The start of in-person instruction may be delayed further based on public health conditions related to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a July 24 statement written by Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health Department, and Dr. David Persse, local health authority for the city of Houston.
Officials cited the pandemic, including increased COVID-19 transmission rates and hospitalizations in the county, in justifying the order, as well as feedback from superintendents, parents, teachers and school board members.
"The feedback overwhelmingly expressed the sentiment that the community understands the risks of transmitting COVID-19 in a school setting and is advising public health to help minimize the risk of transmission through in-person education at this time," Shah and Persse said in the joint statement.
More than 60,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Harris County so far, and officials noted that testing positivity rates are above 20%, compared to 5% in cities such as New York and Boston. Although hospitalizations have been slowly declining as of late, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it remains at a high level compared to April and May. Getting the virus under control requires "crushing the curve," she said at a July 24 press conference
"It does not mean flattening it at extremely high levels where ICUs are still crossing into surge capacity and we have tens of thousands of active cases," she said. "The faster we do that, the sooner we'll be in a position to reopen in the long term."
School-aged children still face risks from COVID-19 even if death is unlikely, Shah said, listing multi-inflammatory syndrome as one example that has been seen in children in Harris County. Children can also spread the virus to more vulnerable adults, including teachers and people they live with, Persse said.
"A tiny percent of a big number is still a big number," Persse said. "You get a big number of kids who get seriously ill, I think we need to recognize that as all preventable. For the kids who get ill and bring it home to their family members, those are preventable as well."
The Texas Education Agency released a provision earlier this month allowing schools to offer online-only instruction for up to eight weeks at the start of the 2020-21 school year. Shah and Hidalgo also sent letters to local districts July 20 urging in-person instruction be delayed. A number of Houston area school districts had already announced delays to in-person instruction, including Cy-Fair ISD, Katy ISD and Houston ISD.
Virtual instruction is allowed, and teachers may video stream from classrooms if they are alone in the classroom and overall building occupancy is under 10%. All school-sponsored events and activities are still banned from taking place in person, both on and off campus.
State Rep. Armando Walle, who also serves as Harris County's COVID-19 Recovery Czar, thanked the TEA for allocating $200 million in funding to help families obtain digital learning devices. However, Walle said needs still exist, especially when it comes to families that are facing connectivity issues. He called on state leaders to provide another $200 million to $300 million in funding that had been made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
"It's not enough," Walle said. "You have many many children in this community who are going to be left out with no device, or maybe have one device and no connectivity."
Each public school district in Harris County must submit a plan for safely reopening schools by Aug. 21, according to the release. In the meantime, public health officials said they will develop metrics by which the timing of the resumption of in-person instruction will be determined. Hidalgo said even as benchmarks are met, the return of students to in-person instruction could be done in phases, with some groups starting before others.
"I'm not going to raise false hopes. In part, that's what's gotten us to where we are in this moment, tragically," Hidalgo said in regards to putting a solid date on when schools would reopen. "We have to work within the reality of the situation."