Houston ISD will start the fall semester on Tuesday September 8 with virtual classes through Friday October 16 and then reassess before proceeding. The last day of school for the 2020-21 school year will be June 11.
Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan Wednesday made the announcement several hours after putting out word about it on social media. She said starting later will give the district more flexibility in deciding what to do next about the pandemic and its spread in Houston.
Right now the plan is to resume face-to-face instruction on Monday, October 19, but Lathan said that could be subject to change depending on the health conditions across Houston and in specific areas of town.
Earlier in the week, charging that HISD had shown a distinct lack of leadership in its plans for coping with the coronavirus, the Houston Federation of Teachers joined by other unions and community groups said that there should be no in-person classes until there had been 14 consecutive days of decline in the number of COVID-19 cases.
The group also said there should be a positive test rate of less than 5 percent, (Houston's now exceeds 25 percent) and public health support for school districts from state, county and city health departments.
“We won’t be bullied into reopening schools prematurely and dangerously,” said Andy Dewey, HFT executive vice president. “We’re not willing to sacrifice the health of anyone who enters our schools and the people they have contact with after school.”
Wednesday's news was greeted with applause by Zeph Cato, HFT president, who said earlier consideration of a hybrid plan offering students the option of online or in-person classes as some districts are doing would not work. “To even consider bringing students and educators into a Houston-area school building right now is insanely irresponsible,” Capo said in a press release.
However the hybrid plan hasn't been discarded entirely since beginning August 24, parents in the district will be called and asked whether their children will be attending in person or remain in virtual classes for the second six weeks. Two weeks before the start of the second six weeks, parents will be called and given the chance to reconfirm or change their previous choice, Once committed, however, the student must stay with one or the other option for the entire six week grading period before changing.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott who had called for all campuses to open in the fall, told KTRK, Channel 13, that an extension might be given allowing the state's individual public school districts to decide when they would be opening for on campus classes. In the Houston area there are a range of options with Fort Bend ISD the only district declaring itself virtual-only for the start of school.
Lathan thanked Abbott for saying he was willing to look at more flexibility and local control, adding that she hoped to hear more from his office with more specifics soon. A survey HISD did with parents showed "Only 21 percent said they would be comfortable with in-person instruction as normal while only half agreed with virtual learning only."
"Of teachers surveyed, only 14 percent said they were ready to physically return to the classroom," she said.
While virtual school sounds safer for students and school personnel, the fact is that across Texas, not all kids have computers or the internet at home. Or parents who are able to stay home to oversee them all day. Lathan said that an online class will be offered to parents to help them better negotiate the virtual schooling and that the district will continue to train teachers to teach in a virtual approach.
Lathan acknowleded the technological divide, saying that in an HISD survey they were told: "About 35 percent of households [in HISD] do not have internet." She encouraged any parents who don't have computers or internet to contact the principals at their childrens' schools for help.
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She also said sports and other after school activities are scheduled to resume along with in-person classes, although that might change depending on the status of COVID-19 in the community in October.
The HFT, joined by the Houston Educational Support Personnel union, in its recommendations also said student standardized testing should be suspended for the school year , as well as forgoing teacher and other staff evaluations for the year.
The education unions' recommendations: