Guidelines released by the Texas Education Agency earlier this month stated school districts would be required to offer on-campus classes in the 2020-21 school year.
"Both as Commissioner and as a public school parent, my number one priority is the health and safety of our students, teachers and staff," Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a July 7 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’s largest educator association, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, announced its own criteria this week for reopening schools this fall, calling on Gov. Greg Abbott and Morath to update those guidelines to align with the current state of public health.
Recommendations from the ATPE included delaying in-person instruction until Texas flattens the curve of COVID-19 cases, requiring school districts to consider teacher and parent feedback when developing reopening plans, and waiving requirements for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System in 2020-21.
“We believe the framework proposed by ATPE will give parents and educators confidence that reopening decisions are based on objective data showing the impact of the virus locally,” ATPE Executive Director Shannon Holmes said in a statement. “It will also minimize the risk of hasty reopening decisions based on politics, rather than prioritizing the health and safety of students and school employees.”
Community Impact Newspaper released a survey for local parents and teachers to submit feedback on how they feel about students returning to campuses in 2020-21 and what they would like to see from their districts. As our reporters continue to cover education amid the coronavirus pandemic, parents and teachers can continue to submit feedback here.
Educators who responded to the survey expressed concern over returning to unsafe workplaces in addition to a lack of time to prepare for successful virtual learning programs. Many echoed the ATPE’s sentiments, saying they would like their voices to be heard in the reopening process.
Rebecca Weitzenhoffer, who teaches in Cy-Fair ISD, said she does not believe virtual learning can adequately replace the in-person education experience, but she believes it is the only safe choice at this time.
“We cannot open at this point,” she said. “It is way too dangerous and will be devastating to our students, our faculty and ultimately the community. We need to do online-only until this virus is under control.”
In Pearland ISD, teacher Curtis Amrein said he is worried opening schools will prolong the pandemic and he will see students and fellow colleagues contract and die from COVID-19.
Amrein said he would like to see the Texas Education Agency allow districts to offer completely virtual schooling in portions of the state where COVID-19 is especially prevalent. Although in-person instruction is preferable, he said that experience would look different in the fall as educators shift their focus to sanitation and social distancing.
“My first duty as a teacher is to provide a safe environment for my students, and I cannot guarantee that right now,” he said.
The Houston Federation of Teachers published recommendations for Houston ISD on July 13, asking officials to wait to phase in campus reopenings until case counts have slowed for at least two weeks.
Additionally, National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the U.S., asked school districts in COVID-19 hot spot states not to return to traditional classroom learning as they would during a typical school year.
“We do not want to see our children, their families, care providers, our teachers and all those who work in our schools put in harm’s way without the utmost consideration for the consequences,” Jean Ross, a registered nurse and president of NNU, said in a July 14 statement. “We must have robust systems in place to ensure that any and all outbreaks can be controlled quickly and safely.”
Parents weigh in
While parents faced with the decision to send their children back to campus or have them learn remotely starting in August have opinions across the spectrum, concerns exist on both sides of the issue.
Some of these included the continued spread of COVID-19, the potential for future school closures, a lack of social interaction in a virtual setting, mental health effects, seeing their children fall behind in school, juggling their own full-time jobs with at-home learning programs, and whether social distancing and face coverings would be enforced in schools.
Fabian Lopez said he plans to withdraw his two children from Katy ISD and enroll them in an independent online home school program in 2020-21 because he does not feel safe having them attend classes in person. In addition to concerns about students not following social distancing guidelines, he said he is worried about parents sending their children to school despite being ill.
“That’s not going keep my children safe nor the staff. I will not be sending my kids back to school as long as the number in cases continues to rise,” he said. “All it’s going to take is one case in those hallways, and there is going to be a surge like you can’t imagine.”
Some parents feel they have no choice but to send their children back to campuses.
“Many parents are not able to remain home with their children during the school day, or are not specifically trained as educators and lack the skills necessary to compensate for a classroom learning environment,” said Tory Gerczak, a parent of three Alvin ISD students.
Klein ISD mother Krissy Brashers said her two children will attend in-person classes since both parents work outside the home.
Brashers said she is worried schools in the region will be forced into a cycle of closing and reopening throughout the school year as COVID-19 case numbers fluctuate.
“I work as a day care employee, and we struggle with our new very low ratios to keep everything clean, sanitized and the children socially distant,” she said. “I very strongly believe if the schools even open ... we will close the schools shortly after anyway.”
Carla Harryman, the mother of a junior in Clear Creek ISD, said her child will participate in virtual course offerings. She said she believes it is too soon for campuses to reopen and is concerned about the enforcement of social distancing—especially in extracurricular activities such as athletic programs.
Other parents have opposing concerns about the lack of social interaction their children might have if learning from home, in addition to missing out on traditional experiences.
“We cannot continue to live in fear; we gave our child the choice, and they chose to return to school in person,” CFISD parent Heather Cooper said. “With this being our son’s senior year, we hope that he will be able to play his final year of varsity football.”
CFISD parent Cindy Schluter said she supports the district’s plan to reopen campuses, adding she believes closing schools would lead to both emotional and educational “damage” in children.
Despite the rising number of new cases confirmed daily in Harris County, she said she will send her 12th-grader to in-person classes this fall.
“We do not have anyone in our household in an at-risk group, and I feel it is critical for kids to be back at school,” Schluter said. “We need the school districts to make decisions based on data and not emotion. Data does not warrant a shut down for schools.”