I’m surprised it has taken this long for Abbott to speak up. He’s never been shy about quashing dissent, and as this story notes the right wing scream machine has been fulminating about his lack of action. Those days are clearly now over.

We got another peek at the state’s response in this story about the larger revolt by cities and school districts against Abbott’s mask mandate ban.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon before state District Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga, a city attorney argued that Abbott had exceeded the bounds of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which the governor cited in suspending local authority to impose COVID restrictions.

“The Texas Legislature has given cities and counties broad authority within the Texas Health and Safety Act,” said Assistant City Attorney Bill Christian. “Only the Legislature has the authority to suspend laws.”

Kimberly Gdula, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, pointed to an appellate court ruling last November that upheld Abbott’s ban on local business restrictions. She also argued that the city and county were asking the court to improperly “throw out” parts of the Disaster Act.

Interesting, but I don’t know how to evaluate it. When there are some actual opinions and not just temporary restraining orders pending the injunction hearings, we’ll know more.

It’s possible there may be another avenue to explore in all this.

President Joe Biden says the White House is “checking” on whether he has the power to intervene in states like Texas where Republican leaders have banned mask mandates.

Asked whether he has the power to step in, Biden responded: “I don’t believe that I do thus far. We’re checking that.”

“I think that people should understand, seeing little kids — I mean, four, five, six years old — in hospitals, on ventilators, and some of them passing — not many, but some of them passing — it’s almost, I mean, it’s just — well, I should not characterize beyond that,” Biden said.

[…]

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration is “looking into ways we can help the leaders at the local level who are putting public health first continue to do their jobs.” She said those include efforts to “keep students safe and keep students in school” and that the U.S. Department of Education “and others” are working on it.

Insert shrug emoji here. I don’t know what this might look like, but I believe they will be creative in looking for a possible point of leverage.

Finally, on a side note, Fort Worth ISD implemented a mask mandate on Tuesday. We are still waiting for HISD to vote on the request by Superintendent Millard House to implement one for our district. The Board meeting is today, I expect this to be done with little fuss from the trustees.

Dallas ISD to require masks

Good for them.

Starting Tuesday, Dallas ISD will require students and teachers to wear masks at its campuses, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that bars districts from issuing mask mandates.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the change during a Monday morning press conference, saying that it was within his discretion to ensure the health and safety of his employees and the district’s students.

“We’re in a situation that has gotten significantly more urgent,” Hinojosa said.

Dallas is the first district in the state to flout the governor’s order; Houston — the state’s largest district — is considering such a move. Its new superintendent, Millard House II, announced last week that he would bring a mask mandate in front of Houston trustees at their next board meeting, Aug. 12.

School officials say it’s necessary in the face of the highly contagious delta variant. The youngest students remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a statement, Ben Mackey, Dallas’ board president, said he was fully supportive of Hinojosa’s stance.

“The superintendent is the educational leader and chief executive officer of our school district tasked with the day-to-day operations of the district, which includes implementing safety protocols,” Mackey said. “Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the new delta variant.

“Towards the end of last school year, we saw very low transmissions rates on campuses, thanks in part to masks being worn consistently by educators and students.”

Abbott’s executive order, issued in May, bars public schools and the Texas Education Agency from issuing any requirements on mask usage. Those who defy Abbott’s order could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. It’s unclear how such a penalty could be applied to school districts.

Asked about a potential fine, Hinojosa responded: “Who knows?”

“All this is going to play itself out, and we’re not going to be the only ones taking this action,” Hinojosa said.

That certainly seems to be the case, as we have discussed before. HISD will vote on whether or not to follow through on Thursday, while Austin ISD may have made a decision by now as well. There’s also this:

Meanwhile, the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, filed a lawsuit Sunday night in Travis County against Abbott and his executive order prohibiting school districts, governmental bodies or any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds from requiring masks.

In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, the group seeks to give the power to enforce mask wearing back to local school districts, said Hank Bostwick, volunteer center coordinator and lawyer.

[…]

The lawsuit claims that Abbott is overreaching his authority and that his emergency powers should be used to take proactive steps and “not to advance an anti-mask political agenda that has no discernible basis in the data regarding the COVID-19 contagion rate.”

“This is purely political gamesmanship, and has nothing to do with the health and safety of Texas children or their teachers,” Bostwick said.

The lawsuit highlights that people of color are still lagging behind in vaccination rates and getting these families back in schools without proper protection makes them vulnerable to an increased rate of infection.

