The Houston Independent School District has talked a big game about transparency around COVID-19 cases within its school system, but doubt still abounds as to whether or not the district is doing everything it can to keep the public informed about just how well local schools are faring during the pandemic.
Multiple sources have told the Houston Press that there are more confirmed positive coronavirus cases within district campuses than the stats on HISD’s public dashboard reflect. It’s still unclear how and how often the district’s dashboard is updated with new positive COVID-19 cases.
The district also says it isn’t even aware of how many of its students and staff have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. And we were (politely) rebuffed when we reached out to HISD’s press office about setting up an interview with the principal of Condit Elementary School, one of several campuses that had to close temporarily in January due to coronavirus exposure concerns.
“Respectfully, we must pass on the interview at this time,” HISD spokeswoman Sherry Williams said.
At this point, news of temporary HISD campus closures for deep cleanings after a COVID-19 case pops up doesn’t register as shocking anymore. There’s also the whiplash that comes from the district’s start-stop-start-again delays of extracurriculars. Back on January 12, HISD decided to pause all student athletics outside of district high school competitions “due to the increase in coronavirus cases in Harris County.” But just ten days later, HISD sent out a Friday night announcement that all student sports would be back in action the following Monday.
Jackie Anderson, president of the local teachers’ union Houston Federation of Teachers, is definitely feeling more than a little frustrated at this point.
“We meet with the district in our consultation meetings monthly, and not a month has passed that we have not asked for clarification on the COVID procedures...Every month, when we go in we have questions about what is happening as far as COVID and the safety of our employees,” Anderson said.
She described the worried calls she’s received over the past several months from HISD educators who say there are more confirmed COVID-19 cases within local campuses than are showing up in the district’s dashboard.
“We get calls on a daily basis from teachers, who call and say they know of confirmed cases in their schools… and those cases will not be reported on the dashboard,” Anderson said.
Back in November, HISD officials informed the teacher’s union that the plan was for the district’s coronavirus dashboard to be updated every three hours, Anderson told the Press, but she said that doesn’t appear to be happening based on what she’s heard from teachers.
“I don’t want to say that it’s a lack of transparency, but it’s certainly a lack of efficiency… Because at any given school, they know if there is a positive case on their campus,” Anderson said.
We asked HISD if we could speak with a district representative who could explain in detail the ins and outs of how it updates the district coronavirus dashboard, but only received a written response as vague as it was brief.
“Houston ISD Health and Medical Services officials directly input data into the HISD COVID-19 Dashboard after receiving and vetting information on coronavirus cases from schools and district departments. The Dashboard is programmed to update multiple times throughout the day if additional information is added,” the district’s statement read.
Last month, HISD wrote in a Q&A post following its January 14 board meeting that the district had been notified 63 of its staff members and 37 local students died between February and December 2020. After reading a stat like that in the year 2021, the natural follow-up question is “How many were COVID-related?” The district claims that due to “privacy laws,” it can’t say for sure.
“The district does not receive official records (death certificate or autopsy results) regarding an individual’s cause of death and therefore cannot validate how many are COVID-19 related. Such records are protected by privacy laws,” HISD said in its Q&A response.
When we reached out to HISD’s press office for more information about how — and if — student and employee coronavirus deaths were being tracked or if they were being considered as part of the criteria for temporarily shutting down campuses, we didn’t get much more information.
“The district does not track COVID-19 deaths and is not always notified by victims’ families of deaths. HISD does not report deaths to the health department,” the HISD press office statement read. “The district does consult with local health officials during contact tracing when we learn of positive or symptomatic individuals. Decisions about school closings are made based on campus positivity or exposure rates.”
When asked about whether or not the Houston Health Department tracks HISD coronavirus deaths, department spokesman Scott Packard didn’t provide much in the way of details. “The Houston Health Department does not identify people or locations associated with infectious disease investigations,” Packard replied in a written statement. “We routinely collaborate with businesses, including HISD, on containing and reducing transmission risk,” he explained.
Anderson said that the confusion local teachers feel about the district's coronavirus policies has only increased over the course of the pandemic, due in large part to conflicting messages from Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration and HISD itself.
“We get a message from the district, and then a couple of days later see the governor come out with something that’s totally contradictory, and so the district will have to back up on what they originally said,” Anderson explained.
“It’s just mixed-messaging. It leaves us confused,” she continued.
Anderson believes the thing that would give HISD campus staff the most piece of mind is the recognition that they’re crucial workers at the forefront of this public health crisis who deserve to be vaccinated pronto, both for their own safety and for the well-being of the kids they serve.
“They need to be considered essential frontline workers and given the vaccine,” she said. “A lot of our fears would probably be alleviated if we got the vaccine.”
“We know that the best education will occur in the school, [so] you need to protect those people who are there on a daily basis,” Anderson said.
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