Written By: The Editorial Board – The Houston Chronicle
There is no perfect way to reopen schools in the middle of a pandemic, but a just-released plan by Houston ISD shows that bringing students back for the new academic year doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the dangers posed by COVID-19.
The plan for the largest school district in Texas, unveiled by Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan on Wednesday, should serve as a model for other districts and state officials.
Under the HISD timeline, the start of the upcoming school year has been pushed back to Sept. 8 and classes for the district’s 200,000-plus students would remain online-only for the first six weeks. After that, families have the option of choosing all-virtual learning or face-to-face instruction starting Oct. 19 — and they will be allowed to change their minds at the beginning of every six-week grading cycle.
Morever, Lathan stressed that even these plans are subject to further revision as conditions related to the pandemic evolve. New orders by public health officials or Gov. Greg Abbott could also prompt revisions, she told a group of parent-teacher organization leaders.
We salute Lathan and HISD officials for acknowledging the obvious: The surge in coronavirus cases has made it too risky to open schools for on-campus learning in August. They were wise to announce plans for reopening that disregarded the unwise Texas Education Agency guidelines issued July 7, which stated school districts must provide on-campus classes five days a week within three weeks of the day schools reopen for the 2020-21 academic year or risk losing state funding.
Lathan thanked Abbott for his comments on Tuesday signaling that state officials were considering giving districts more flexibility. Abbott indicated TEA Commissioner Mike Morath would be revising the state’s guidance, but provided no details.
It’s time for Abbott and Morath to follow HISD’s lead and give local school officials throughout Texas the power to do what is needed to protect their staff and students.
The TEA guidance thus far flies against common sense and good public health. What is right for a small district in a community where COVID-19 cases are low would not be right for Houston, where coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are reaching record levels.
Instead of mandating a one-size-fits-all approach, state education officials must listen to local leaders and teachers unions who are pleading for more autonomy as they plan for the next school year.
The Texas School Alliance and the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, both of which include HISD, have urged Abbott to allow districts more flexibility, including the ability to offer online-only learning for at least the first six- or nine-week grading period or longer, if health conditions warrant.
There is much else to cheer in HISD’s plans. Lathan acknowledged that up to 35 percent of its students live in households with no internet access. Since all students will begin the school year studying at home, that is an urgent barrier to providing the uninterrupted learning she said remains a top goal for the district. She said HISD is trying to close the digital gap by purchasing 35,000 additional laptops or similar devices as well as providing internet service to 6,000 homes through internet hotspots. That’s encouraging.
As is the district’s plan to reconfigure classrooms to ensure physical distancing and capping class size to one teacher for every 10 students once in-person learning begins. There are also requirements for daily screenings, face coverings and use of PPE.
The HISD plan is not ideal. Remote learning has its limitations, as demonstrated by this spring’s abrupt transition to online classes, when Houston-area districts lost contact with thousands of students.
But the district’s measured approach to reopening shows that HISD leaders are being guided by science and public health warnings, not politics or public pressure. We hope Abbott and state education officials are paying attention and will give all Texas districts the freedom to do the same.
This story was originally published by The Houston Chronicle.
The Editorial Board is made up of opinion journalists with wide-ranging expertise whose consensus opinions and endorsements represent the voice of the institution – defined as the board members, their editor and the publisher. The board is separate from the newsroom and other sections of the paper.