HISD and COVID-19: Up Close and In Person

The reported data as of Monday, January 4, 2021.
The reported data as of Monday, January 4, 2021. Screenshot

Who would want to be in the ranks of teachers in the present COVID-19 circumstances? In Houston ISD the local teacher union president has sent an urgent plea to the interim superintendent and board of trustees asking for a ten-day hiatus from in-person instruction as positive pandemic cases continue an apparently inexorable upward climb in the Houston area.

And speaking of numbers, not all teachers, principals and staff are confident that the HISD charting of cases is actually realistic. Many are sure that coronavirus cases are being missed  by HISD counters and that employees are in greater jeopardy than what is being reported.  Or as one observer noted, "It looks like the HISD COVID dashboard took a vacation."

But as Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said in email blasts to HISD employees, instead they are welcoming back students to in-person classes on Monday.  What the results of that after a holiday period known for family get-togethers is anyone's guess — although an educated one would be that there will be even more cases of sickness and death ahead. 

Lathan did have some welcome news that HISD beginning Monday will offer COVID-19 rapid tests for campus-based staff and "a percentage of students" (with parental permission). School nurses have been trained to administer the tests and participation — while encouraged — is voluntary. Results will be available in 15 minutes and texted or emailed to individuals or parents within two hours of being tested. The tests are said to be 98 percent accurate. Results will go to the school, the district and the local health department for contact tracing.

Lathan also said HISD is working with the City of Houston Health Department to deliver vaccines for priority groups such as school nurses and those 65 or older with certain chronic medical conditions.

But all this comes at a time that as Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson writes "Current community spread numbers are far beyond the threshold the district set for returning to virtual learning. District employees no longer believe what is stated as a result of the threshold moving each time there is an uptick in viral spread."

Anderson also points out that other Texas public school districts — including the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas — are remaining virtual after reaching the state standard for waivers from the Texas Education Agency

Lathan also wrote to HISD staff that "a resolution is being drafted to take to our Board of Education in January to extend the opportunity to utilize leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). This became an issue after federal guarantees that school employees would get paid sick leave for COVID expired at the end of the year. If HISD does this, it will follow the lead of other school districts that have already decided to cover such costs.

Clearly this is a tough school year for everyone. Student failure rates in classes are up while attendance percentages are down. Turns out virtual school is a non-starter for a lot of kids and the hybrid model of in-person and online classes places an almost impossible burden on teachers. Balancing that with health and safety for students and adults is the equally almost impossible tightrope being walked by school district administrators.

All efforts should be made to ensure the data reported is accurate or up to date — especially if you are expecting people to buy in to what you are saying. This becomes even more crucial as reports surface that show kids — so-called "longhaulers" -- can experience lingering, debilitating effects from a contagious disease whose repercussions can go far beyond a nasty head cold or a mild case of the flu.

And here's the chart HISD distributed Monday how to report COVID absences.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing