Looking back at the virtual ending to the 2019-20 school year, Spring ISD special education teacher Tamara Robinson said as an educator, the experience was a tough one.

“[Educators] didn't have good participation by the students or parents as far as logging the students on to continue assignments, or responding back to our phone calls or emails,” Robinson said.

Despite the difficulty of adjusting to last year’s unexpected switch to a virtual learning model, however, Robinson said the current state of the coronavirus pandemic suggests in-person instruction is still too risky to execute for the upcoming school year.

“Globally, we're experiencing something we've never experienced before,” she said. “The focus should be on our health ... our safety. Of course, the focus should be on students' learning, but there's more than one way to learn.”

Some Spring and Klein-area parents, however, feel virtual learning fails to compare with in-person education, such as Klein ISD parent Gil Lopez, who believes online learning denies students of social growth and interaction.

“I feel strongly that kids need to be in school and not at home online,” Lopez said. “Yes, they must be safeguarded. However, the rest of us need to move on and stop the nonsense.”

Local leaders are urging public schools to consider holding off in-person education to ensure student and staff safety in the coming year. In a letter to local schools, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, Harris County Public Health executive director, recommended schools wait to return to in-person instruction until at least October.

“We recognize that in-person instruction is vital for the educational development and social well-being of children and young adults," the letter reads. "Schools provide much-needed food assistance to many lower-income families by offering students healthy meals and access to resources they may not otherwise have. And in-person instruction of children is crucial for many parents to carry out their activities. However, the prevalence of the virus in our community means that it would be unsafe for schools to return in-person at this time or in the near future.”

The letter comes in response to the Texas Education Agency’s guidance released in mid-July giving school districts across the state the option of to offer virtual learning for the first four weeks of instruction in the 2020-21 school year.

"We know that there are parents who are nervous and who want to keep their children home and for that, we will support them with remote instruction 100% of the way," Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said. "But we also know that the on-campus instructional environment is invaluable, that a child's academic and social growth flourishes in a Texas public school. As a result, our framework ensures that there will be on-campus instruction available for all students who need it in the state of Texas.

School districts are working to offer families the opportunity to decide where their students will learn next year by offering virtual and in-person learning options.

In Cy-Fair ISD, families have until Aug. 5 to decide if students will attend in-person or online classes for the first grading period of the new year, and the district has also postponed the start date of the 2020-21 school year from Aug. 24 to Sept. 8.

To accommodate the new virtual population of students, the district is also in the process of receiving an estimated 80,000 laptop devices and internet hotspots for those without in addition to incorporating safety measures for in-person instruction such as face masks, plexiglass shields for desks and hand sanitizer dispensers.

“Our virtual platform is going to be 10 times better than it was in the spring, and I know many of you are glad to hear that," Superintendent Mark Henry said. “But there’s nothing that replaces in-person instruction.”

In SISD, classes are still scheduled to begin Aug. 17; however, students will participate in online-only learning for the first month of the school year. Students have until Aug. 3 to select in-person or remote learning options for the first grading period of the school year.

Families in KISD were also given two learning options for the upcoming school year; however, to participate in remote learning, students will be required to have access to a device and at-home internet. Families have until July 24 to select their preferred learning option, and as of July 22, the school year is still expected to start Aug. 19.