More than a dozen Texas public school districts across the state, including many in the Houston and Dallas areas, announced Thursday they would extend their spring breaks due to concerns about the new strain of coronavirus.
Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, which enrolls more than 200,000 students, has canceled school Friday, in advance of next week’s spring break. Houston Community College notified the district of potential exposure to the virus at two campus locations, where district students also take classes. Houston ISD classes are expected to resume March 31.
Some of the districts extending their spring breaks are working on contingency plans to transition hundreds of thousands of students and teachers to online learning in the event of even longer closures.
Fort Bend Independent School District will suspend classes for at least two weeks starting Monday and require essential staff to get training in online instruction in case extended school closures become necessary due to future outbreaks of the disease, which is called COVID-19.
More than 10 school districts in the Houston area, including Cypress Fairbanks ISD, Conroe ISD, Klein ISD and Humble ISD, also announced they are suspending classes. Several in the Dallas area, including Allen ISD and Plano ISD, are doing the same. Corpus Christi ISD also announced it’s extending spring break to deep clean. El Paso ISD also announced it will extend spring break by an additional week.
Katy ISD postponed classes, campus events, field trips, student trips and competitions starting Friday through March 22. If the closure is extended, “instruction will resume via online virtual learning,” according to the district’s website. “Teachers will be prepared for online instruction over the next week should that become necessary,” the site said.
As of Thursday, there were 36 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas, including 11 patients who were traveling abroad and then federally quarantined at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The Houston area has been hit hardest with about 17 identified cases – 12 of which were associated with people traveling on a cruise ship in Egypt.
The wave of temporary closures is not without precedent; in the spring of 2009, 853 campuses enrolling more than 500,000 students closed for two to 14 days in response to the H1N1 flu, responding to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to a notice from the agency, school districts with prolonged school closures due to coronavirus concerns may apply for waivers from the state, allowing them to avoid financial penalties, as long as they can prove they are teaching students remotely.
Since school districts are funded based on average daily student attendance, they could otherwise lose state funding if students are absent for long periods of time in large numbers.
As the number of school districts canceling classes ramps up, not every one has the capacity to immediately pivot to offering classes online. Experts say that for most school districts, switching to online learning is easier said than done. It requires training for students and teachers to learn how to use the digital system, especially if it’s brand new.