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Umair Shah

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

Here’s the local view.

Students in Klein and about nine districts throughout the region will get their real first taste of the new learning environment on Tuesday as those districts welcome back those who opted to come to school rather than attend online. Among them are Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch, La Porte, Magnolia and Santa Fe ISDs.

It marks the biggest return of students to school campuses in six months, after schools were closed in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, students in Lamar CISD and Humble, Alvin, Dickinson, Galveston and Barbers Hill ISDs have brought some of their students back in recent weeks.

The districts are forging ahead with plans to reopen campuses despite warnings from regional health authorities and some local leaders who say it still is too early. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah recommended in August that schools remain closed until there are fewer cases of COVID-19 and less community spread. The two set benchmarks for schools to begin reopening, but with current statistics, it would take weeks to reach them.

Hidalgo and Shah only can offer recommendations, after Gov. Greg Abbott said local government officials do not have the legal authority to preemptively close campuses. Instead, he said, those decisions should be left to school districts. In some Houston-area districts, school boards, parents and some educators have argued that the benefits of face-to-face instruction, especially after such a long hiatus, outweigh potential health risks.

“We can provide a schooling online, but we can’t provide an education online,” Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said at a July board meeting.

Others have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the foreseeable future, including Fort Bend and Alief ISDs. In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, students will return Tuesday to online-only classes, which are scheduled to remain in place until mid-October.

District officials estimate that about 18,000 students still lack the computer or internet access needed for online classes. As a result, HISD is directing those students to 36 “learning centers” with adult supervision and available technology. HISD officials said they are not publicizing the learning center locations.

“It just can’t be everyone showing up,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “It’s truly assigned locations for students and staff.”

[…]

For those that already have opened classrooms, teachers and students still are adapting.

In Humble ISD, middle and high school students are coming into the buildings in alternating groups, with an A group coming on some days and a B group on others.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said she has been surprised the elementary schoolers have not had as many issues with face masks and social distancing as some had feared.

“We’re starting to get our arms around it pretty well,” Fagen said. “Every day there are new metrics to monitor, and we hope we can get to a place for (more) in person in near future.”

For students at Klein ISD’s Mahaffey Elementary who chose in-person instruction, last Wednesday served as a crash course for their new school realities.

Staff practiced funneling students through entrances assigned by grade rather than the main doors in the front. They showed students how to keep their distance in hallways and spent class periods juggling between in-person students and those learning remotely on Zoom calls. They adjusted their cameras, helped parents troubleshoot technology problems and made sure the kids in their classrooms knew the new procedures.

It was a strange day here, as my girls started with remote learning. We’re used to that, in that we had done it before, but it was still strange to just transition from “no school” to “distance learning school”. Didn’t have that usual “first day of school” feel, you know? There were some connection issues on the HISD hub that affected Olivia’s school, but students were redirected to an alternate site that seemed to work, so no big deal. Ask me again in a week how it’s going.

For the schools that are reopening for in person instruction, I sure hope it all goes well. I hope the mask-wearing and social distancing and other protocols that are being adopted to (hopefully) keep virus spread to a minimum works as planned, not just for them but for the rest of us, who will be in the same position in six weeks. Unless it doesn’t go well, of course, in which case they’ll be in the same position as us. I absolutely want everyone to get back to school. I also absolutely want everyone to literally survive the year, with no adverse health effects lingering on. I don’t know that we can do both of those things just yet. I’m glad it’s not my kids’ schools that are the guinea pigs for that experiment, and I sincerely hope that experiment is a ringing success. I figure we’ll know, more or less, by the time it’s our turn to go back.

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

They can’t issue mandates, so this will have to do.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday unveiled the county’s guidance for school reopenings, recommending based on a handful of COVID-19 metrics that schools offer only virtual instruction in the coming weeks until the virus is further curbed.

County officials are issuing the guidance as families and education officials continue to grapple with the idea of resuming in-person classes in the coming weeks, and after Gov. Greg Abbott barred local officials from ordering campus shutdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the non-binding guidance, Hidalgo and county health officials recommended that school districts offer only virtual instruction as long as Harris County, across a 14-day span, records more than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day, remains above a 5 percent test positivity rate or continues to devote more than 15 percent of hospital beds to COVID-19 patients.

