By mid-July, Tomball and Magnolia ISDs had released details about what in-person and virtual learning options would look like and required parents to select an option; however, in late July, the districts delayed in-person instruction through at least Labor Day, following recommendations from public health officials.
“It was a priority to get our schools back and operate in Magnolia ISD,” Superintendent Todd Stephens said during a July 20 board meeting. “We will have to fill in a lot of blanks of what [the start of school] will look like.”
Stephens said superintendents in Montgomery County received a letter July 20 from both the Montgomery County Public Health District and the County Hospital District asking school districts to delay in-person instruction until after Sept. 7.
Furthermore, in a letter to superintendents July 20, Harris County officials recommended districts delay in-person instruction until October. On July 24, Harris County officials mandated all public schools and nonreligious private schools to remain closed for in-person instruction through at least Sept. 8. TISD announced July 22 students will begin face-to-face learning no earlier than Sept. 15.
“We know that the decision to begin the school year with remote instruction impacts your family,” TISD Superintendent Martha Salazar-Zamora wrote July 22. “As always, the safety and well-being of our students and staff will continue to be at the forefront of every decision we make.”
The Texas Education Agency gave school districts the option July 17 to offer online-only classes for the first four weeks of the 2020-21 school year and continue limiting access to on-campus instruction for another four weeks with a board-approved waiver. Districts must publicly post a summary of their specific plans to mitigate COVID-19 at least one week prior to on-campus instruction.
“I’m not going to raise false hopes. In part, that’s what’s gotten us to where we are in this moment, tragically,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said July 24 in regard to putting a solid date on when schools would reopen.
As of publication, both Magnolia and Tomball ISDs will begin the school year virtually for all students Aug. 12 and 18, respectively. During public meetings in July, concerns from parents ranged the spectrum as families weighed virtual and in-person options.
“Use common sense, and let school take place again,” MISD parent Melinda Olinde said July 20.
Although families were asked to select from in-person or virtual learning options by late July, Stephens said July 21 that MISD will revisit parents’ choices in August. However, TISD still urged families to select an option to better facilitate a possible switch from virtual to in-person learning later this fall.
To limit disruptions for students, a July 22 letter to TISD families stated students who have opted for face-to-face instruction will be scheduled into classes with their face-to-face teachers, who will provide instruction remotely until students can return to campus. Likewise, students opting for virtual instruction will be provided instruction by teachers assigned to the virtual school.
Tomball and Magnolia ISDs released their fall plans July 9 and 15, respectively, both noting families could request switching options at the end of the nine-week grading period, should in-person instruction happen. If TISD students opt to switch from virtual learning to in-person learning—or vice versa—at the end of the grading period, students could have different teachers, district information states.
Prior to the shift in plans, TISD unveiled its plans for in-person learning July 9. Rachel Scott, a former teacher and mother of three TISD students, urged the district to take more stringent measures to afford all students the chance for in-person instruction. Scott said she takes the coronavirus seriously because her son Braden was paralyzed from a virus in 2016. Additionally, two of her children receive significant student support during the school day, making it difficult to learn from home.
“Parents should not be forced to choose virtual school because it isn’t enough. There will be people who argue that you are doing too much or not enough, but in this [situation] I urge you to err on the side of safety,” Scott said. “There are too many families without those resources [to do virtual school] and the ability to do that, and for those families we need safe, in-person school for the fall.”
Health, safety guidelines
Should TISD resume in-person instruction later this fall, the district will do so amid heightened hygiene and disinfection measures, varying lunch procedures by campus and social distancing where possible—such as 3-6 feet between desks, plexiglass partitions in some areas and staggered transition times, Chief Operating Officer Steven Gutierrez said July 9.
For on-campus learning, the district will also mandate face coverings for all students in fourth grade and above. Additionally, younger students will be required to wear a face covering during transition times outside the classroom, where social distancing is not possible and while on the bus, according to TISD guidelines updated July 20.
In MISD, all students over age 10 will be required to wear a face mask, the district plan reads.
“None of us have had any experience with how to do this right,” Salazar-Zamora said July 9. “We understand that there’s a lot of emotion with this, but we do ask that people continue to be graceful and respectful during the process.”
To curb the spread, parents and students in TISD must attest daily they have self-screened for COVID-19 symptoms before students arrive at school or a school bus, Gutierrez said. Good health will be implied by the student’s arrival, he said.
“It’s going to be implied if a student arrives to a campus or a bus stop to do school transportation that they are free of any of the exclusionary criteria,” Gutierrez said.
MISD’s plan also dictates students self-screen prior to arriving at school.
Criteria that would prevent a student from attending school in TISD include experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, such as a cough, diarrhea, loss of taste or smell, body aches, sore throat, or a temperature of at least 100 degrees; having a lab-confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis; and/or having been in close contact with an individual who has a lab-confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, according to TISD information.
TISD staff will also submit a daily health attestation via Axiom Medical’s CheckIn2Work app to prescreen for symptoms or COVID-19 exposure before allowing access to the workplace, TISD announced July 20.
“We have a high expectation that our Tomball community is going to comply with what we’re doing here,” board President Michael Pratt said July 9.
Dr. Steven Kelder, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health in Austin, said he is less concerned about children contracting COVID-19 than teachers.
Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states children with confirmed cases of COVID-19 generally have mild symptoms.
“Many people can be infected and [be] without any symptoms—especially younger adults. People who are asymptomatic may be spreading COVID[-19] without knowing it. That means there probably will be an outbreak amongst teachers, and many teachers are in the high-risk categories,” Kelder said.
Residents age 19 or younger made up 11.89% of cases in Harris County and 9.86% of cases in Montgomery County as of July 27, with one death recorded, according to county data.
While no changes are being made to maximum bus ridership in the districts, Tomball and Magnolia ISDs have upped cleaning and ventilation on the buses. Further, parents who can provide transportation for their children are encouraged to do so, and TISD is requiring families to register for bus transportation.
“We understand that we may increase the safety on the bus by reducing the ridership, but we will be inadvertently putting students in danger by having them cross dangerous roads without sidewalks and a clear path to school. That is not something we’re comfortable with,” Gutierrez said July 9.
Stacy Hill, a TISD parent who spoke during the July 9 meeting, said she is grateful for the district’s remote option.
“I’ve been a remote worker since March, and I don’t see our corporate offices opening anytime soon, so I was a little concerned with schools opening because you can’t even tell if someone has COVID[-19] for maybe up to two weeks,” Hill said.
Both districts emphasized remote learning will be more rigorous than in the spring and require students to work independently at various times. Curricula and grading guidelines will be the same across learning platforms, and daily attendance will be required.
“We will provide the high quality of educational services the Tomball community has become accustomed to; we will continue that in either/or [format],” Salazar-Zamora said July 9. “The online will look different, very different than the spring.”
TISD students will use Schoology—a $93,325 learning management system for grades K-12 that board members approved purchasing July 9—regardless of on-campus or virtual instruction, Chief Academic Officer Amy Schindewolf said July 9. An app for parents will also be available.
Additionally, Schindewolf said TISD has redesigned its curriculum to weave in concepts students may have missed in the spring semester.
In Montgomery County, districts are encouraged to bring small groups of students and teachers on campus to practice safety protocols on a smaller scale, according to MCPHD’s letter July 20. As such, MISD is planning to bring small groups of students to meet with teachers for small amounts of time.
Stephens said he misses having students in schools, but the district will wait until the county gives the all clear to reopen.
“We are going to respect the wishes of our health care officials in Montgomery County,” he said July 20.