The coronavirus pandemic has sparked changes in how both districts begin a new school year. CISD pushed back its start date one week to allow for more training time for teachers to prepare for virtual instruction, and GCISD did not resume in-person classes until Sept. 8.
As of Aug. 28, 55.7% of GCISD students were expected to return for in-person learning, with the remainder opting for virtual instruction. About 56% of CISD students have chosen face-to-face instruction, and 44% have chosen virtual school.
In preparation for the thousands of students returning to campuses for the 2020-21 school year, the two districts have overhauled their transportation and nutrition programs, developed dashboards for reporting active COVID-19 cases and made use of hundreds of thousands of dollars provided by the federal government in the form of CARES Act funding.
Reporting COVID-19 cases
The Texas Education Agency is requiring school districts to report confirmed COVID-19 cases to state officials on a weekly basis. According to the TEA, the requirement will allow district families and employees to track the spread of the virus in local communities more efficiently.
The tracking system, with assistance from the Texas Department of State Health Services, will monitor public schools statewide beginning in September. According to an Aug. 20 press release, reporting requirements will include public notice of cases and outbreaks on campuses.
The DSHS dashboard will be updated based on input received from school districts, officials said. In addition, the TEA has established a public health planning guide that lists requirements for all school districts in the state.
GCISD and CISD have both constructed online dashboards for parents, teachers and students to keep track of active COVID-19 cases at every campus.
“We wanted people to be sure they can go look at those cases. If there’s a case on their campus or in their department or in their facility, they’ll most likely get a contact from us,” CISD Superintendent David Faltys said at an Aug. 10 meeting.
In response to a lab-confirmed COVID-19 case, districts must provide parental and public notice and must notify local health department officials. School districts must also close off and perform extra cleaning on any portions of a campus that were heavily used by any individual who tests positive.
In order to prevent the coronavirus from reaching a campus, districts are also required to perform regular screenings of school staff, and parents are advised not to send students to school if they exhibit COVID-19-related symptoms.
But decisions as to when to quarantine groups of children or shutter schools altogether will be made on a case-by-case basis, GCISD Director of Health Services Amy Taldo said.
“We would call [Tarrant County] with the cases. ... We could have a case and [have] there be very little contact, or we could have a case and [have] it ... have ripples that are very wide,” Taldo said at a July 31 meeting. “I can’t say it’s one case or [widespread] cases [that would lead to a closure]. The investigation with Tarrant County is what would help decide [in] that moment.”
Faltys said the county has already demonstrated how it will handle COVID-19 in schools.
“They’ve been working with us ... as we’ve identified cases,” Faltys said at the Aug. 10 meeting. “They’ve come in and visited with people and said, ‘Where did you sit? Did you have a mask on? How long were you in the room?’”
Students who test positive for COVID-19 must meet certain requirements before being allowed back in school. They must have had 24 hours with no fever, see their symptoms improve and have 10 days pass since symptoms first appeared. Other acceptable proof includes a student receiving a negative COVID-19 test or providing a doctor’s note showing there was an alternative diagnosis.
Providing meals for students in face-to-face and remote instruction presents new obstacles for schools.
Social distancing markers will be on the floor along the serving line at GCISD schools, the district’s Chief Operations Officer Paula Barbaroux said.
“Of course, the department is prepared to serve students whether they are attending in schools or whether they are taking their courses remotely,” she said at a July 31 meeting.
CISD is serving only foods that are prepackaged or packaged by a trained staff member, removing pin pads and eliminating high-contact interactions by depositing change into students’ accounts rather than exchanging cash.
Even during a pandemic, school districts have to ensure access to education. But the coronavirus pandemic has made the logistics of bus transportation more challenging.
Transportation decisions are made primarily by school districts, the Texas Department of Public Safety told Community Impact Newspaper. Changes made by districts to keep students and staff safe may include seat assignments, route changes and rotating bus drivers, according to the American School Bus Council.
CISD has limited the number of available bus passes to 1,800, which is expected to allow buses to operate with one student per seat.
Faltys said all CISD students will be required to wear a mask while using buses, but special accommodations are being made for younger students while they are in classrooms.
“We are going to ask even our young ones—if they’re coming into the building, if they are on the bus—we’re going to wear masks,” Faltys said at the Aug. 10 meeting. “In the classrooms, we do have the Plexiglas dividers ... for our elementary kids. When they’re in the classroom, they can have the masks off.”
CISD bus passes will be available for purchase throughout the year. Annual passes are $225 per student or $450 per family, and semester passes are $128 per student or $256 per family.
GCISD, on the other hand, has not placed limitations on the number of students per bus seat.
“Hopefully, the capacities will be lower, but that is not a guarantee ... that you can socially distance on a bus,” Barbaroux said at a July 31 meeting. “For that very reason, we will require all of our drivers and all students wear masks that cover the nose and mouth while they are on the school bus.”
Texas school districts have been on the receiving end of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds.
The state doled out $1.2 million to GCISD through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, package. CISD received $122,030 from the same fund. This comes as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, which was signed into law in March.
While these dollars are meant to help shore up budgets in the interim, Libby McCabe, Commit Partnership senior policy adviser, said she is closely following any stimulus funding that the U.S. Congress may pass in the future.
The Commit Partnership is a Dallas-based network of schools and organizations. Its work spans from improving early childhood education, to preparing and retaining effective educators and increasing postsecondary completion rates.
“That’s going to tell you whether or not that we’re going to have to do cuts to education next [legislative] session,” McCabe said. “The hope is that ... we’ll use the stimulus money to plug holes but not to take on ongoing expenses.”
While districts can plug up any remaining financial holes from the pandemic with these dollars, TEA Associate Commissioner Cory Green said the ESSER funds will be used to cover reductions in 2019-20 due to the pandemic.
Texas school districts will also receive additional dollars through Texas’ Coronavirus Relief Fund, which totals about $11 billion and is being distributed to local jurisdictions.
CISD plans to use some of its CARES Act funding to offset costs related to premium pay and other COVID-19-related expenses, according to district staff.
GCISD is using its share of CARES Act funding to offset the costs of ordering face masks and neck gaiters for students, according to GCISD Chief Financial Officer DaiAnn Mooney.
The laundry list of other supplies purchased includes face shields, desk shields, disinfectants, sanitizer stations and thermometers.
“We received an allocation from TEA on some PPE items. By the time we were notified of that, we were already well into purchasing PPE to make sure that we were ready for school,” Mooney said at a July 31 meeting.
“The CARES Act funding ... was the funding that replaced the state funding that we rolled into this year so we would have it available for all of these expenditures.”
Makenzie Plusnick and Ian Pribanic contributed to this report
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include timestamps for some of the quotes.