School districts are advised to reopen with reduced capacity as those metrics improve and Harris County hospitals see a 14-day average flattening or decrease in their general and intensive care unit bed populations. At that point, school officials can consult with Harris County Public Health officials on their plans to reopen.

“We simply cannot responsibly reopen schools to in-person instruction right now,” Hidalgo said, acknowledging the frustration of parents, teachers and others. “But we can’t ignore this. We can’t tap our heels together and wish the current numbers away.”

Harris County officials are recommending schools remain closed longer than some other organizations.

[…]

County officials have not yet publicly released the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, though Umair Shah, the director of Harris County’s public health department, announced Tuesday that the rate is between 15 and 16 percent. The Houston Health Department and Texas Medical Center on Monday reported positivity rates of 14.6 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. The city’s 14-day average has continued to decline since peaking at nearly 30 percent in early July, but remains above the county roadmap’s 5 percent threshold.

Hidalgo and Shah lack the authority to order compliance with the roadmap before the school year begins. Abbott said July 31 that local school boards and state education officials can limit the reopening of buildings in the first eight weeks of the school year, but county officials may not shut down campuses preemptively.

The governor said local health authorities may shut down campuses in response to confirmed outbreaks in a building, but Texas Education Agency leaders said public school districts risk losing state funding if schools remain closed for longer than five days.

You know how I feel about this, so I’m mostly going to peace out here. Judge Hidalgo had ordered schools closed for in-person instruction until at least September 8, back when that was a thing the locals could do. HISD is beginning remote learning only on that date now, and even as a parent of two HISD students, I have no freaking idea when they will be ordered back to the classroom. You can see the Ready Harris roadmap here and the metrics for success here. Maybe if Greg Abbott took this stuff half as seriously as Judge Hidalgo does, we’d be in a better position to reopen schools with some confidence.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

Put a pause on that reopening

At this point, we had no other choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also shut down river-rafting trips and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a news release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Bars most close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them.

Abbott’s actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.

I can’t emphasize enough that none of this had to happen. Greg Abbott laid out four metrics for reopening when he first lifted the statewide stay-at-home order: Declining daily case rates, positive test percentages below a certain level (I forget what exactly, maybe seven percent), three thousand contact tracers hired by the state, and sufficient hospital capacity. None of the first three were ever met, even at the beginning, and the predictable result is that now the fourth one is no longer being met. We could have driven the reopening by the metrics, instead of saying “on this date we’ll roll back these things and allow these things to resume”, but we didn’t. Greg Abbott made that decision. What is happening now is on him.

And so, here in Harris County, where our leaders’ efforts to take this pandemic seriously were entirely undercut by Greg Abbott, we are paying the price.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday moved the county to the worst threat level, calling for a return to the stay-at-home conditions of March and April, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike.

She also banned outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people in unincorporated Harris County, while urging mayors to do the same in their cities.

Hidalgo described in dire terms the danger the pandemic currently poses, and said the county is at greater risk than at any other time since the outbreak began here in March.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.”

Her remarks were a rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased reopening strategy, which she said allowed Texans to resume normal life before they were safe. They also contradicted the rosy picture Texas Medical Center executives painted a day earlier of the system’s ICU capacity.

Hidalgo unsuccessfully lobbied the governor this week for the power to issue more restrictions, her office confirmed. Abbott’s refusal to let local officials again issue mandatory stay-at-home orders leaves Harris County “with one hand tied behind our back,” she said.

[…]

Though she lacks the power to require compliance, Hidalgo implored all county residents to follow the same rules as her stay-at-home order in March and April. That means residents should stay home except for essential errands and appointments, work from home if possible, wear a mask in public and otherwise avoid contact with other people.

Only a collective change in behavior can reverse the accelerating trend of COVID here, Hidalgo said. The alternative, she warned, is grim.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll be in a crisis,” she said. “If we don’t stay home now, we’ll have to stay home when there are images of hospital beds in hallways.”

Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the county’s health director, offered no concrete timeline for how long restrictions would be needed. The county judge noted that in some other states, lockdowns of up to three months were needed to bring the virus under control.

A tripling of cases and hospitalizations since Memorial Day have placed intense pressure on state and local leaders to act. With Abbott’s blessing, Hidalgo and other local leaders have issued mandatory mask orders since last week, mandating businesses to require their customers wear facial coverings.