“The threat to the health and safety of Texas public school students and teachers is imminent and real,” the lawsuit states.

The group also claims that the governor is in violation of Texas education code because children with disabilities “are entitled to learn and interact with their non-disabled or typical peers in a safe and healthy educational environment.” The order not allowing masks means some of these students may be unable to attend school in-person if masking is not required, the lawsuit claims.

I looked around but was unable to find anything else about this lawsuit. From the Trib story, it seems they are making a couple of statutory claims – the Governor does not have the legal authority under the law to forbid school districts (and presumably other local governmental entities) from forbidding them from adopting mask mandates, and the lack of a mask mandate violates state law about providing an equal educational opportunity to all students. This Chron story suggests that these plaintiffs are not alone in that position.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee contends Abbott is misusing the Disaster Act. He cautioned that the governor’s power “is not absolute.”

“While he acknowledges that COVID is a health crisis that needs addressing, he then bars measures that would help mitigate this disaster,” the county attorney said in a statement. “The Disaster Act doesn’t allow him to do that, and local county and city officials should be able to take actions needed to stop the spread of COVID — including issuing a mask mandate.”

It would be fine by me if the Harris County Attorney were to take more direct action on that point. It may well be that this legal argument fails in court, but I see no harm in making that argument, as forcefully as possible. Maybe it’s Greg Abbott who is wrong in his interpretation of the law. Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Only one way to find out.

UPDATE: The Chron writes about the SCCA suit but has no further details.

UPDATE: Austin ISD will require masks as well.

There needs to be more defiance of Greg Abbott and his no-mandates mandate

I find a bit of a pattern in this story and wonder if there may be something to it.

School districts, local officials and hospitals are pushing back on Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates, setting the stage for legal showdowns over coronavirus safety measures just as cases are surging in Texas and hospitals are filling up.

Houston ISD signaled its intention to require face coverings when students return this month. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston requested an exemption to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for staff, but was denied. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins required face masks at a meeting this week; he’s now being sued.

[…]

Dr. Mark McClellan, who advised Abbott earlier in the pandemic, said local officials need flexibility based on conditions in their area.

“There is evidence that wearing a mask, especially at times of high community transmission which Texas has right now, does help significantly,” said McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

“I appreciate that wearing a mask is inconvenient, I would rather not do it,” he said. “But if there are high rates of transmission in the community I think it’s important for local authorities to have the ability to make a decision that works best for their students and their population.”

Early last year, Abbott said he would rely on data and doctors in making decisions to promote public health. McClellan was one of Abbott’s four original medical advisors, but is no longer playing that role.

Abbott has remained in regular contact with one of the original advisors, Department of State Health Services head Dr. John Hellerstedt, since the beginning of the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Renae Eze. Hellerstedt did not answer questions about whether he agreed with Abbott’s executive order.

[…]

It remains to be seen whether other school districts follow suit in defying Abbott’s order. El Paso officials wrote to Abbott this week urging him to give school districts a choice in whether to require masks or not. Dallas ISD did not respond to a request for comment.

Violations of Abbott’s order can result in a fine of up to $1,000. Georgina Pérez, a State Board of Education member from El Paso, volunteered to raise money to help pay fines for school districts that defy the governor’s order by mandating masks.

“Knowingly not protecting children from harm goes against everything that teachers stand for,” she said.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether any fines have been levied to date. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has faced no pushback since he told the city’s roughly 20,000 workers on Monday to resume wearing masks at work, according to a spokesperson.

[…]

Some institutions that sought exemptions from Abbott’s order have been rejected. The latest version blocks a wide swath of government entities, including cities, counties, universities and publicly funded hospitals, from requiring staff get the vaccine while full FDA approval is pending.

The University of Texas Medical Branch would want to require vaccination of its frontline clinical staff and requested an exemption, but was told to abide by the governor’s order, according to Dr. Janak A. Patel, director of the Department of Infection Control & Healthcare Epidemiology.

Dr. John Zerwas, the UT system’s vice chancellor for health affairs, raised the exemption request with Abbott recently, who was not willing to change his position, he said.

Parkland Hospital, a publicly funded organization that falls under Abbott’s order, plans to require its employees get vaccinated as soon as the FDA fully approves the shot. In anticipation, Parkland alerted staff this week that the first dose will be required by Sept. 24 and the second — or single Johnson & Johnson dose — by Oct. 15. Approximately 71% of staff are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

“These steps are necessary to protect Parkland’s complex patient population who, due to their socio-economic status, often have no choice in where they receive care,” said Michael Malaise, senior vice president of communications and external relations for Parkland, in an email.

