“It is better for us if they come in,” Dr. Hinojosa said from his office at Dallas Independent School District headquarters late last month. “It is unprofessional if kids are yelling in the background, dogs barking and husbands walking back and forth.”
The teachers’ response was swift and clear: His approach would gamble with their lives as Covid-19 runs rampant in the area, citing an Arizona teacher’s recent death as an example.
After consulting a county leader, Dr. Hinojosa changed his stance. He would now allow teachers to apply to work from home if they had reliable internet and minimal distractions. He asked a staffer to write new language. “I don’t want to have a firestorm,” he said.
Dr. Hinojosa’s experience shows the heart-wrenching decisions facing superintendents throughout America as they try to educate children while navigating an array of opposing forces, few of them stable.
They must balance rapidly changing statistics that project the potential loss of learning—and potential loss of lives. Government directives are shifting. A plan for the fall may face teacher-union backlash. Change the plan, and some parents object. Reopen and a student gets Covid-19—and the district has to roll out another plan.
‘Flexibility is the name of the game,’ says Dr. Hinojosa. CREDIT: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
A superintendent’s decisions can affect the economy, determining if parents can head back to work or need to be home helping their children learn.
“Flexibility is the name of the game,” Dr. Hinojosa said, “because things are changing in real time, sometimes by the hour.” He is among holdouts: He hasn’t given up on offering both in-person and remote learning, despite more districts locally and nationally announcing they will start online-only.
Issues over reopening have split the U.S., with some people wanting campuses open to in-person learning while some unions haven’t ruled out so-called safety strikes over reopening. Some school districts have already started the new school year, with many offering remote learning and some opening doors to students.
Large districts such as Chicago and Los Angeles have scrapped in-person learning plans for now. As Covid-19 flares across the country, many districts are focusing on improving remote learning.
The Dallas district released its reopening plan last month, but said there could be changes based on input from parents, teachers and circumstances with the virus. The plan mostly centers on safety procedures, such as wearing masks, social distancing and cleaning buildings. The district has delayed the school start date to Sept. 8 from Aug. 17.
The student body in Dr. Hinojosa’s district is about 70% Hispanic, 22% Black and 6% white. He fears losing academic gains made under his watch in the district, which state data show went from having 37 low-performing schools in 2015 to eight in 2019. He feels his students are defeating the odds like he did as an immigrant boy in the district, where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
It has been about five months since his students learned in classrooms, and remote learning was less than stellar after a fast spring rollout, he said: “We cannot afford to get further behind.”
Dr. Hinojosa is listening to parents as he continues to fine-tune the plan. Some want schools reopened, as they can’t stay home to help educate their children. Others demand flexibility in switching to in-person learning if they are called back to work, instead of waiting until the end of the nine-week period as the district prefers.
“If I have to go back to work, they have to go back to school,” said Dallas parent Kendall McKimmey. “I can’t lose my job over it.”
A district spokeswoman said there would be some flexibility for parents needing to switch to in-person learning.
Workers install a plexiglass barrier in a Dallas elementary-school restroom. CREDIT: LM OTERO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dr. Hinojosa faces backlash from teachers like Diane Birdwell, 59. “I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to get sick,” she said. “But I can’t retire yet. So if the schools reopen, I really don’t have a choice but to go back. I know the superintendent is doing what he can to keep us all safe, but the virus doesn’t care.”
Some Dallas teachers cite the situation in Arizona’s Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District, where three teachers shared a classroom during virtual summer school. One got sick the first week of class. All three tested positive for Covid-19, despite precautions such as masks, temperature checks, social distancing and cleaning. The teacher showing the first symptoms died, and eight employees in all—13% of employees—got infected in the 300-student district, said the district’s superintendent, Jeff Gregorich.
“I have no idea right now what it is that I could have done differently,” Mr. Gregorich said. One of the three teachers, Angela Skillings, 43, said she and the other two “were very careful,” adding, “We’re not sure who had it first, who gave it to who. It was scary.”
Dallas’s Alliance-AFT teachers union wants only online learning until January, or at a minimum the first eight weeks of school, and under a steady decline in confirmed Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. Union President Rena Honea has asked her 5,000 members to contact board members to urge them to support the request. “The teachers are the very people that are having to do the work, that are having to risk their lives,” Ms. Honea said.
Dr. Hinojosa said that teachers have a valid concern about contracting the virus in classrooms and that the district is relying on medical experts to advise it as it makes reopening decisions.
While Texas teachers unions don’t have the legal right to strike, he said they can make life rough, so he works with them. “They’re very organized,” he said. “If they get mad and you just diss them, then they can make a lot of noise. They can make your life miserable.”
The Dallas district’s reopening plan, released July 21, requires students and staff to wear protective face coverings and encourages social distancing at 6 feet. Schools will separate students with plexiglass when in classrooms or lunchrooms, won’t allow volunteers inside, and will confine parents to the front office.
