DALLAS - Dallas County health officials say no public or private schools in the county will be allowed to hold in-person classes until at least Sept. 8.
The new mandate came down on Thursday from Dallas County Health and Human Services, citing the record-high number of COVID-19 cases.
The county reported more than 1,000 new cases for the fourteenth straight day on Thursday, bringing the county total to 37,996 cases and 501 deaths.
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School districts are able to start classes earlier than Sept. 8, but they must do so virtually. Teachers are allowed on campus to facilitate online classes, as long as they maintain social distancing.
The order also states all school-sponsored activities, like sports, cannot resume until in-person classes can begin.
Each school will have to develop a written plan for resuming in-person classes at least two weeks before the beginning of classes and submit it to the local health authority.
“And it’s in that context, really, that we’ve been looking at this issue,” said Dallas County Health Director Dr. Philip Huang. “Given the data and where we are now, we don’t feel that it’s safe until that time.”
Huang says he had a call with superintendents in which many expressed safety concerns.
Dallas ISD's scheduled start date is Aug. 17, but the district has not finalized its plan.
"The district will adhere to the order in place and discuss various options on how Dallas ISD plans to reopen, during a special called Board Meeting next Thursday, July 23,” the district said in a statement.
Mesquite ISD also says it is still evaluating the situation and will let families and employees know next week what its plan is.
Garland and Richardson ISDs say school will start on time in August with virtual learning only.
However, some other districts reacted by saying they will delay the start of classes altogether until Sept. 8.
In a joint statement, Cedar Hill, Desoto, Duncanville and Lancaster, say "postponing the school start date will allow school systems in our area time to assess the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and adjust accordingly."
Some school districts are already letting parents and students know that the rest of the summer workouts or camps are now canceled.
A committee is being formed to monitor how the spread develops and whether different plans will need to be made closer to Sept. 8. Huang says that could mean giving parents the option to continue to keep students at home.
“I think that would certainly be part of the proposal and plans that we’d be looking for,” Huang said.
Michele Townes, a mother and also coordinator for the planomoms.com, said she struggled with the decision due on Thursday about whether to send her third grader and first grader back to school.
“Today was the deadline to register for at home or face to face. I know a lot of parents like myself left it to the last day,” she said. “We chose at this point to keep kids at home.”
But Townes says many parents who do want their kids to return in-person classes are uneasy that the decision about reopening schools is in the hands of a health official, rather than the school district.
“There is a little bit of concern that decision is made by a non-elected official not in the education realm,” she said.
Epidemiologist Dr. Diana Cervantes with the UNT Health Science Center says health officials had to consider many factors.
“It is advantageous for kids to be in an interactive environment where they can get a more interactive education but it has to be in a safe manner,” she said.
Dr. Cervantes says the focus will be on school district preparedness, including some big challenges with facilities.
“You have to consider factors like has the school even looked at their airflow. What is the air rate exchange in classrooms?” she said.
In addition to handwashing plans, districts will need contingencies if there is a large rate of absenteeism.
“How will schools handle the bus situation?” she said. “That’s a difficult task to do when you have a large district.”
Dr. Cervantes says there has been encouraging news about the effectiveness of maskwearing, which, under TEA guidelines, is mandatory in classrooms for children over 10.
One thing for certain is whatever is decided about schools, public health officials will never make everyone happy.