Waco Independent School District trustees expressed concern and frustration during Thursday night’s board meeting at the lack of concrete plans the district has prepared for the fall after the state failed to provide public health guidance on COVID-19 this week.
The Texas Education Agency planned to release public health guidelines Tuesday, along with standards for attendance, enrollment and remote instruction for the upcoming school year, but the agency did not provide public health guidelines as planned, leaving school districts unable to solidify plans for the 2020-21 school year.
TEA mistakenly posted draft guidelines detailing public health guidelines on its website Tuesday, but later removed them. They offered many recommendations but few mandates on mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Waco ISD trustee Stephanie Korteweg described the draft health guidelines as “concerning” during Thursday’s board meeting conducted via Zoom. She said she worries about students and their families, as well as district staff, as more McLennan County residents test positive for COVID-19.
McLennan County reported 72 more people had tested positive for the disease Friday, pushing the total number to 624. At least 425 are currently sick with COVID-19, and six people have died.
Board Secretary Norman Manning said he is worried about students falling behind in their learning, and trustee Robin Houston agreed, knowing some students do not have access to technology for remote learning.
“We’re in the end of June, and we don’t have a plan from TEA,” Houston said.
School districts must offer in-person instruction in the fall, but families may request their students receive remote instruction, which can be either synchronous, or involve real-time interaction with teachers, or asynchronous, which might involve reading assignments or watching a prepared video from the teacher, according to instruction guidelines released by TEA.
TEA also provided guidance on how remote instruction for districts 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.
To receive funding from the state for remote synchronous instruction, districts must meet a minimum number of daily instructional minutes. Students in third through fifth grades must receive at least three hours of instruction per day, and students in sixth through 12th grades must receive at least four hours, although the time can be broken up throughout the day.
The school board approved a budget amendment of $600,000 Thursday night to buy 4,450 Dell Chromebooks, enough to provide one to each middle school and high school student, creating a one-to-one device initiative for secondary campuses. Superintendent Susan Kincannon said the purchase will help with remote instruction this coming school year.
Trustee Cary DuPuy said the school district is going to have to get “really good at online learning.” He also expressed doubt that children would adhere to social distancing, at least outside the classroom.
“Y’all think kids are going to social distance in the hallways?” he said. “I’ve got news. They’re not.”
Korteweg asked how much leeway the district has in implementing the state’s guidelines when dealing with a new virus that is not well understood. Kincannon said Waco ISD could require more stringent measures, such as requiring face masks and daily temperature checks.
“Our fear is we’ll be having to shut down classrooms as students become sick with COVID,” Kincannon said.
On a call with superintendents Thursday, Kincannon said, the TEA said it would not provide guidelines on how many students could be in one classroom at a time, which is “a significant change” from the requirements for summer school that limited each classroom to 11 students at a time.
“We’re getting conflicting messages.” she said. “The draft document seems to suspend from the reality of COVID-19 and what’s happening in the state. In late May, when the spread of the virus seemed to be relatively out of control, the state was saying we could have no more than 11 people in a classroom at the same time. Now that we have our highest numbers of hospitalizations in state, the draft public health guidance that was posted did not limit how people can be in a classroom at any single time.”
The district plans to survey about 400 families to better inform its planning for the fall, Kincannon said. Additionally, Waco ISD will seek input from teachers and other staff members on returning to school and possibly hold a virtual town hall meeting for more feedback.
Waco ISD created a COVID-19 Task Force of about 50 teachers and administrators. The group first met June 8, when members were tasked with interviewing three parents or students each to gather feedback on how the end of the spring semester went for them. They asked questions about the teaching methods that worked well for them and the ones that did not, as well as what they hope the upcoming school year would look like.
Many families said the switch to remote instruction was a difficult adjustment. Some said paper packets the district distributed were easier to use, while others preferred online learning. Families with multiple students in different grades seemed to struggle the most with the change, juggling multiple digital learning platforms and schedules. Some families said they struggled with technology, as well as a language barrier.
On returning to school in the fall, the responses split pretty evenly between wanting a return to “normal” and staying with online-only learning. Some families said they feared returning to school, while others wanted a return to school and social interactions with safety measures in place.