The main thing I notice is that for the most part, the entities that have just gone ahead and done the thing they wanted to do that was in violation of Abbott’s executive orders have – so far – not received any pushback for doing so. The exception is Dallas County Commissioners Court, which got a stern letter from Ken Paxton after barring one of the commissioners from entering without a mask, but even that letter didn’t spell out any particular actions Paxton would take. The difference between UT Medical Branch hospital and Parkland Hospital is particularly instructive. Moreover, even if a cease-and-desist letter or some other legal action comes down on Parkland, by the time the dust settles they probably will have gotten some number of previously unvaxxed employees to get their shots, and that’s all that matters.

So, my advice to El Paso ISD and austin ISD, which may be considering its own mask mandate, is to just do it. Mask mandates are something that a lot of parents want, especially parents of medically fragile children or who have immunocompromised family members at home, and especially given the limited remote learning opportunities that exist now. The thousand-dollar fine, which doesn’t appear to have a clear mechanism for enforcement, isn’t very much even if it’s a thousand dollars a day, and that may be challenged in court on the grounds that it is discriminatory against students with health issues. But really, it’s the right thing to do, and maybe – just maybe – Abbott has gotten out a bit over his skis here. For sure, asking is going to get you nowhere. Take action and take it now, if all else fails it should be something that can be taken back. Do what you must to protect the kids.

UPDATE: Someone agrees with me:

HISD to consider mask mandate

This would be a big deal, for all the obvious reasons.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday he plans to bring a mask mandate for ratification to the district’s board meeting next week, setting the stage for the state’s largest district to potentially buck a gubernatorial executive order banning such mandates.

Under the proposed mandate, all district students and employees would be expected to wear masks in facilities and buses, House said during Thursday evening’s board meeting.

If approved, the mandate would be among the first of its kind issued by a public school district in the Houston area, and apparently the state, since Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting such directives.

[…]

It was not clear Thursday night if other districts plan to follow House’s initiative.

“We know that we are going to get pushback for this,” House said. “We are not going to be able to please everybody. But what we have to understand is: If we have an opportunity to save one life, it is what we should be doing.”

In revealing the proposal, House noted Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and cited an increasing two-week positivity rate in the county and skyrocketing hospitalizations.

“As superintendent of schools of the largest school system in the state of Texas, that concerns me,” House said. “It concerns me greatly.”

If approved, the mandate will bring the district closer to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in updated guidance suggested all individuals in schools not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear a mask indoors.

Children younger than 12 remain unable to get vaccinated.

Abbott’s order prohibited governmental entities from requiring masks. Any local governments or officials who tried to impose such an order could be subjected to a fine of up to $1,000, according to Abbott’s office.

It was not clear how the fine would be given to school districts that challenged the order or whether any entities that announced mandates this week had been fined already.

Here’s the statement from Superintendent House. As noted, Harris County is back at the highest threat level, and Mayor Turner has ordered city workers to wear masks, also presumably in violation of Abbott’s order, so far without any repercussions. It’s hard for me to imagine that Abbott would let this go by, but all we can do is process the events that occur.

Also as noted, other Houston-area school districts were not planning to defy Abbott, though I’m sure they’re watching to see what happens here. What’s puzzling and infuriating is that the updated TEA guidance to school districts says that schools now don’t have to inform parents of positive COVID cases (though they do have to report that information to state and local health departments, and they also don’t have to contact trace, but if they choose to do so, parents can still choose to send their kid to school if they are a “close contact” of a positive COVID case. It’s almost maximally designed to be risky. There is some limited allowance for remote learning, and I don’t know how that may play out. We’re approaching September as if it were still May.

Superintendent House’s proposed action here – it would still need to be approved by the HISD Board of Trustees, who may decide that’s a step too far – is bold but carries a lot of risk. We don’t know what kind of blowback House and HISD could face from Abbott, who clearly values his primary campaign and pandering to the most extreme members of his party more than anything else. When he finally lashes out – again, I cannot imagine him letting this slide – it’s going to be ugly. But against that, Superintendent House has the best of reasons for his action – putting the safety of the kids and the teachers and the staffers first. I’m on his side and I’m impressed by his willingness to take a stand. We’ll just see how far it can go.

Will Delta change HISD’s plans?

Remains to be seen.

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House II released a video Saturday confirming that the district’s “communicable disease team” is still fully operational as the district works to update its COVID-19 plan for the start of the new school year.

