On Monday, Houston Independent School District’s Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan was joined by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local lawmakers to celebrate the district’s first day of in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic after six weeks of online-only learning.
Lathan’s 10:30 a.m. press conference — held at Highland Heights Elementary in Acres Homes — was mostly celebratory in tone, although there was a somber streak that ran throughout the morning’s remarks
In front of a bright red balloon arrangement, speakers touted the importance of getting back to in-person education for the 43 percent of HISD families that opted to send their kids back to school.
“I don’t know if the smiles are greater on the kids or the parents,” State Sen. John Whitmire quipped.
Lathan also stressed the strides the district has made in providing the necessary computer equipment to the 57 percent of district families who chose to keep their kids home for virtual learning. She specifically thanked the Moody Foundation for its late September grant of $1 million that has helped fund “110,000 devices and 36,200 internet hotspots” for HISD students in need.
But COVID-19 loomed over everything as Lathan reminded the public about some of the coronavirus restrictions that would be in place until further notice. All on-campus students and staff will be required to wear face masks, and employees must take a COVID-19 symptom screening test through an app before heading to campus each morning. Bus service is limited to elementary, special education and specialty school students as well as students who are homeless.
Spectators will only be allowed for varsity athletics — five masked guests per athlete — and football and volleyball games will be limited to five locations: Barnett Stadium and Cowart Stadium for football, and Barnett Fieldhouse, The Pavilion and T.J. Engram Gym for volleyball.
She also touched on the staggering number of HISD students who HISD has lost all contact with during the pandemic despite its best efforts to reach them.
“We still have about 13,000 students that have not enrolled,” Lathan said.
Turner thanked HISD “teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitors... [and[ the entire team” of school staff for continuing to work “on the frontline” during the pandemic, with the same measured cadence he’s so often used to thank first responders and medical professionals fighting COVID-19 day after day through this crisis.
When Lathan was asked if she would have still chosen to open schools for in-person classes at this time if it weren’t for an upcoming deadline from the Texas Education Agency — if HISD didn’t open classrooms by November 2, the state would have withheld funding — she said she would have. Lathan cited the importance of in-person classes for students’ “social-emotional well-being” in addition to Houston’s COVID-19 test positivity rate, which the Houston Health Department said had finally fallen to its months-long goal of 5 percent as of one week ago.
“If we had been in a situation where we were back at 10, 15 percent positivity rate in the city, then it would have been a different type of decision to make,” Lathan said.
Just minutes after Monday’s press conference, Turner tweeted a concerning bit of news: After weeks of steady decline, he said that that the city’s rate “has inched up to 5.6 percent.”
“We’ve been here before,” Turner tweeted, stressing that Houstonians keep practicing social distancing, washing their hands and wearing face masks, no matter how tired of pandemic living they may be.
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