The lifting of the statewide mask mandate and pandemic restrictions reignited debate over the appropriate level of safety precautions in the classroom.
After Gov. Greg Abbott announced the lifting of the restrictions, Highland Park ISD said the district is keeping COVID-10 safety protocols, including requiring masks for students, staff, and visitors, for now. The district said the decision, reached by consensus of the district’s reopening committee, takes into consideration TEA’s updated guidance, feedback from school administrators, teachers, parents and the Dallas County Health Department. They say it’s also in alignment with the continued guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
“The overwhelming majority of staff indicated a strong preference for maintaining the mask policy within our campuses,” said trustee Tom Sharpe. “The prevailing reason for that is that there’s strong conviction among our staff that the mask policy has been a critical element to reducing the transmission of COVID within the walls of our schools.”
Sharpe estimated there were two or fewer cases that were the result of transmission in the schools per the district’s contact tracing efforts.
The district is continuing to look for ways to get closer to normal, he added.
“We’re trying to balance concerns of a lot of different constituents,” Sharpe said. “There was discussion about whether or not it makes sense to continue use of plexiglass shields. That was a discussion before spring break … There’s a lot of things that we’re looking at to try to make things more back to normal, including trying to think through what can we expect down the road.”
He noted the district isn’t planning to remove plexiglass barriers in the cafeterias, would also likely retain them at reception and administrative offices, and teachers could keep them at their desks if they choose.
Murphey Sears, chief development officer of the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center and a HPISD parent, supports the district keeping the safety protocols in place.
“I believe HPISD was thoughtful in their decision to stay the course with safety protocols because the process has worked,” Sears said. “There was no knee-jerk reaction to the lifting of the mask mandate, instead they communicated with transparency about how and when a decision would be made. Additionally, allowing staff and teachers to get vaccinated without taking time off is another reminder that school administrators continue to put safety and well-being of our children and teachers first, above all the noise. I remain confident in the school district decison-makers and fully support our teachers.”
Not all parents agree, though.
Spencer Siino, a leader of the Park Cities Parents Unite! group and parent of four children in the district, called for the district to provide a plan for easing the restrictions.
“HPISD Superintendent Dr. Tom Trigg needs to tell us the plan to get our children’s lives back to normal. How many teachers and support staff have already been vaccinated? How many are ‘immunocompromised’ and has HPISD been telling them that they have been safe all of these months because of masks? Of the at-risk teachers and staff, how many have been vaccinated?” Siino questioned in his statement. “Now that teachers and support staff have priority to get the vaccination, is there a deadline for them to do so? If those individuals refuse to get vaccinated, will they be permitted to hold the remainder of the district hostage indefinitely? Is HPISD going to follow the lead of more proactive districts and host an opportunity where everyone can get vaccinated? Do you even have targets?”
District officials also talked about how they’re working to close learning “gaps” caused by the pandemic.
“We did elect to give a semblance of the STAAR test that the TEA had given us just so that we could track gaps,” Superintendent Dr. Tom Trigg said. “The good news is that in comparison to other districts around, the gaps that we have are very, very small, they’re manageable, and we are working with teachers and individual students in ways to close those gaps. We will be having a summer school program once again this summer that will assist us in helping those kids.”
In other news:
- The board approved a resolution at their March meeting authorizing pay for employees during the emergency closures from Feb. 16-19 because of the winter storm. The policy further authorizes, and the resolution addresses, nonexempt employees who are required to work during an emergency closing for a disaster to be paid at the rate of one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked up to 40 hours per week.
- The board approved a resolution submitting a waiver to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for inclement weather days Feb. 16-19.
- The board approved a tuition-based pre-school tuition increase for the
2021-2022school year from $625 per month to $700 per month. Beginning with the 2021-2022school year, HPISD will extend the hours of pre-school to 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a full-day program, which is an additional 11.25 hours a week.