“As you all know, we’ve seen a rise in the wrong direction most recently and its important for our community to understand we take very seriously the health and safety of our students, staff and community members to ensure that we have a strong and healthy start to our school year,” said House, who began work July 1.

“Contrary to what some reports have indicated, we have not disbanded our communicable disease team. We are continuing to work closely with those individuals that understand [the virus] and make certain that the safety of our community is A-1,” House said.

[…]

The video release comes weeks after House stated that classes would be held entirely in-person this fall, but that pledge came as the delta variant of COVID-19 was just starting to gain a foothold in the area.

In May, the district said it would comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that banned public schools from requiring masks inside buildings after June 4.

Houston ISD spokeswoman Tejal Patel said an updated communicable disease plan “will be released in the coming weeks,” but did not say whether it would include a mask mandate or remote-learning options.

I guess a better question to ask is whether Greg Abbott will change his current stance and allow school districts some leeway if there are multiple outbreaks. He’s not going to follow national guidelines because it’s the individual responsibility of children who are not yet eligible for a vaccine to not get COVID, so I wouldn’t hold out much hope. I hope HISD and Superintendent House do everything in their power to protect students and teachers and staff, and loudly advocate for the things that are not in their power.

How HISD intends to spend its COVID relief money

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD expects to spend $1.2 billion of federal relief shoring up academic losses from the pandemic under a wide-ranging plan that would target accelerated instruction to kids that have fallen behind, bolster tutoring and after-school services, seek to retain and recruit teachers with $2,500 stipends, provide laptops to more middle school students and boost technology in the classroom.

Superintendent Millard House II sent an email addressed to “Team HISD” Thursday evening with a 54-slide presentation attached about how the district would use the money, according to a copy obtained by The Chronicle on Friday.

The money comes from $122 billion for Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief funds included in the American Rescue and Relief Plan Act, passed by Congress in March.

HISD has been awarded $804 million from that. It is the second round of education relief funding. The district was allocated $358 million from that earlier round this month.

According to the plan distributed by House, about a quarter of the overall funding will go toward reversing learning losses in reading, math, science and social studies. About $76 million would be spent on before- and after-school programs, $50 million would go to special education, $53 million for college and military readiness, and $60 million would be directed at social and emotional learning, including the hiring of up to 150 additional counselors and social workers.

It is not clear if the plan is final. A timeline included in the presentation lists two dates to submit applications to TEA and July 28 as the date to share the plan with “community.”

These priorities seem right to me. The first order of business is to get students back to previous levels, and that’s going to take a lot of resources. You can see an embed of the plan in the story, and there will be at least one virtual meeting to discuss it. This is a big challenge for the new Superintendent right off the bat, and I wish him and the Board and everyone else all the best with it. We need them to use this funding to its best advantage.

Superintendent House has arrived

He’s got a lot of work in front of him.

When Millard House II officially [started] as the new superintendent of Houston ISD on Thursday, he [had] a stack of challenges awaiting his attention.

Some students fell further behind during the coronavirus pandemic while others were “lost” amid its grip. The district expects to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 stimulus funding with no public plan for the funds in place yet. While teachers are set to receive a raise, their compensation has lagged neighboring districts, and trustees voted three weeks ago to mandate House propose a potentially larger teacher pay raise in August, when the district’s financial outlook may be clearer.

As House assumes his new role, members of the HISD community said they hope he can tackle a variety of priorities, from funding to inequities, and expressed excitement to work with him.

“The first job as a new superintendent is to learn the community, learn our schools, learn our neighborhoods,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who bumped into House this week while visiting schools. “He’s already doing that so I think he’s off to a great start.”

House, 49, who was not made available for an interview this week, arrives from Tennessee, where he led the seventh-largest district in the state, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System.

[…]

Among the biggest challenges for House and the district will be helping students who fell behind during the pandemic.

Standardized test score data released this week revealed one of the clearest looks yet at the pandemic’s impact. Roughly two-thirds of HISD eighth-graders did not meet math proficiency, compared with 28 percent in 2019.

Additionally, some students stopped attending class altogether, prompting recovery efforts, such as a recent four-day phone bank aimed at convincing some to return.

“We have a tremendous deficit,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, who leads the district’s largest employees union. “We are very concerned about that. I want him to know that it is not an ‘us against them’ — it is ‘we.’ And we all need to be working together, and I think that if that happens … we can be successful.”

Add the STAAR scores to the pile. Superintendent House and the Board and all the stakeholders will have plenty to do to get things going, with federal COVID relief funds available to help out. Here’s his introductory message:

Welcome to Houston. Now please make yourself available for interviews. Thank you, and god luck.

