Friendswood ISD updates: 93% of learners to return in-person in January; district implements TEA-sponsored rapid coronavirus testing for staff

Less than 10% of students will be virtual learners starting Jan. 4 at Friendswood ISD. (Haley Morrison/Community Impact Newspaper)
Less than 10% of students will be virtual learners starting Jan. 4 at Friendswood ISD. (Haley Morrison/Community Impact Newspaper)

Less than 10% of students will be virtual learners starting Jan. 4 at Friendswood ISD. (Haley Morrison/Community Impact Newspaper)

Fewer than 450 students at Friendswood ISD will be learning virtually starting Jan. 4, according to information presented at a Dec. 7 FISD board of trustees workshop.

The percentage of in-person learners increased from 87% to 93% from Dec. 3 to Jan. 4, per the data presented. About 5,650 students will be learning in person starting in 2021, up from the approximately 5,300 who were attending in-person classes during the second nine weeks of the school year.

Guidance from the Texas Education Agency released Nov. 5 gave districts the ability to mandate a return to in-person instruction for students consistently below standard in terms of grades or attendance. A student with any class averages below a 70—or the equivalent with elementary progress reports—or a student with at least three unexcused absences could be required to return to in-person instruction under FISD’s plan.

All virtual learners, regardless of academic standing, had to fill out a form articulating why they wish to remain remote.
This process included the opportunity to seek a medical exemption from returning to campus. Any student with an underlying condition or any student with a family member residing in the student's household at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying health condition as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could file for an exemption as part of the appeal process.

Officials said the district is finalizing the review of forms and appeals and expects to have data related to the results of the process later this week. This story will be updated as information becomes available.

To accommodate the increasing number of in-person students, 12 teachers will move from instructing virtually to instructing in physical classrooms. Any teacher who expressed concerns about their personal health and safety was permitted to remain teaching remotely, Superintendent Thad Roher said.

“I don’t have one staff email about being afraid to continue teaching at Friendswood ISD,” Roher said Dec. 7.

Instructors will face an uphill battle as more students return to classrooms: Virtual teachers are about a week to a week and a half behind their in-person co-educators in most core subjects but especially in math, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Lauren Ambeau.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the current standards outlining material for each course or grade, requires almost one math concept be taught per day, which is difficult in a virtual format, Ambeau added.

Moreover, for the students who are returning in person for the first time, their first day back will be like the first day of school all over again with teachers reviewing the various new protocols amid COVID-19, officials said. For the transitions to be successful, both remote and in-person teachers will be making themselves increasingly available to support students and parents.

Remote classroom student-teacher ratios for the district’s youngest learners, pre-K through fifth grade, will range from 24-1 to 39-1 starting Jan. 4; one instructor will work with each grade level, so all students in that grade will have the same teacher. In second- through fifth-grade classrooms, the ratios are all 35-1 or above.

COVID-19, district-led testing updates

During a district COVID-19 update, Erich Kreiter, FISD’s executive director of safety and operations, discussed virus trends in Galveston County. The starkest increase in cases in the county is coming from the 21-30 age group, and hospitalizations and death rates are rising among residents age 31 and up, he said. However, most deaths are still among people over the age of 70 with other existing health conditions.

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a total of 80 people—53 students and 27 staff members—have tested positive since the start of the school year. There have never been more than 19 active cases on any given day and no more than nine cases at a specific campus.

“Friendswood ISD, in terms of protocols, is one of the safest places you can go in Galveston County,” Roher said. “What we’re doing in schools is keeping that spread from happening amongst our kids to adults.”

Board members and district leaders also discussed the district’s decision to adopt a state-sponsored rapid test program. The program requires districts to “commit to testing only district employees and/or students” to receive funding, so FISD chose to use the program to test symptomatic staff members because the tests are most accurate for symptomatic people, officials said.

The district does not feel there has been any hindrance in terms of students having access to testing, Roher said at the meeting. Furthermore, FISD Executive Director of Communications Dayna Owen said in a Dec. 9 email to Community Impact Newspaper that the district was concerned about staffing issues and logistics when it came to rapid-testing students, which resulted in restricting the use of the program to staff members.

The BinaxNOW test, sponsored by the TEA and the Texas Division of Emergency Management, will be used, and the test has a true positive rate of 97.1% and a true negative rate of 98.5%, according to information presented at the meeting. This test can be self-administered by the testee, and results come back in as little as 15 minutes.

It is important for teachers to get this information as quickly as possible so they can isolate if necessary and students can work from home until they get their results, Owen said via email. The process of being able to test students would also involve signed waivers and parent permission, which district officials said at the meeting would be a large undertaking.

“Our nurses have shared that we are not seeing any issues with our local physicians ... getting test results back quickly,” Owen wrote. “Also, we don't believe broad-based testing for students is doable from a staffing standpoint, or is effective, as it is only good for that day.”

Other business

FISD looked forward to the 2021-22 school year at the meeting as well, discussing considerations for the academic calendar. Ordinarily the calendar would be approved around this time, but Roher and Executive Director of Student Operations Stacy Guzzetta said there are too many unknown variables at play to finalize a calendar.

Some considerations include embedded professional learning opportunities; adhering to traditional holiday schedules for Thanksgiving, winter break and spring break; and building in minutes to cover inclement weather or COVID-19 needs. Variables still at play include funding possibilities, or a lack thereof, with virtual learning, as well as the potential need for additional instruction days or phase-in days at the start of the year.

Board President Tony Hopkins noted the mid-August start date seems to be important to the community, so the district should make every attempt to stick to that if possible.

“We do what we think is best for our kids and the ability to teach them, and then we roll it out,” he said.

By Colleen Ferguson

Reporter, Bay Area

A native central New Yorker, Colleen worked as an editorial intern with the Cy-Fair and Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood editions of Community Impact Newspaper before joining the Bay Area team in 2020. She covers public education, higher education, business and development news in southeast Houston. Colleen graduated in 2019 from Syracuse University and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she worked for the university's independent student newspaper The Daily Orange. Her degrees are in journalism and Spanish language and culture. When not chasing a story, Colleen can be found petting cats and dogs, listening to podcasts, swimming or watching true crime documentaries.