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By Dave Rogers
For the Record 

Schools get re-opening guidance – for now


Last updated 7/7/2020 at 8:51pm

"Virtual" online instruction and on-campus "face-to-face" learning will be the ways to go for the state's public primary and secondary schools – all while looking to avoid using "pandemic time."

Texas schools commissioner Mike Morath issued the long-awaited "public health planning guidance" Tuesday for the start of the 2020-21 school year, noting the school plans – like those for reopening the Texas economy – are subject to change along with the COVID-19 infection rate.

"Not that it wasn't helpful, but there was no ground-breaking information to share," one area schools superintendent said after the hour-long videoconference.

"We're all inching closer to the start of school, but there's still a ton of time for them to change the rules again and for us to adjust."

Stacey Brister, superintendent of Little Cypress-Mauriceville schools, hinted at the frustration of school administrators who are normally taking vacations about now. They can't this year, because of uncertainty created by the new coronavirus COVID-19, a pandemic unlike any seen before.

"We are planners," Brister said. "A lot of time, we'll have the next school year planned in March.

"This is definitely a challenge for us. And for parents as well."

According to a July 1 report issued by the Orange County Health Department, there have been at least 304 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county, with at least three deaths. The Texas Department of Health Services was reporting 327 Orange County cases as of July 7.

Worldwide, nearly 12 million have been infected with 540,000 deaths. In the U.S., 131,000 have died of the nearly 3 million confirmed cases.

Texas schools are being told they must accommodate on-campus classes and may or may not offer virtual online computer learning as well.

School districts that hope to make budget are advised to offer virtual learning as an option.

Any parent may request their children be offered virtual learning and can transfer to another school if their schools don't offer virtual learning.

Public schools in Texas receive state funds based on their average daily attendance (ADA).

As COVID-19 forced schools to close halfway through the spring semester as to slow the spread of the pandemic, schools in Texas suffered "COVID slide," with 11.3% of all students failing to turn in assignments or communicate with teachers.

This school year, according to the state, students must attend 90 percent of their course days to get credit for courses.

"Virtual students are required to log in at a particular time every day to be counted present," Brister said. "This isn't just 'Here's a packet,' like in the spring."

Shawn McAlpin, Orangefield schools superintendent, says most of his district's students will be in the classroom this year.

"We've surveyed our parents and most of them want to bring their kids back to school," McAlpin said. "We do have some that are concerned with PPE [personal protective equipment.]"

In this case, PPE refers to a requirement that everyone at school (except children under 10) wear a mask, except to eat meals or engage in extracurricular events.

"There are going to be some people who are just totally against [wearing masks]," McAlpin said. "But we don't know what's going to happen by then."

Tuesday, Morath ordered public schools to follow Gov. Greg Abbott's mask rules as long as they remain in place.

As of July 7, Bridge City is set to begin classes Aug. 3, with LCM opening Aug. 6 and both West Orange-Cove and Orangefield going back Aug. 12.

School districts must require teachers and staff members to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before coming onto campus each day.

Parents must not send a child to school if the child had COVID-19 symptoms, or is lab-confirmed with COVID-19. Parents may also opt to have students receive remote instruction if their child has had close contact with an individual who is lab-confirmed with COVID-19 until the 14-day incubation period has passed.

All visitors will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before being allowed onto campuses.

Individuals who either are lab-confirmed or have the symptoms of COVID-19 will not be allowed on campus until three days after recovery; the individual has improvement of the symptoms; and at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.

If an individual confirmed to have COVID-19 has been in a school, the school must notify the local health department; schools must close off areas that are heavily used by the individual until the area can be disinfected, unless more than three days have passed since the person was last on campus; and the school must notify all teachers, staff and families of all students.

Common-sense orders call for more frequent and rigorous cleaning of buildings and the requirement of frequent hand washing or sanitizing.

Social distancing recommendations include eliminating large staff meetings and school assemblies, as much as possible, and the use of dividers where possible.

"Everything is so fluid right now, any information they [school officials] get is helpful," said Danny Lovett, director of the Region 5 Education Service Center.

Bridge City's 20-21 district calendar includes two three-week blocks of "pandemic time" at the end of each semester, in case conditions call for the closing of campus during the year.

Both LCM's Brister and Orangefield's McAlpin said they had set aside extra days on their calendars, too.

West Orange-Cove, under superintendent Rickie Harris, was the first local district to post re-opening plans, with Harris noting in last week's release that the final details of the in-class education had yet to come from the state.

His plan, which he says will be available before student online registration begins July 15, included these safety measures being considered for on-campus instruction:

Weekly health screenings; daily temperature checks, reduction in student movement in buildings; physically distancing inside classrooms; one-way hallways; lunch in alternative locations, including classrooms; mandatory use of face shields and masks for staff and students; staggered arrival and release times; limited gatherings; and reduced bus capacities.

"We will do our best to provide as safe an environment for students as possible," Harris said.

"Yet, it will be very difficult to keep anyone from bringing the virus into our schools. We have only been able to have six days of summer athletic workouts because of students testing positive as a result of their activities outside the school setting.

"As superintendent and a parent, I have great concerns about the in-person option, but please know that we will do what is best for our students."


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