It somehow seems chillingly appropriate that after Thursday night's parade of public speakers at the Houston ISD agenda meeting, all of whom pleaded with the district not to resume face-to-face instruction on October 19 because of COVID-19, that early today we learned that our mask-defying President and First Lady have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan's administration plans to restart in-person classes in a little more than two weeks, although it already has a waiver from the state and approval from the board of trustees to extend that another two weeks and not start until the first week in November.
In poignant testimony that led trustee Elizabeth Santos to tears, parents and teachers in one-minute bursts told of family and friends already lost to COVID-19 and fears that they or their children would be infected and become seriously ill or die.
Dr. Sonia Loyola, who described herself as a parent and a teacher, referred to reports of a growing number of cases in Texas of an inflammatory syndrome in children that has been linked to COVID-19. "My hometown of Corpus Christi is experiencing multiple cases and they phased in with fewer students and greater social distancing protocols than we here in HISD intend to. I have personally lost family, friends, former students to COVID-19 in Corpus Christi and the [Rio Grande] Valley and as the only living parent to a child with respiratory issues I d not want to lose my child nor do I want to make him an orphan. This board holds our fate in their hands."
Several speakers stated that the district has yet to come up with a detailed plan for how it is going to protect students, teachers and other staff. Others were incredulous that the district has lowered its recommended social distancing from 6 to 3 feet. And as speaker Ruth Kravetz argued, having all the district's students come back on the same day instead of adopting a staggered opening approach, "is a recipe for disaster." Dr. Liz Chiao, an infectious disease specialist and parent, recommended a phased-in re-opening as well.
Gov. Abbott's decision to require districts to return to in-person classes with the threat of lost state funds if they don't was acknowledged. But it was clear those speaking hold HISD's board and administration accountable as well.
"As of today we have over 208,000 deaths in this country from COVID-19 and 1,840 deaths in Harris County," said speaker David Coles. "Until there is a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases, following Harris County public health recommendations, schools should have to remain online. Not even one student should have to risk their life or the life of their family members for educational opportunity that can be obtained in safer ways. Not one teacher or administrator should have to risk their lives or health due to the mishandling of a global pandemic by Gov. Abbott. If you continue this path you should just admit you don't care about children's lives or their families or teachers' lives either."
Trustees did vote 9-0 to approve a waiver for a possible hybrid plan that would allow less-than-daily attendance in order to have fewer students on campus at the same time. Lathan said high schools where this is likeliest because of their size and student population include Sterling, Madison, Chavez, Sam Houston, Bellaire, Lamar, Westside, Northside, Furr, Westbury, Heights, Waltrip and Wisdom. Other schools could be added, she said in response to a question from Santos. It would depend on how many opt for in-person classes.
Of the 80 percent of parents who have responded to the question about whether they want their children to continue in virtual instruction or move to face-to-face, Lathan said 57 percent of families have opted for virtual and 43 percent for in-person.
Among the board members, Wanda Adams, seconded by Santos, led the charge to have the face-to-face start date delayed until November. "We're in the red [cornovirus threat level in Harris County]. I hear death, dying. We had a kid die in Beaumont today, an elementary school kid," she said in response to the night's public comments. "I have concerns too about returning too early.
"Would two weeks matter? Maybe, maybe not. But to somebody, maybe a parent or a kid, it matters," Adams continued. " Because we still have 11,000 kids we have not found yet. And that is important."
Lathan said her administration is in constant contact with local public health officials and "We have reached the threshold of moving to orange of 400 new cases a day. I know there are different viewpoints. We still have two more weeks as we get closer to October 19. We are trying to take all that into consideration. We have people on both sides. We're trying to make the best decision possible."