Humble and New Caney ISDs have both delayed in-person instruction for the beginning of the school year, following a trend shown by various other Houston-area schools. However, HISD has plans to push forward with offering an in-person option as soon as possible, while NCISD officials have yet to release plans beyond September.
Harris County and city of Houston officials announced July 24 that all public school districts and non-religious private schools must remain closed until after Labor Day—a decision that affects HISD.
In a July 24 news release, HISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said the county eliminated on-campus learning as a choice for the district.
“Humble ISD will, of course, follow all orders,” she said.
Prior to Harris County’s announcement, HISD was set to offer in-person learning, virtual learning or a hybrid program of online learning with in-person athletics and fine arts beginning Aug. 11. In a phone interview, Fagen said the district’s plan was largely based on results from a survey that went out to families in late June.
According to district survey results from 38,733 parents, 67.9% of families would like their students to return to the classroom full-time, 24.9% of families want their children to learn only online and 7.1% of families want their children to learn through the hybrid option.
When allowed, middle and high school students would also be placed on an A/B daily schedule to stagger the number of students on campus at a time.
“With the A/B schedule we’re planning on running in the secondary [campuses] ... only half of the students will be actually on campus on any given day,” she said.
Fagen said having fewer students on campus would also encourage social distancing on buses and hallways.
However, district staff and parents now have new options to consider, with HISD sending out a survey July 24 asking if the community would like to change the first day of school.
The options consist of beginning classes fully online Aug. 11 or delaying the start of the year until Aug. 18, Aug. 25 or Sept. 8. If the first day of school were delayed, it would affect holidays in the 2020-21 calendar.
HISD’s current calendar includes weeklong breaks in October and February. Depending on if or how long the start of school is delayed, it would remove one or both of the October and February breaks.
Meanwhile, all NCISD students will learn virtually until at least Sept. 8, according to district officials. Teachers are still expected to return to campus Aug. 3. NCISD Superintendent Kenn Franklin said at the July 20 school board meeting the district decided to offer only online learning after receiving a letter from Montgomery County health officials.
“Anything we can do to have our students back in front of us, we want to, but we won’t jeopardize the safety of our students or our staff in the process,” he said.
Franklin said the district will continue to re-evaluate learning options, and more information on the reopening steps will be provided at the next board meeting Aug. 17.
Parent, teacher concerns
Humble Middle School teacher Jennifer Carpenter asked the HISD school board at the July 14 meeting to consider beginning the year completely online for all students to limit the spread of the virus.
“We know from our experience in the spring that distance learning—while inconvenient to our families and not at all what we want—is the safest approach at this time,” she said.
Charlotte Brewer, a paraprofessional for pre-K students at Foster Elementary School, also said she was in favor of HISD offering only online learning at the start of the year.
Brewer said a downside to virtual learning was it made small learning groups, which typically provide more individualized learning, near impossible, she said.
“We can do our best to social distance, but our kids put everything in their mouths,” she said.
Teachers will be given the option to choose between online and virtual teaching for personal or medical reasons, Fagen said. For teachers who wish to continue teaching virtually, HISD is also offering professional development courses.
Lynnette Chambers, whose daughter attends Woodridge Middle School in NCISD, said the pandemic poses a unique challenge for her 12-year-old daughter, who uses her mouth to write due to a lack of mobility with her arms. Chambers and her daughter are concerned about mask requirements.
“[My daughter] wants to go back to school, but the other half of her is scared of getting sick,” Chambers said.
Chambers said she would like more guidance from NCISD regarding how the district intends to care for children with special needs and sanitize high-touch spots.
Elected officials, health officials and advocacy groups have also weighed in on the unprecedented issue.
The Texas Education Agency released updated guidance July 17 for the 2020-21 school year, allowing Texas school districts the option of offering online-only instruction for up to the first eight weeks of the 2020-21 school year to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Several days before local officials mandated in-person classes cannot start until at least Sept. 8, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director of Harris County Public Health, urged local school district superintendents in a letter July 20 to hold virtual classes until October.
State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said at a videoconference luncheon July 21 he believes the decision should fall to local school districts.
“Our kids do need to get back to school,” he said.
Furthermore, the University Interscholastic League, which regulates athletic and fine arts events such as marching band, announced July 21 that certain sports will be postponed until September. Conferences 5A and 6A, which include Humble and New Caney ISDs, will be on the delayed schedule.
“We are hopeful this plan allows students to participate in the education-based activities they love in a way that prioritizes safety and mitigates risk of COVID-19 spread,” UIL Executive Director Charles Breithaupt said in the July 21 release.
Danica Lloyd, Beth Marshall and Hannah Zedaker contributed to this report.