Anxiety among Waco area teachers, administrators and other school district employees over what school will look like in fall only increased Tuesday after the Texas Education Agency failed to provide public health guidelines as planned and COVID-19 cases hit a record high statewide.

Draft guidelines detailing enrollment, attendance and public health guidelines appeared on the Texas Education Agency website Tuesday but were later removed. The agency had planned to release guidelines for reopening schools in the fall Tuesday, but it only released information on remote instruction, enrollment and attendance during a call between superintendents and state Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

TEA released a statement in response to the release of the draft documents, saying they were posted by mistake.

“They were posted in the staging portion of the TEA website by mistake as part of an internal document review,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “As we continue to closely monitor the public health situation, we are, in fact, still soliciting feedback on the Public Health Guidance. Additional guidance will be provided soon. We will continue to prioritize public health and safety above all else.”

Health guidelines

The nine-page draft document includes these health guidelines:

  • One week before school or other campus activities start, districts must provide for families and the public a summary of their plans to limit the spread of COVID-19 in their schools.
  • Parents may request virtual instruction for their students “from any school system that offers such instruction.”
  • Districts “should require” teachers and staff to screen themselves daily for COVID-19 symptoms before arriving on campus, and screening for students should occur before they get on school buses or on campus “at the beginning of the year and at the start of every week.” Parents who drop off or pick up their students inside the school should be screened, as well. But “regularly performing a forehead temperature check of otherwise asymptomatic students is not recommended,” nor is it prohibited.
  • All campus visitors also should be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and asked if they have been in close contact with anyone confirmed to have the disease. Campuses may turn away visitors who fail the screening criteria.
  • Schools must notify their local health departments if any individual confirmed to have the coronavirus has been on campus, as well as all teachers, staff and families of students in the school. The school also must close off areas that were heavily used by the person until they are disinfected or more than three days have passed since the person was on campus. There is no requirement to close the school entirely.
  • Campuses “should attempt” to have hand sanitizer and/or hand washing stations at each entrance and in every classroom.
  • When possible, schools “should open windows or otherwise work to improve air flow by allowing outside air to circulate in the building.”
  • On the first day of school, students must receive instruction on “appropriate hygiene practices.”
  • School districts can “consider” having employees and visitors wear some type of face covering. The same goes for students “for whom it is developmentally appropriate” to wear masks.
  • Campuses should place student desks 6 feet apart, if space allows. If not, students in those classrooms should wash their hands more and use hand sanitizer frequently.

Additionally, the draft guidelines recommend limiting large gatherings of students and teachers, including at lunchtime. They also do not require students to sit 6 feet apart on buses but urge families to drop off their students or have them walk to school to reduce exposure on buses. Districts should consider having students use hand sanitizer before boarding buses and clean buses after each trip.

Remote instruction

TEA did provide guidance on remote instruction for districts and how it will be counted toward attendance, which determines how much funding districts receive from the state. The state will continue to require students to attend 90% of a course to receive credit for it and for promotion to the next grade level, but there are some different requirements for remote instruction.

Districts must post on their websites and submit to TEA a signed document outlining how the district will provide remote instruction. To receive funding from the state for remote instruction, districts must meet a minimum number of daily instructional minutes. Remote instruction can be in real time, with students directly interacting with their teachers, or students may receive assignments to complete or video lessons to watch that have been prepared by teacher. Districts may use both methods for remote instruction, as well.

At a standstill

Without firm guidelines from the state, local school districts are in a standstill over how to plan for the fall. Both the Waco and Midway Independent School Districts formed committees to plan and prepare for the upcoming school year, but big questions still loom large around what in-person instruction will look like.

Waco ISD is considering three options for the school year, which is slated to start Aug. 18: all virtual instruction, a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, and alternating days or half-days for in-person instruction. The school board will discuss the options during its Thursday night meeting.

Superintendent Susan Kincannon said the district cannot fully form a plan until it receives guidance from the state, which she expected to receive two weeks ago.

“We’re all a little bit anxious about getting that guidance so that we can firm up some plans,” Kincannon said. “I know our parents and our teachers want to know what next school year will look like, and we just don’t have the answers yet. We’re all struggling with the right answer, and truthfully there may not be one right answer. We just have to figure out what can work for us.”

Kincannon also said she is concerned about the rising number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in McLennan County, which hit a total count of 421 confirmed infections Tuesday. The state confirmed 5,489 new infections Tuesday, a new daily record.

‘Teachers are scared’

Pam Fischer, a Waco ISD teacher and president of the Waco chapter of the Texas State Teachers Association, said she has similar concerns for reopening schools in the fall. If people want schools to open again, they need to wear face masks right now to slow the spread of the coronavirus so the state can recover from COVID-19, Fischer said. The Waco chapter of the association represents 120 members.

“Teachers are scared,” she said. “Teaching is challenging under the best conditions. This sounds challenging. Teachers don’t want anybody getting sick or having any illness. We don’t want anybody to die.”

Fischer also has heard from some parents who plan to homeschool their children because they do not want to send them to school in the fall, she said.

“Until this virus slows down, I don’t see us starting,” she said.

As a physical education teacher, Fischer knows how difficult it will be for younger students to social distance. She recalled an encounter she had with a former student in April, when social distancing and stay-at-home orders were still in place. While she was delivering for Meals on Wheels, she ran into a former student who ran right up to Fischer, who was wearing a face mask and gloves, and hugged her.

Midway ISD Superintendent George Kazanas said the district’s Safe Start Task Force is working on plans for myriad scenarios that will be ready to implement once TEA issues guidance on health measures.

“Our staff and parents alike are anxiously awaiting the state’s decisions,” Kazanas said. “Our working groups are fervently researching best practices, reviewing recommendations and preparing logistics so we are able to share our plans as soon as possible.”

Similarly, Kincannon said Waco ISD is “working diligently” to develop a plan for the school year, but the district still needs guidance from TEA to move forward with any plans.

“It is out of our hands at this point,” she said.

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