School or No School? Districts Grapple With Pandemic Plans

  • Highland Park ISD says it will start in August;
  • Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa says he’s having “second thoughts” about August start.

One school district says it’s ready to start in August. Another may delay that start. But like every district in Texas, Highland Park ISD and Dallas ISD are grappling with the realities of planning around a disease that doesn’t really care about calendars.

The Texas Education Agency on Wednesday provided guidance to districts regarding the start of school, and the agency made clear that districts were expected to offer in-person learning as well as distance learning, and that they could phase in start times over the first three weeks of the school year.

However, many parents, teachers, and advocates railed against the guidance, saying it left gaps in guidance and was too vague. Many teachers felt that an emphasis on how frequently children contracted COVID-19, and how severe their symptoms were, neglected to remember that teachers are adults who, as one teacher said, “are also people.”

“I’d like to see some conversation about the health of teachers, and what we do if teachers can’t safely return to campus,” Dallas ISD teacher Megan Malone wrote in a Facebook post that included footnotes. “We are a pretty old and unhealthy lot. We also have families we will exposing to risk, and again, we do not know the long term effects of COVID 19.”

Even Gov. Greg Abbott admitted that school might not be able to start on-campus this fall.

“If we continue to see COVID spreading the way that it is right now, it may be necessary to employ that flexibility and use online learning,” he said.

In a letter to parents, Highland Park Superintendent Tom Trigg said his district is ready to start on Aug. 20.

“In-person instruction will be offered to all students at all campuses in Highland Park ISD beginning Thursday, August 20. Parents may choose, however, for their children to receive online instruction,” Trigg wrote. “Should parents choose this option, the online (virtual) instruction model will be more robust than what was offered this past spring.

“HPISD has a committee that is continuing to develop a comprehensive plan for re-opening school, which will take into consideration the new guidelines from TEA,” he added. “This plan will include more detailed information for parents before making a commitment for their child(ren) to attend either in-person or virtual instruction.”

For planning purposes, the district is also asking families to complete a survey by July 15.

For Dallas ISD, however, it’s still very much up in the air. The district has a multitude of factors to consider – a poverty rate that hovers around 90%, which means families may be counting on school so parents can go back to work; the availability of internet and other tech infrastructure in certain pockets of town; and a pandemic that shows – so far – no signs of slowing.

Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa was candid Thursday as he spoke to MSNBC reporter Garrett Haeke, saying that he was reconsidering the notion of starting on Aug. 17.

“Initially, I thought we would be ready,” he said. “But I’m starting to have second thoughts on (whether) we can pull this off by Aug. 17.”

Hinojosa said that recent polling done by the district indicates more than 50% of parents have said they do not want to send their children to school.

“And we’re hearing loud and clear from our employees – especially our teachers – that they have a lot of concern about how we can pull this off,” he added.

Hinojosa said that one thing the district does feel confident about is that they will have enough PPE for teachers, staff, and students when in-person learning does happen.

“We’ve been planning for this for a while,” he said, adding that the PPE is already in warehouses, ready to go. However, he said that ever-evolving information about how the disease is spread has them constantly pivoting regarding things like safety on school buses, social distancing, and how much protection masks and face shields afford in an indoor setting.

“There are a lot of complexities about how we keep students and employees and students safe in this process,” he said.

Hinojosa said that a backup plan to push the start date back to September is now looking more like reality, but that he will need to present that to the school board first.

Later Thursday, the district issued a statement, saying, “COVID-19 requires school districts to be innovative and flexible as education is being reimagined around the globe.”

“Dallas ISD is closely monitoring this ever-changing landscape and will continue to work with the Texas Education Agency as we prepare to safely reopen schools,” the statement continued. “The health and safety of all students and staff is always our top priority. Understandably, many parents, teachers, and staff have questions and Dallas ISD is working to identify the best strategies with their interests in mind.

The Board of Trustees will convene later this month for a special called meeting at which time, the administration may make recommendations for an alternative start date for the 2020-2021 school year.”

That meeting will be July 23, according to a tweet from school board trustee Miguel Solis.

As Hinojosa’s interview began to be shared on social media, school board trustees seeking the input of their constituents were among those posting – including trustee Dustin Marshall.

Comments to his post were largely supportive of pushing back the date.

One teacher – Katrina Rasmussen, outlined several things she would need to feel comfortable returning to her classroom at W.T. White High School, including limits on class sizes, a plan to limit how many were in the hallways and other common areas, enough proper PPE for teachers, better ventilation, paid time off for any quarantining teachers might need to do if exposed, and better education for parents and students to understand the risks involved in certain behaviors.

“I will be there for my students, if it is safe. I will not risk the health and safety of myself or my family. I don’t have the luxury of a big house or extra rooms to quarantine in at home, or a housekeeper or a nanny,” she wrote. “My family is high risk. I don’t have family members who can come and help if I get sick. My husband is a teacher too, so our whole family is affected by these decisions.”

“Whatever the outcome is, I pray our policy makers bear in mind the human cost to their decisions. I serve as a teacher because it is my calling in life. I love my job. I love working in DISD in spite of (and often because of) the challenges I face as a teacher here,” Rasmussen continued. “I promise that I will work as hard as necessary to give my kids the learning experience they need to grow. If that means stretching myself as a teacher, learning new systems and technology, so be it.

Our district’s strength is its commitment to innovation. Let’s work together to face these challenges in a creative, compassionate way.”

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at bethany.erickson@peoplenewspapers.com.

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