Fort Bend ISD and Stafford MSD, which announced they would start the 2020-21 school year with online learning, recently received more leeway from the state when it comes to ensuring students are safe when they choose to return to campuses.
The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released amended COVID-19 guidance last Friday, providing public school districts in the state with the ability to utilize online-only instruction for up to eight weeks after the start of school. Once students have transitioned to on-campus instruction, the TEA said high schools can give students the option to continue receiving online instruction or attend in-person classes.
The TEA previously said schools had to provide daily on-campus instruction for students whose parents or guardians want that within three weeks after the start of the school year.
“We live in unnerving times, and COVID has been a major disruption in all of our lives,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a Friday video addressed to parents and teachers. “We’ve crafted a framework so that schools can open safely subject to a variety of adjustments to keep our staff and our students safe. We know we need to provide local schools flexibility to adapt to local health conditions, especially given the rise in COVID cases we’re seeing across the state.”
Stafford MSD announced on Twitter later Friday that the district will conduct online learning with its “1 to 1” initiative, in which every student will have access to an iPad for online learning, for the first month of the school year, which begins Aug. 19. The decision came just days after Fort Bend ISD announced it would start the school year exclusively with online learning.
“We recommend caution in sending students directly back to school for in-person instruction because of the current surge for COVID-19 cases,” SMSD said in a statement posted to its website Friday. ”As the situation continues to change, this means many of our decisions regarding the protocol and measures needed to ensure the safety and health of our students and staff will be made in real time.”
As of Monday, Stafford had 223 reported cases of COVID-19, the contagious disease caused by the new coronavirus strain, according to Fort Bend County. There has been a total of 5,995 cases among county residents, with COVID-19 having caused at least 72 deaths and 2,130 patients having recovered.
Both SMSD and FBISD already had been planning to offer a hybrid model between face-to-face instruction and online curriculum once students were cleared to begin returning to classes. During the period of distance learning to start the school year, FBISD previously said daily online engagement will be required of students and no extracurricular activities – including athletics and fine arts – will take place.
SMSD parents have been asked to fill out an online form on the district’s Stafford Learns website by July 27. The form must be completed before a child can attend SMSD for the 2020-21 school year.
“It is our full intention to get all students and staff back in school as soon as we are able to do it safely,” SMSD Superintendent Robert Bostic said. “However, at this time in our community, the COVID-19 numbers are rising and we have to do what we have to do.”
One week prior to the start of on-campus activities and instruction, the TEA said school systems must post for parents and the general public a summary of their plan—developed in consultation with teachers, staff, and parents — they will follow to mitigate COVID-19 spread in their schools based on the requirements and recommendations outlined in TEA’s public health planning guidance.
Among other things, the TEA’s guidance addresses sanitization and safety procedures for classrooms and school buses, saying schools should incorporate outside air flow when possible. It also calls for social distancing both during class and at lunch as well as the use of masks as most Texans who are at least 10 years old are required to wear face coverings in public per an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
The TEA also outlined protocols for separating students who show symptoms once they are on campus. It also suggests using physical dividers between desks and bathroom sinks.
The complete TEA guidance can be viewed at tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/covid/Covid-19-SY-20-21-Public-Health-Guidance.pdf.