The governor effectively gutted Hidalgo’s original order requiring residents to wear masks at the end of April by preventing any punishments from being levied against violators. Enforcement never was the point, Hidalgo said Friday, but she blamed the governor for signaling to residents that mask-wearing was unimportant.

See here for the background. We can’t know what shape Harris County would be in now if Judge Hidalgo had been allowed to make her own decisions instead of being overruled by Abbott. But it’s hard to say we’d be any worse off than we are now.

Of course, some people still think it’s all sunshine and puppies up in here.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on national television to declare Texas is not running out of intensive care hospital beds and to assure viewers that the state is “not stepping backward” in re-opening businesses.

Speaking on Fox News Channel on Thursday night, Patrick acknowledged new COVID-19 cases are increasing in Texas, but assured viewers it was expected.

“We have seen a spike in cases. We expected that,” Patrick said pointing to increased testing. “Our hospitalizations are up, but here’s the good news, the good news is we’re not seeing it translate to the ICU unit or into fatalities.”

You can read the rest if you want, but really, what you need to do is CLAP LOUDER!

There is one piece of good news:

The Trump administration reversed itself and extended support for testing sites in Texas on Friday.

The extension followed a public outcry after TPM revealed on Tuesday that federal help was set to end on June 30.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir said in a statement that his agency would support five testing sites in Texas for two weeks longer than initially planned.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday requesting an extension of support for the free, drive-through testing sites.

Local officials in Texas have spent weeks clamoring for the sites to be extended. The move comes as cases and hospitalizations in the state have skyrocketed, and as Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has paused the state’s reopening.

“Federal public health officials have been in continuous contact with our public health leaders in Texas, and after receiving yesterday’s request for an extension, have agreed to extend support for five Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas,” Giroir said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date.”

See here for the background. It’s two weeks’ worth of good news, which isn’t enough but is better than nothing. Now let’s extend that out to infinity, or whenever we don’t need testing at scale, whichever comes first.

One more thing, just to hammer home the “it didn’t have to be this way” point:

Texas is also a wee bit larger than Taiwan, with less density and public transportation. They’re already playing baseball in Taiwan, have been for a few weeks now. I’m just saying.

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

More Houstonians younger than 60 are testing positive for the novel coronavirus than those who are most at risk of developing serious complications from the illness.

Of that number, middle-aged adults — those in their 40s and 50s — have garnered the brunt of the cases that have tested positive, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.+

A review of 164 cases from March 4 through [March 23] in counties with confirmed diagnoses — Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty and Chambers — show around 78 percent of COVID-19 cases in the greater Houston region are of children and adults under the age of 60. People older than that, who federal health authorities say they are more likely to require hospital care if infected, make up about 21 percent of those who have tested positive.

[…]

Even a handful of children in the Houston region tested positive for the novel coronavirus.+

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health, was aware of the trend of younger people contracting the novel coronavirus.

“People like me, who feel like they can go out and do everything — we, too, can test positive,” Shah said Tuesday morning at a news conference, where officials also announced a stay-at-home order.

“All of us have the potential of transmitting that to others,” he continued.

Maybe someone can tell Dan Patrick? It’s one thing for geezers like him to get sick and die, but people in their 40s and 50s aren’t Grandma and Grandpa, they’re Mom and Dad. And, as Dr. Shah notes, they’re all very capable of passing along the virus to whoever else they encounter, old and young. True, they’re less likely to die than old useless people like Dan Patrick, but 1) the chances are still greater than zero, and some people with zero risk factors have died from COVID-19; 2) plenty of younger folks have pre-existing respiratory issues and/or are immuno-compromised; 3) some people have had lasting after-effects of the disease; and 4) getting sick, and especially going to the hospital, can be very expensive. All of which to say, it’s better to not get sick. Which is what human beings with empathy and compassion, who are not sociopaths like Dan Patrick, are trying to accomplish with social distancing and stay-at-home requirements. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here we are.

(Yeah, I drafted this last week, which now seems like a million years ago, and Dan Patrick has been blessedly quiet since then. He still needs to be raked over the coals at every opportunity for his hateful, nihilistic blatherings.)