A video accompanying the plan shows masked students getting mandatory temperature checks before entering school. At classrooms, they slip off masks and slide on face shields, or wear both if parents choose. All students receive a refillable bottle of hand sanitizer. School buildings are cleaned daily and disinfected weekly.
The video’s orderly scenario likely won’t last as people get lax, said Dallas teacher Leslie Daroche, 47. “When a parent drops their kids off at school, they trust that the school will keep them safe,” she said. “I don’t want that safety plan to be me, making sure kids keep their masks on and don’t breathe on each other. Every teacher wants to go back to school and be with their kids, but you want to go back safe.”
Dr. Hinojosa came to the U.S. from Mexico as a young boy with his family, attending schools in the Dallas district. He started his career in the district as a teacher and coach. He is now in a second stint as superintendent, with an education career spanning 40 years, about 26 of them spent leading school districts, including in Cobb County in suburban Atlanta.
On the workday late last month, stretching past 15 hours, Dr. Hinojosa attended a board meeting where he heard from dozens of speakers, via a live feed, including teachers not wanting to teach in person. “We can catch up on learning, but we cannot replace lives,” one teacher said. Another said: “This has been one of my greatest life challenges.”
On the agenda: his proposal that Dallas push its reopening date back three weeks, giving him more time to prepare. A board member noted his constituents’ concern with the proposal, which would also delay school’s end to June 18, saying it would interfere with summer activities like camps and vacation.
Board member Joyce Foreman questioned why the district hadn’t involved teachers more with the conversation surrounding reopening plans.
“Can I get some kind of commitment that the teachers will be brought to the table?” she said.
Dr. Hinojosa apologized, saying he made decisions in the speed of the moment. “I accept your request,” he told Ms. Foreman.
Shortly after the board voted unanimously to delay the school year’s start to Sept. 8, he dashed across the hall for a news conference. “We’re going to listen to the parents, we’re going to listen to the teachers,” he said, answering questions in English and Spanish. “And we’re going to especially listen to the science.”
But the science, too, is shifting over theories on children’s role in the pandemic, complicating planning. Some health experts say children who get infected tend to do very well, but others don’t, and children can pass it on to adults. A recent study in South Korea found children between ages 10 and 19 spread the new coronavirus much more than those under 10.
In writing a plan, the district has watched the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which encourages schools to reopen for in-person learning this fall but says school officials should make decisions based on levels of community transmission and the capacity to mitigate spread in schools. The CDC advises reopened schools to increase physical distance between students, keeping students in small groups and wearing masks or cloth face coverings.
Even as Dr. Hinojosa hopes to get students in class, he is preparing to roll out what he says will be a robust remote-learning program, which he expects also to be a fallback for anyone needing quarantine. Many districts, including Dallas, say remote learning will be more rigorous this time around and similar to what a student would receive on campus. Dallas teachers will give students zeros for undone work, unlike before.
Dr. Hinojosa is painfully aware of problems nationally in the spring, when schools rolled out remote learning quickly to millions of students. Many students didn’t have internet access, some parents weren’t available to teach their children, and many teachers lacked training to deliver instruction remotely.
It has been a balancing act for Dr. Hinojosa, trying not to get crosswise with spirited parents, teachers and politicians in a district sitting in heavily Democratic Dallas in a Republican-controlled state.
Dr. Hinojosa expects to have to deal with positive Covid-19 cases when schools reopen, judging from cases in other U.S. school districts.
In Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia’s largest district, staff returned to school July 29. By the next day, officials reported about 260 employees had tested positive for coronavirus or been in contact with someone who had. School is scheduled to start in Gwinnett on Aug. 12 with teachers required to instruct from classrooms with students returning on a staggered basis despite their objections.
“There have been no changes in the district’s expectation that teachers report to schools,” the district said in a statement.
The Dallas district plans to have students who start in-person send in assignments by laptop, to become familiar with the online platform, said Dr. Stephanie Elizalde, the district’s chief of school leadership. That way, she said, “At any given time, if we have a situation, they can learn at home.”
‘If we have a situation, they can learn at home,’ says Dr. Elizalde, in red mask at the board meeting.
Dallas will isolate students with Covid-19 symptoms until their parents can get them. For positive cases, Dallas County’s health department will aid in contact-tracing to determine who needs to quarantine or if a school needs to close.
Students who purposely cough, sneeze or spit on another student with the intention of spreading the virus face repercussions. The Dallas district guidelines require that, for intentional incidents, a police or security officer be called to determine the violation for possible consequences.
Dr. Hinojosa said he is making decisions for the long haul. “This thing may go on for a while,” he said. “The kids have got to keep on learning.”
Dallas ISD is a member of the Texas School Alliance.
This story was originally published by The Wall Street Journal.