Planning in a pandemic: The Woodlands-area school districts, private schools weigh options against health concerns

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Editor's note: Since Community Impact Newspaper went to print, Tomball ISD has updated its plans to delay both virtual and in-person learning to after Sept. 8.

School districts in The Woodlands area scrambled in July to come up with a plan for the 2020-21 school year amid changing guidelines from the Texas Education Agency, with three districts planning to push back in-person learning offerings to September in light of continued COVID-19 case growth.

While coronavirus case counts continued to rise in July in Montgomery and Harris counties, Conroe, Tomball and Magnolia ISDs announced they would take advantage of TEA guidelines released July 15 allowing districts to offer online-only classes for the first four weeks of the school year.

As of press time, in-person learning was not expected to begin for CISD or MISD students until at least Sept. 8 and for TISD students until Sept. 15. Beyond that, the future of in-person instruction thisacademic year will be subject to the progression of the pandemic, school officials said.

“Whether we are able to begin offering traditional in-person instruction will depend on whether our community is able to maintain a significant reduction in cases,” CISD Superintendent Curtis Null said in a statement on the district website.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in a video statement July 17 the additional time would give schools more flexibility while the state works to flatten the pandemic’s upward curve in Texas.

“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,” Morath said. “But we also know that the on-campus instructional environment is invaluable.”

However, some medical experts in the state advised against even considering in-person classes until significant advances are made in combating the spread of the coronavirus.

“I don’t think there is a safe way to do it,” said Benjamin Neuman, professor of biology and department head of biology at Texas A&M University Texarkana. “We are not in the ballpark where we should even be thinking about doing this from a public health standpoint.”

Conroe ISD adapts

Plans for the 2020-21 school year among local districts began to resemble one another in late July, with each announcing delayed in-person start times and numerous sanitation and distancing measures for students in the classroom.

Among the shared steps taken by CISD, MISD and TISD once in-person classes begin, the districts will require families to screen students for temperatures and symptoms before each day they attend in-person classes. The districts also outlined plans to address lunchtime through a combination of staggered schedules, additional eating areas and strategies to limit person-to-person contact.

However, CISD will begin the 2020-21 school year with remote learning for all of its students until Sept. 8. Null said the decision came after a continued rise in COVID-19 cases in the county and with advice from the Montgomery County Public Health District. Families are encouraged to select either remote or in-person instruction for when campuses open, he said.In accordance with TEA guidelines, students learning remotely will use a combination of real-time learning and learning that is individually paced, according to the district.

With asynchronous learning, assignments may be prerecorded or self-paced. All lessons will have assignments, and students will check in with teachers daily, according to CISD. Students must attend 90% of the days of a class to earn credit. For synchronous learning, some lessons are in real time with teachers and classmates. During these virtual classes, students must comply with CISD dress code and engage with teachers.

Special education, dyslexia, dual-language and gifted services will continue through remote learning, according to CISD. Teachers will receive training on how to address the emotional and academic needs of students before school starts.The district has also expressed concern about how state testing will proceed this year. The CISD board of trustees adopted a resolution July 21 asking the state to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness and school accountability ratings for the 2020-21 school year. The tests were not held this spring.

“Every school moment is going to be precious,” Null said. “[If we don’t] shut down a school for weeks just to test ... continue to teach children.”

On July 27, Gov. Greg Abbott waived the requirement that STAAR performance determine whether a student advances to the next grade level, but as of press time the tests had not been waived in their entirety.

Tomball, Magnolia ISDs offer plans

Other districts in The Woodlands area announced plans similar to those in CISD for in-person learning in September.

In a July 9 letter to parents, MISD Superintendent Todd Stephens announced the district’s face-to-face learning option will be as close to traditional schooling as possible with added safety measures to follow TEA guidelines.

However, MISD announced July 20 it will delay in-person schooling until at least Sept. 8.

“[The health departments] didn’t have a major concern with students coming back into our building,” Stephens said at a July 20 MISD board meeting. “But they have a concern with our kids and adults coming back that could lead to challenges to health care in Montgomery County with the situation as it is right now.”

On July 22, TISD announced in-person instruction will begin Sept. 15.

