By: HD Chambers and Brian Woods
Recently, Major League Baseball started its version of the 2020 season by allowing players, coaches and team staff members to travel and play in different cities and stadiums. They are also allowing players to stay at home and travel to and from their practice facilities. Even though there are very strict safety protocols in place, it took just a few days for multiple teams to begin having players and staff test positive for COVID-19 and games to be postponed and rescheduled, with the threat of canceling the abbreviated season.
If Major League Baseball, working with a small number of adults in a confined setting and with financial and medical resources, has been unable to prevent the spread of COVID-19, then it seems reasonable to think that it will be difficult to open schools for in-person instruction and not have COVID cases in our schools. The first question becomes, knowing this, is it truly safe to bring students and teachers back to schools?
Community leaders across the state have been grappling with this question since March. Each individual school district’s board of trustees and superintendent have been charged with making this decision based on whatever scientific and qualitative data are available. There are plenty of opinions but very little for us to make data-based decisions. School districts have polled their communities and have received a variety of responses: some parents want their children to return to school for in-person instruction and some do not. Some staff members are willing to return for in-person instruction and many are not. So, school districts are placed in the impossible position of accommodating both by investing in and launching virtual learning for the start of school.
State leaders are financially incentivizing districts to start in-person instruction by allowing full virtual learning for no more than 8 weeks from the first day of school. To stay fully virtual beyond this arbitrary 8-week window, districts will be required to apply for a waiver from the Texas Education Agency to prevent state funding cuts. Should state funding be the basis for our decisions? The average school district commits 85 to 90 percent of its operations budget to payroll. If there are funding cuts, those cuts will have direct consequences. Let us be clear — we all want our students to return to school for in-person instruction. The second question we are all having to answer is, at what cost?
School districts use protocols and processes to address emerging safety threats to students and staff, whether they are on a campus or not. Every superintendent and trustee makes these decisions daily. Our principals and teachers, often acting as first responders, take this role seriously and are asked to protect students against modern threats.
Based on recent letters and news releases from state leaders, it seems that local health authorities are not allowed to take preventative measures (closing schools) and can only take action after a COVID-19 outbreak has occurred on a campus. Since it appears the decision-making power to reopen schools now rests with local volunteer school board trustees, school districts require science-based guidance and systematic, milestone plans. These plans should contain explicit markers for local conditions and be a road map to safely reopening or closing for each community.
Superintendents and school board members are charged with the safety and security of every student and staff member while ensuring the delivery of the best education possible for all students. Local taxpayers have been making significant investments in technology and PPE supplies as districts divert funds to cover the real monetary costs of COVID. Make no mistake about it; our decisions during this pandemic will be based first and foremost on the health and safety of students, staff and family members, regardless of arbitrary timelines and funding threats. We will rely on our local health officials to help us be proactive and not reactive. We will take every action necessary to honor our most important responsibility. We will do this based on science, data and district policy, not emotions or politics.
Chambers is the superintendent of Alief ISD and Woods is the superintendent of Northside ISD.
This story was originally published by The Houston Chronicle. Alief ISD and Northside ISD are members of the Texas School Alliance.
MR. HD Chambers
Superintendent, Alief ISD
Dr. Brian Woods
Superintendent, Northside ISD