Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath Tuesday opened the door wide for on-campus school instruction in Texas in continuing summer school classes now and in the fall — never mind the upward spiral in number of coronavirus cases across the state. His action comes as little surprise since Gov. Abbott made it clear in June that Texas schools would be reopening in the fall.
The TEA guidelines — couched in terms of suggestions and encouragements, but not orders — urge schools to undertake certain strategies to keep the virus from spreading on campus. In one case, even down to suggesting keeping windows open "to improve air flow by allowing outside air to circulate in the building."
Clearly the ball is in the individual school districts' courts as to which of these recommendations they are able (because of space limitations) or willing to adopt. An update from Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan is expected on July 15.
Schools may require masks or face shields for teachers and students but TEA notes it may be impractical for students in sports or other extracurricular activities to wear them. Where possible, "consider placing student desks a minimum of six feet apart."
Parents can also choose to have their children learn online, something easier said than done for some families depending on parental work situations, finances, and whether the child's home has a home internet connection and one or more computers. Still the TEA has answered the question — saying yes — of whether a student can meet state attendance requirements by studying online.
“Both as Commissioner and as a public school parent, my number one priority is the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff,” said Morath in a prepared statement. “That is why the guidance laid out today will provide flexibility to both parents and districts to make decisions based on the ever-changing conditions of this public health crisis. The state is and remains committed to providing a high-quality education to all Texas students, while ensuring the health and safety of students, teachers, staff, and families.”
While research from the Centers for Disease Control "has found that while children do get infected by COVID-19 and some severe outcomes have been reported in children, relatively few children with COVID-19 are hospitalized or have severe symptoms," the TEA reasoned in its statement. It then cites the opinion of the American Academy of Pediatrics "that COVID-19 risks must be balanced with the need for children to attend school in person, given that lack of physical access to school leads to a number of negative consequences, placing “children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity, and in some case, mortality.”
The TEA guidelines then set out to detail the protections that much be in place to protect children and staff. Teachers and staff will have to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before coming on campus and if found positive they must remain off campus till they reach certain criteria for returning.
Reacting to the TEA guidelines, Zeph Capho, president of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers issued his own statement:
"TEA leadership is acting intentionally and recklessly with gross negligence by issuing guidance that does not take into account the fact that much of Texas is experiencing substantial community spread. Under such circumstances, the CDC recommends extended school dismissals. Our students and teachers deserve a state agency that places their safety above all else.
"Previously we said, “Hell No!” to Mike Morath and TEA about the necessity of returning students and teachers to campuses. The claim that it would be safe didn’t jive with what school employees and parents know about the dangers of COVID-19. That was before Texas started seeing a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases.
"Much of the guidance released by TEA today appears to ignore the reality of the record number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across the state. We are actually one of the nation’s worst “hot-spot” states, and yet TEA continues to stress the supposed dire need to get kids clustered together again in often overcrowded school buildings. It is simply not worth the enormous risk of harm to our children and school employees.
"TEA also needs to abandon, or at least put into context, its message that returning to campuses at this point will be safe because “relatively few children with COVID-19 are hospitalized or have severe symptoms.” The problem with this stance is that it still puts adults–our school employees, parents, and the overall community at significant risk–while also ignoring the enormity of the numbers of students and adults returning to school. Low percentages still can turn into big numbers in these situations, as was seen recently with the rapid spread resulting in hundreds of new cases reported in Texas daycare centers in late June."
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Under the new TEA guidelines, other than at pickup and drop-off, visitors who want to come on campus will be screened by the schools. Any student who shows signs of COVID-19 will be immediately separated from others at the school until a parent comes to pick up the child.
Schools "should attempt to" have hand sanitizer and hand washing stations at each entrance. Schools "are encouraged" to have supervised handwashing at least twice a day. Schools should consider staggered start times and adding dividers between bathroom sinks. They might want to consider elimnating general assemblies. And it may be a good idea for students to eat lunch at their desks.
Parents can request their child be switched from virtual to on-campus classes but these changes would only occur at the end of a grading period. If a student attends a school that does not have online classes, he can transfer to a school that does in order to attend virtually.