Houston Independent School District has continued to keep its schools open to in-person learning.
In its original reopening plan, the district noted that if the average positivity rate was greater than 7% for a 14-day period, all schools would go virtual. But in October, Houston ISD announced a change to its COVID-19 policy that adjusts the protocol for schools closing due to positivity rates without illustrating the new metrics on which the policy change was based.
On Oct. 26, the Harris County COVID-19 dashboard showed the average positivity rate for the past 14 days at 7.4%, which means that under the original policy, schools would have gone virtual.
As of Nov. 18, the 14-day average was up to 8.4%, according to the Harris County COVID-19 dashboard.
"The reality is we have to go back to virtual," Dewey said. "We thought it was a mistake to open in person when they did. HISD, to its credit, delayed it as long as they could. Strangely enough, the surge has been going on since schools began to open up in September. It's now again in a situation where it's out of control. We are asking the district today to go all-virtual after Thanksgiving break, at least through the end of the semester, and we understand the consequences that may be coming to the state regarding funding, but it's time to do this, just in the name of safety."
Dewey said the union cannot predict how the district is going to respond to the request. The meeting was set for Nov. 19 at 2:30 p.m.
This move by HFT comes just a day after New York City announced its schools will be going all-remote due to increasing COVID-19 cases. Its threshold was an average positivity rate of 3%.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said according to the Harris County Public Health guidance, school districts in Harris County should already be closed to in-person and should be learning virtually only.
"In-person instruction is a lifeline for working parents, and we all recognize that," Hidalgo said. "But I also recognize [that] we have to be realistic and accept that the current setup, where schools open before the numbers got to where they needed to be, has us on a ping-pong of sorts—a yo-yo effect where we're opening schools only to see numbers rise dramatically—and that's not a sustainable situation."
Hidalgo said Harris County is currently at "level red," which is characterized by uncontrolled community spread; that, she said, means that it is not the time for in-person instruction or large gatherings and that families should only celebrate the holidays with people within their household.
According to the Texas Education Agency, school districts can take public health authorities' recommendations, but ultimately, school leaders have the final say. According to the state's latest update on its "Pandemic School Formula," to be eligible for full funding, school districts must offer in-person learning to parents who want that option for their child.
Due to the pandemic and the stress it has placed upon school districts across the state, a group of Texas lawmakers is calling for the TEA to suspend the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exam—or, at a minimum, not to use student scores to rate schools or districts this school year.
Allison Newport, an HISD parent of two students, said she has walked her children through the practice tests and that it is challenging.
"This has been my first experience seeing my kids taking the STAAR test—you know, doing practice tests in a virtual environment," Newport said. "It's really stressful. Even if they do well on the test, it's very hard to get through, and I would be really happy if they didn't have it this year, and I think that the students don't need any more stress. The teachers don't need any more stress, and testing doesn't work well in this virtual-blended environment."
The Texas Department of State Health Services has an online dashboard with the number of cases of COVID-19 reported by Texas public schools; it has shown a steady increase in reported cases for both student and staff.
The Houston Health Department also issued a statement on working with schools.
"The Houston Health Department is prepared to continue providing the necessary COVID-19 support and guidance to our community partners," the statement read. "In anticipation of the surge, the department is working closely with schools to identify mitigation strategies that will allow them to evaluate their individual circumstances, examine available resources and then make the best decision for their institution. With support from epidemiologists and environmental, health and safety officers and contact tracing subject matter experts, the department can provide the best practice guidance needed for the COVID-19 response."
This article was originally published by Community Impact Newspaper media partner ABC13.