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Local districts sort through TEA back-to-school guidelines

July 15, 2020 - 00:00
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    CISD Superintendent Jim Connor discussed the district’s back-to-school plans at the July 13 CISD school board meeting. Citizen | Alesia Woolridge

Teachers, along with school administrators, have been busy combing through the highly-anticipated Texas Education Agency COVID-19 health and safety guidelines issued July 8 for returning to school in the fall.

A release of the guidelines was delayed as the COVID-19 situation got worse in the state of Texas.

The list of guidelines includes information on how instructions can be conducted, school sports and activities, masks, and more.

Among the guidance in the nine-page document, TEA states teachers and staff will be required to self-screen for COVID-19 before going to campus each day. This includes taking their own temperature and reporting to school officials if they find themselves with symptoms or a positive test. Additionally, they must report if they have had close contact with a person who has tested positive for the virus. If so, the teacher or staff member must remain off campus for two weeks.

Students who have COVID-19 or have come in close contact are also asked to stay home and enroll in virtual learning. School systems are allowed to also screen their students before entering campus, if need be.Visitors can not enter campus without a pre-screening test.

CISD will have in person and virtual school

At the July 13 Columbus ISD school board meeting, Superintendent Jim Connor laid out the district’s preliminary plan for returning to school in the fall, noting plans remain fluid and could change. Connor, a former Science teacher, said he has a “firm belief in science”, and said the district’s plans follow the CDC’s guidelines closely.

CISD’s plans include the following:

School will be Monday through Friday, and classes will be offered both virtually and in person.

Parents will have the option to either have their children attend school virtually or in person. The district will ask that parents who choose virtual stick with that mode for six weeks before changing to in person classes.

Students attending classes virtually will need to log in to be accounted in the attendance check daily.

While school will be in session Monday through Friday, Connor said the district may start school a little later. “We were among the first in the state to host an in person graduation ceremony, and we did a great job, but I’m not sure I want to be the first to open up school in the fall,” Connor said. “I’d rather start school later and end later in June, than to get someone sick.”

Every student and teacher on campus will be monitored for fever and symptoms daily.

Connor said social distancing is attainable in the classrooms with 14 students per class. According to CDC guidelines, if social distancing is feasible, masks are not required. In situations where social distancing is not attainable, masks will be required for everyone over the age of 10.

Connor unveiled a color-coded monitoring system that will be available on CISD’s website that will show the level of virus community spread throughout the district. Code green would indicate little to no community spread; blue will be mild community spread; yellow - orange would indicate moderate community spread, and at that time heavily infected campuses would close and be disinfected; and red would alert that there is heavy community spread of the coronavirus. If code red is reached, the district would close all campuses and go to all virtual learning.

Connor said the difference between yellow/orange and red codes is that one is short term closure (yellow/orange) and the other (red) is long term closure of campuses.

In further efforts to minimize viral spread, water fountains will not be in use at campuses, and the district is looking into assigning certain restrooms for specific classrooms to use. Connor said the district hopes to know how many students to expect for in person classes and how many for virtual by the end of July.

“When surveyed two weeks ago, about 75 percent of families wanted to come back to school,” Connor said.

The district plans to be in close communication with families regarding the back to school plans in the weeks to come.

Connor went on to say that his top priority is keeping students and staff as safe and healthy as possible. “I do not want to put anyone in harm’s way. I couldn’t live with anyone getting sick on my watch,” he said.

Other districts chime in

Rice CISD and Weimar ISD are still ironing out their back-to-school plans as well. RCISD Superintendent Bill Hefner said planning is “a challenging situation” for the district. “Rice CISD is currently working on safety plans and instructional plans for the upcoming years as per the information provided”, Hefner said. “We will be reaching out to parents in the coming weeks to gather information on whether they intend to send their child to campus for instruction or if they will be choosing remote instruction. Remote instruction will be different than it was last spring, so we are working to develop plans for that also. The situation is very fluid and information is still trickling in by the day from TEA and all new guidance we receive tends to lead to more questions. It is a very challenging situation right now, but we are committed to providing a quality education and opportunity for our students in the safest environment we can provide.”

Jon Wunderlich, Weimar ISD Superintendent, said they will meet this week to review their plans. “Weimar ISD continues to work with Local, State, and Federal agencies as we develop a plan that is structured around a safe educational environment. As governmental directives continue to change, we realize that all plans must be adaptable to the environment and the concerns of all stakeholders. The Weimar ISD Board will meet this week to review a proposed plan for in person and virtual instruction. It should be made available to parents in the following days, with the opportunity for feedback. Please keep in mind that this plan is a draft that relates to current issues. It can and will be adjusted as situations change in terms of prevailing data associated with the COVID-19 virus, in the Weimar community and schools.”

Special needs not mentioned

While educators across the state were glad to see a plan released by TEA, the plans don’t specifically address some of the most vulnerable students within districts across the state.

The words “special needs instruction” or “special education” do not appear in the TEA’s nine pages of new guidelines.

On the TEA’s website under “COVID-19 Support: Special Education”, the following information was found, “During the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, LEAs must make reasonable efforts to provide the student with the services required by the student’s IEP. If there are services, accommodations, and modifications required by the student’s IEP that cannot be provided during this time, the student’s ARD committee must determine which services it can provide to meet the student’s needs (34 CFR 300.324(a)(4).”

Requirement for special needs students can vary, with some having feeding tubes and requiring major assistance with toileting, eating and other activities.

Academically, meeting the needs of students with special needs may require some creativity if the students are taught virtually.

The TEA guidelines can be viewed at https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/covid/covid19-SY- 20-21-Public-Health-Guidance.pdf.

“We were among the first in the state to host an in-person graduation ceremony, and we did a great job, but I’m not sure I want to be the first to open up school in the fall.”

Jim Connor

CISD Superintendent