“As we continue the planning process, Tomball ISD is taking all state and local health recommendations into consideration to help us make the best and safest decisions for the health and well-being of our students and staff,” Superintendent Martha Salazar-Zamora said in a letter to parents.

In addition to classroom instruction, districts must grapple with how to handle extracurricular activities. The University Interscholastic League released calendar changes on July 21 to reduce venue capacity and push back the first date for games in many sports. For example, football will not start until Sept. 24 under the updated rules.

Whether in-person instruction begins in September or later, Dr. Syed Raza, vice president of medical operations at CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands, said how schools reopen could have an effect on the continued spread of the disease.

“My biggest concern for the near future is the opening of schools,” Dr. Raza said. “Children can absolutely get this illness and can absolutely get very ill from this virus. They can also spread it asymptomatically. Most kids do not need to be admitted for COVID-19, but they can easily spread it to their parents and grandparents, and when that happens, we will have a nightmare scenario on our hands.”

Private schools

Unlike public schools, several area private schools said they did not expect to begin in-person learning any later than usual this school year.

These private schools generally have smaller class sizes than public schools—The Woodlands Methodist School boasts a 16-2 student-teacher ratio, for example, and The Woodlands Christian Academy lists a 10-1 ratio on its website.

Julie Ambler, The Woodlands Christian Academy head of school, said on-campus learning will begin Aug. 12.

“Our plans have not changed,” Ambler said in a July 22 email. “We intend to commence on-campus learning on Aug. 12 with health and physical distancing protocols in place. Students also have the option to choose distance learning.”

Ambler said parents at TWCA have overwhelmingly stated a desire for on-campus learning. However, virtual learning will also be available at the private school.

The John Cooper School also announced it will reopen Aug. 13 with a short-term online learning plan for middle and upper-school students, and a choice of on-campus or online classes for students through fifth grade, Head of School Michael Maher said.

Rebecca Coates, director of admissions and community relations for The Woodlands Methodist School, said she expects many students to return to campus Aug. 19, where classes will stay within their own cohort group.

Among other private schools in The Woodlands area, The Woodlands Preparatory School is accepting enrollment applications for the fall with in-person learning resuming Aug. 17 if possible, with 10 students per teacher.

“We have listened to our community ... and collaboratively decided to go forward with face-to-face classes,” Executive Director Angel Rivero-Palomo said. “Working parents need their children to be back in school with the certainty that they are safe and taken care of.”

Parent, teacher concernsParents and teachers continued to question how the fall plans will roll out and have voiced opinions about safety. In July, Community Impact Newspaper reached out to readers for feedback on local districts’ reopening plans.

CISD parent Barbara Knighton said her 10th-grade student attended virtual summer school with the district, although he normally attends the Texas School for the Blind in Austin. She said she had concerns about how districts will include students in special education for online learning going forward.

“Special education is very difficult to do online,” Knighton said. “Kids are missing out on much needed in-person therapies and socialization.”

Several parents from TISD also expressed concern.

“COVID[-19] is based not on faith but upon science,” TISD parent of three Mason Carroll said. “The science has yet to develop an answer for this virus.”

At a MISD board meeting July 20, the board heard public comments before announcing its plans to push back the in-person class start date.

Emily Neumann, a teacher at Magnolia High School, said she did not want the district to open as cases continue to rise.

“I help students work and write through trauma, but I don’t want to do this when the trauma is avoidable,” she said.

However, Melinda Olinde, a parent of a MISD high school student, said she wanted school to reopen because she saw how happy her daughter was just by meeting up with friends.

“Use common sense, and let school take place again,” she said.

Andy Li, Anna Lotz, Danica Lloyd and Dylan Sherman contributed to this report.
By Ben Thompson
Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2019 as a reporter for The Woodlands area and began working as Austin's City Hall reporter in April 2021.
By Andrew Christman
Andrew joined Community Impact Newspaper in early 2019 after moving from Indiana. He is a 2015 graduate from Indiana State University, where he received degrees in English and journalism. He has written for a number of small town publications throughout his career as a reporter.
By Vanessa Holt
A resident of the Houston area since 2011, Vanessa began working in community journalism in her home state of New Jersey in 1996. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2016 as a reporter for the Spring/Klein edition and became editor of that paper in March 2017 and editor of The Woodlands edition in January 2019.