Subscribe to The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to date on the most essential news in Texas.
According to the Texas Education Agency, at least 45 small Texas school districts have been forced to temporarily stop offering face-to-face classes as a result of COVID-19 cases during the first weeks of the new school year.
The shutdowns, which affected about 42,000 students as of Thursday, occur because cases caused by the highly contagious delta variant have affected administrators who expected a normal return to school.
Case loads have left districts confused when many have said they have fewer tools at their disposal to combat the spread of the virus and have had to devise their own strategies that may differ from district to district. Administrators are tasked with protecting the health of students and staff members, providing quality education, and remaining open for days sufficient to avoid addressing additional days at the end of the school year.
“By far, this is worse in terms of planning than last year,” said Tim Savoy, a spokesman for Hays Consolidated Independent School District, which closed some classrooms. “There is no doubt about it. Last year we had many tools at our disposal: we could require masks and provide a funded virtual option. … [Then], the delta variant appeared and exploded in us “.
State data on the number of coronavirus cases in districts that have closed at least once during the school year so far are incomplete: 19 have not reported any cases to students or staff in the state, while the total number of cases to 22 districts has been suppressed state due to privacy policies. According to TEA, the list of public school closures in Texas is also incomplete. The agency informally monitors closures based on media and district reports, as districts are not required to report closures to TEA, said agency spokesman Frank Ward.
From August 23-29, there were 27,353 new positive COVID-19 cases among Texas public school students, according to the Texas State Department of Health Services, making it the largest increase. of a week throughout the pandemic. The state reports 51,904 cases among students and 13,026 among staff since the school year began. That is, 1% of the 5.3 million students enrolled in the state in January.
Children’s hospitals, which have been flooded with COVID-19 patients at levels never seen during the pandemic, have also experienced an increase in patients as the school year is underway, Dr. Corwin Warmink, medical director of emergency services at Cook Children’s Health Care System in Fort Worth.
“Every year, when school starts, we expect a good volume [in our emergency room] – We planned it, we scheduled it, “Warmink said at a news conference Wednesday.” During the regular year we will see about 300 children a day during that time. On Monday, we saw 601, an all-time record. .. At 600, we can’t physically care for children in a timely manner. “
Districts manage closures as a result of COVID-19 differently: smaller ones tend to temporarily close all campuses and larger ones close classrooms, grade levels, and individual schools.
“Every week the kids have come back, we’ve just seen them drastically increase those numbers, and that’s been very stressful and very worrying for me,” said Phil Edwards, superintendent of Angleton ISD, which has nearly 7,000 students.
On Tuesday, Angleton announced it would close its campuses until next Tuesday, although it allowed extracurricular activities to continue, and does not require students to work remotely. Angleton ISD reported that as of Thursday, the district has more than 200 positive COVID-19 cases among students, employees and staff in the course of this course.
There are several factors at play that led to the closure of the district, Edwards said, such as the level of staff and the number of students who have been quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19.
At Hays Consolidated ISD, 10% of students in a group, such as a positive class, grade, or school in a week, cause remote conferencing, a form of state-sanctioned temporary remote learning during a maximum of 10 days, Savoy said. Recently, five classrooms in the district closed.
At remote conferences, schools can still count on attendance, which the state uses to determine district funding. But the program is not the same as a full-time virtual option, Savoy said. Senate Bill 15, addressed to Governor Greg Abbott’s office, would fund e-learning through September 2023 and give school districts the option to establish their own virtual programs. However, the legislation includes a number of warnings that could exclude many students of color.
Another tool that districts relied on last year (the ability to require students to wear masks) is caught up in legal back-and-forth battles after Abbott issued an order banning mask warrants from the districts. schools.
“Last year, people accepted that we were in a pandemic situation and it was stressful, but everyone had the patience and understanding of its severity,” Savoy said. “This year, as we came out of the pandemic and it suddenly came back to us, people are tired and frustrated and, rightly, exhausted. And, therefore, people are more upset this year by the provisions that we are implementing or not ”.
Despite receiving a recommendation from his local health authority to close all of its campuses, Leander ISD decided to stick with a group-focused approach to how it handles COVID-19 clusters. As of Friday, the district had more than 900 COVID-19 cases among students and staff and has moved about 20 elementary school classes and sixth-graders to three schools at remote conferences, said Corey Ryan, a spokesman of the district. Ryan said that at the moment it seems the best option, as some schools in the district have seen very few or no cases, many students rely on school services and protection to those who cannot access home and the district is in short supply. of staff.
“Honestly, it’s a very tough balancing act for schools,” Ryan said of whether or not to close an entire district.
Teachers dying for complications of COVID-19 is also a worrying reality for some districts. At Connally ISD, two teachers died in late August due to COVID-19 less than a week apart. Deaths and rising campus COVID-19 cases caused the district to close all of its campuses, said Jill Bottelberghe, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources.
“We’re seeing people who only have one symptom and who are positive, and it can be as simple as a runny nose, and we’ve even had some who have been asymptomatic, and they’re positive, but they have the ability to spread “People who can make a big impact,” Bottelberghe said.
The district plans to resume classes on Tuesday. Bottelberghe said the district is consulting with the local prosecutor to see what the repercussions would be if masks were required and went against Abbott’s order.
“Every day there seems to be something new and a new challenge to overcome,” Bottelberghe said.
Join us September 20-25 at Texas Tribune Festival 2021. Tickets are on sale now for this celebration of several days of great, bold ideas about politics, public policy, and news of the day, curated by the winners journalists from The Texas Tribune. Learn more.