While most Fort Bend ISD students are beginning the 2020-21 school year online, the district has previously committed to having some special education students return to campus for in-person instruction.
However, Superintendent Charles Dupre said during the Aug. 10 board of trustees meeting that the district is facing staffing shortages for these classrooms because of teachers’ anxiety about returning to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We're still finding a large number of staff members—including a significant number of teachers, probably 50% or more of our teachers—who are reluctant to return to campus for fear of being exposed to the virus,” Dupre said.
Because of these staffing issues, in-person special education services will not begin until at least Aug. 24, according to district communication.
Fort Bend ISD has a total of 8,520 students who receive some form of special education services, according to data presented at the Aug. 10 meeting. Of these students, the district identified 1,103 students—710 in elementary school, 212 in middle school and 181 in high school—who are recommended for face-to-face services.
At the time of the board meeting, 332 elementary, 66 middle and 42 high school students had agreed to face-to-face learning.
“We've got a lot of children who need to have their needs met in a face-to-face special education environment, but we do not have teacher availability, or in many cases, classroom aide availability to meet all of those needs,” Dupre said.
To address teacher shortages, Dupre said the district declared special education teachers are vital employees.
Additionally, he said the district is having direct conversations with these teachers to ask and compel them to return to school buildings, which he said have all of the proper health and safety protocols in place.
“Some teachers don't appreciate the level of the conversation because they do feel like they're being pressured,” Dupre said. “That is not our intent. Our intent is simply to let them know they are needed, that the students need them, and if there is any way they can find themselves to come and work with these kids, we need them to do that.”
Because of the staffing and classroom space constraints, Dupre said some FBISD special education students may not be taught at their home campuses by their regular teachers.
Trustee Grayle James said she respects teachers and staff members who say they feel unsafe or are uncomfortable coming to the classroom at this time. Still, she asked teachers who can return to do so.
“For those that can—if you are available, if you can—please come, please help us, because we want every child to have the best opportunity and the best education,” James said.
Furthermore, James acknowledged teachers play an essential role in the district’s success and that they have to feel safe and inspired while at work. Because of this, she said the district needs to work to build trust with teachers.
“We all want the same thing, but we can’t do it without our staff really buying into it,” James said.