FORT WORTH, Texas - The Texas Education Agency hosted a call Tuesday with superintendents across the state to discuss plans for returning to school.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott told state lawmakers that schools would reopen in August for in-person classes.
As fall approaches, medical experts at Cook Children’s Hospital say going back to school can be done safely. However, the TEA appears to be taking a less hands-on approach with school districts by recommending but not requiring staff and students to wear masks.
Any mandates would be left up to the districts themselves.
Documents posted to the TEA's website show districts would be required to provide in-person instruction, but they also show models for counting attendance with different types of distance learning.
Doug Williams is the superintendent for Sunnyvale ISD. There are about 2,100 students in the district.
“We are going to have to provide the opportunity for students to attend in person every day. So with that in mind, we’ve got to start crafting some thought around that concept,” he said. “We are not ready to announce the plan going forward. We were waiting on the TEA guidance that we received to fill in the last piece of the puzzle.”
Sunnyvale parents will receive a survey Thursday. Other North Texas districts are also getting feedback from parents.
Districts like Garland, Frisco and Fort Worth ISD have announced they will let families choose between either full time in-person instruction with social distancing and safety guidelines from the TEA or full-time online instruction with the needed equipment.
Williams says he appreciates the ability for districts to be flexible.
“It’s a bedroom community. So the needs that we have compared to DISD is really different,” he said. “So therefore, the way we set the instruction up for our students may have to be different. So we do need flexibility in the design.”
The TEA is donating supplies like masks, face shields, hand sanitizer and gloves to districts across the state.
Dallas ISD received a shipment of 228,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, 966,000 disposable masks and more to help. Other local school districts are expected to get similar shipments too.
Meanwhile, the doctors at Cook Children’s issued their own recommendations for students returning to schools because of the high volume of questions they’ve been getting from parents.
The recommendations are broken down into three categories for areas with minimal, moderate and substantial numbers of COVID-19 cases.
They include things like health education, enhanced daily cleaning, procedures for school nurses who must evaluate sick children, changes to the classroom and lunchroom environments, limitations on sporting events and increased support for students’ emotional and mental health.
Doctors from Cook Children’s support the idea of requiring students, teachers and staff to wear face coverings.
“We want children to wear masks, but we also understand that’s going to be difficult for little kids,” said Dr. Marc Mazade. “They may not understand why they are wearing masks, and it may cause problems for them emotionally. In those cases, we are asking for teachers and other adults around these children to take the proper precaution to protect younger children.”
They also believe that in areas where there is a substantial amount of COVID-19 cases, students should eat lunch in their classrooms or outside, unless the cafeteria is large enough to allow for social distancing.
Doctors suggest choir and band practice should be suspended when there is an outbreak of the virus, student athletes should wear face coverings and tickets to sporting events should be limited to just immediate family members to allow for social distancing.
Cook Children’s does not recommend that schools try to reduce the number of students in a classroom by having students attend classes on alternating days or that the school calendar be modified because of the financial hardship it puts on parents. It could also lead to more unsupervised teenagers engaging in high-risk social behaviors.
Instead, doctors suggest distance learning should be an option for students with high-risk health conditions and those who are in quarantine. Schools should also come up with a plan for an abrupt return to distance learning in the event of an outbreak.
The doctors suggest schools act as if there were a substantial amount of cases for the first 24 days of school and after all major travel holidays and breaks.
Dr. Mazade said that while the number of children being hospitalized due to COVID-19 remains low and the virus doesn’t seem to affect kids as severely, doctors have found a “significant” number of children shedding the virus asymptomatically.
“As feared, some children who have no symptoms are testing positive for COVID-19,” he said. “That shows us that children with no symptoms have COVID-19 in our community and infection can spread unknowingly from person to person. We are urging everyone to continue to take precautions to keep everyone safe.”
Last, Cook Children’s wants schools to really focus on students’ mental and emotional health, as well as hunger.
“As we begin to look at these issues that students may face, we begin to focus on more than the spread of the virus. One of the concerns that came up was making sure we were screening kids for new problems such as starvation and hunger,” Dr. Mazade said. “We don’t know who all are dealing with these issues right now. The kid next door may not get enough to eat any longer. We want to think about screening for depression, too. We added those things to the document because it’s important to be proactive because the stresses are new, different, and so widespread.”
School districts can begin submitting plans for the school year to the TEA for approval starting July 15 and will need to allow time for those plans to be reviewed and approved by the time school starts.