Millard House officially approved as HISD Superintendent

Welcome aboard.

Millard House II will become Houston ISD’s new superintendent on July 1, following the district’s school board unanimously vote Monday to make his selection official.

The pro forma vote follows the naming of House as HISD’s lone superintendent finalist on May 21. Texas law mandates that school boards name a lone finalist, then wait at least 21 days before formally approving their selection.

Trustees approved a contract for House on Monday, but would not immediately release terms of the agreement. House’s predecessors, former superintendent Richard Carranza and current Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, both earned a base salary of $345,000.

[…]

House has made brief comments twice in the past several weeks about his selection as HISD superintendent, largely focusing on his commitment to working in collaboration with board members and the Houston community. He has not granted interview requests made by the Houston Chronicle.

See here and here for the background, and here for the HISD statement. He seems like a good hire, he seems to know what he’s getting into, and as yet there’s no direct threat to his term from the TEA, though that could change at any time with the Supreme Court. For now, I hope that he will schedule an interview with the Chronicle as soon as possible, so that we can all get a better picture of who our new Superintendent is and what he plans to do with the job. The Press has more.

More on Millard House

The Chron does a profile of the finalist for the HISD Superintendent job.

Early in his tenure as an associate superintendent with Oklahoma’s Tulsa Public Schools, Millard House II found himself thrust into an education administrator’s nightmare: closing campuses and redrawing school boundaries.

Faced with declining enrollment, House’s boss moved in 2010 to shutter 14 campuses spread throughout the city under a plan called Project Schoolhouse. Among others, he relied on House to marshal as much support as possible for the effort, which inflamed deep passions throughout the city.

Ultimately, Project Schoolhouse went off remarkably well given the circumstances. For that, former Tulsa officials give much credit to House, who later orchestrated the logistics of the closures as deputy superintendent.

“He was one of the key players,” said Bob Burton Sr., who served as Tulsa Public Schools’ chief of staff at the time. “He made sure that his principals, community members, parents — if they were going to be affected, everyone was aware of what that would mean for their children.”

The episode required many traits — a calming presence, strong communication skills, a sense of empathy, a willingness to listen — that have become hallmarks of House’s career, catapulting him from a physical education teacher in his native Tulsa to the soon-to-be superintendent of Texas’ largest school district.

House is expected to join Houston ISD next month after the district’s school board plucked him from relative obscurity and named him its lone superintendent finalist last week. Texas school districts must wait 21 days after choosing a lone finalist to sign a contract under state law. Details of House’s compensation package are not yet known, though his predecessors, former superintendent Richard Carranza and current Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, both earned a base salary of about $345,000.

The 49-year-old, who currently leads Tennessee’s seventh-largest district, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, brings no significant Houston connections and a modest resume by big-city standards. Former colleagues, collaborators and acquaintances, however, warned against underestimating the 26-year educator and married father of two.

In interviews, they described House as an open-minded, data-driven, no-drama executive capable of navigating the kind of complex challenges and competing interests he will face in Houston.

“Just temperamentally, I think Millard has a lot of humility as a leader,” said Chiefs For Change CEO Mike Magee, whose organization tapped House to join its exclusive education administrator network. “He’s going to want to make sure he’s seeing the work from a variety of points of view, taking a collaborative approach to changes in the best interest of kids.”

[…]

For now, House starts with support from HISD’s often-fractured school board, which unanimously voted to name him lone finalist. That show of unity, combined with largely positive reviews from his past stops, have bred measured optimism headed into the summer.

“Everything I’ve heard has been good,” said Houstonians For Great Public Schools Executive Director Jasmine Jenkins, whose nonprofit closely follows the HISD board and endorses trustee candidates. “I know he brings innovative ideas, is not afraid to think outside the box and seems like a fast learner. I’m excited about that potential.”

House initially agreed to an interview for this article but later canceled due to scheduling issues. A Clarksville-Montgomery County schools official responded to several questions in writing about the district, but House did not respond to additional questions about his background. In an introductory press conference last week, House said he will “continue to focus on equity and innovation to lead HISD.”

See here for the previous entry. As the story notes, Superintendent-to-be House has his work cut out for him, and that’s assuming he doesn’t get forced out by the TEA. I hope he gets the chance to have a long interview with reporters soon, but the people who have been talking about him have been positive and complimentary, and that’s a good start. We need Millard House to succeed, that’s for sure.