On Aug. 3, HISD trustees and district officials met for their first in-person board meeting in several months after having switched to video-conferenced meetings amid the coronavirus outbreak.
HISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said the district had preliminary plans to reopen Aug. 11 based on the 2020-21 school calendar approved by trustees in January.
However, city of Houston and Harris County public health officials ordered on July 24 all public schools and nonreligious private schools to stay closed to in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8. Shortly after, HISD announced via a news release that in-person instruction would be delayed to follow those orders.
Several days later, Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in a July 28 letter that the authority to issue blanket orders to close schools on a preventive basis lies solely with school district leaders. He said local decisions from health authorities conflict with orders from Gov. Greg Abbott that allow all public schools to operate following TEA guidelines and that therefore, the local district orders are superseded by those of the state, Community Impact Newspaper reported.
The board gathered Aug. 3 to determine locally the next steps for the district. Fagen said the district is considering ZIP code case data, total active cases and other metrics to determine the best way to send students back to school safely.
"We understand how very important it is for some for their children to be back," she said. "But we also understand the health considerations. ... So we have to plan for constant changing dynamics and a virus that we don't have as much information as we'd like to have and children who need us."
Trustees approved a back-to-school plan in a 6-1 vote, with trustee Robert Scarfo being the sole nay. He said he believed in-person classes should be delayed further.
Here is the current plan as approved by trustees:
- All students begin online learning Aug. 11. Teachers returned to campus Aug. 3 and they will prepare for online learning.
- Self-contained special education students can return to campus full-time Aug. 17 at the family's choice. All other students continue online learning.
- All pre-K through fifth-graders who choose in-person learning can return to campus Aug. 24. Sixth through 12th-graders who chose in-person instruction can return on an staggered A/B schedule to reduce the number of students on campus.
- Sixth through eighth-graders can join elementary students with full-time, in-person instruction Oct. 12, but an online option is available for families who choose this option. High school students who choose in-person instruction will remain on an A/B schedule until a vaccine is found or the local COVID-19 positivity test rate falls below 5%.
The decision emerged from several hours of discussion and suggestions from board members and more than 35 in-person and video-conferenced public comments from teachers and parents. Roughly half of speakers wanted the option of in-person instruction to begin Aug. 11.
Some parents in favor of offering in-person instruction Aug. 11 spoke about the remote learning challenges students face who utilize special education services, are learning English as their second language or have learning disabilities. HISD parent Sandi Reese said her son, who has special needs, is unable to learn online and requires direct support from the district.
"I'm here on behalf of the many students in special education that are unable to benefit from virtual learning," she said. "Every day our school doors are closed is another day of their education permanently lost and the gap further widens between them and their peers."
Meanwhile, opponents of in-person instruction cited high COVID-19 cases in the region, worries of overwhelming the Texas Medical Center with hospitalizations, and getting staff members and students sick. HISD teacher Phaedra Burton was one teacher who said she believed distance learning should continue online for the start of the year.
"Teachers in Humble ISD have participated in outstanding virtual learning training that will enable us to provide high-quality instruction to all students," she said. "Parents are fighting for a choice; as a teacher, I'm fighting for the health and safety of not only our students but our staff, our families and our community as a whole."
Following community feedback, board President Robert Sitton originally made a motion to start all students online Aug. 11 before integrating to in-person instruction Aug. 17 for most students. Trustee Brent Engelage seconded the motion.
Trustees also echoed parent concerns about offering special education services online as well as elementary students missing out on in-person instruction. Overall, most trustees agreed that in-person instruction should be delayed, but they disagreed on when in-person instruction should begin and for which age groups.
While Scarfo said he wanted to have special education students on campus as soon as possible, he wanted to give other teachers more time to get acclimated to online learning and slowly transition students into in-person learning.
"I think it'd be more beneficial because the staff would have more time to adapt and really see how these things are working with the adults in the building," he said. "I'd just feel more comfortable giving a little bit more time to staff before we start to inject students face-to-face."
Trustees also had a lengthy discussion about whether elementary students should return on a staggered A/B schedule similar to secondary students. Trustee Lori Twomey said she was concerned about the elementary campuses at which 75% or more of surveyed families indicated they wanted their students to return full-time.
"I am concerned that if we return at 85% on that particular campus that we won't be able to provide the social distancing or physical distancing that we need," she said.
Several other board members—Scarfo and trustees Martina Lemond-Dixon and Keith Lapeze—also agreed that they were worried about elementary campuses not being able to maintain proper social distancing standards and supported the A/B schedule.
However, Sitton and Trustee Nancy Morrison did not agree with the A/B schedule for elementary students, citing scheduling challenges for teachers who have elementary-age children and other concerns.
Fagen also said the district has noticed the high percentages of families who chose in-person education on some campuses. She said the district was evaluating ways to encourage social distancing.
"These are really important learning moments, and we're concerned about the impact," she said. "We feel like five months is a long time."
Luci Schultz, the assistant superintendent of elementary education at HISD, said it would be possible to get elementary students to social distance, and campus administration would have to work closely with teachers to develop plans.
"We're going to have to be really tight on our schedules and stand together as a family and educate our students and really work out minute details with our staff about what that looks like," she said.
After much discussion, Lapeze voted to amend Sitton's original motion, which became the final plan that was approved in a 6-1 vote.