The Texas Education Agency on Tuesday urged masks for school employees and some students, keeping desks 6 feet apart and maybe opening windows when the bells start ringing for classes this fall.
The agency released preliminary guidelines for the reopening of school in the fall after being shut down since mid-spring because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but local superintendents say they need more information.
Pine Tree ISD Superintendent Steve Clugston said he sent Education Commissioner Mike Morath “several questions” so he can make further plans.
Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox said he does not think anyone expected all the answers Tuesday.
“(Morath) did provide us another step in guidance and direction,” Wilcox said. “We all understand it’s going to be a work in progress, and it’s new territory. There was a lot of flexibility, and I’m sure everyone appreciates that.”
He said the district still has planning to do, and that will be presented to the school board. More guidelines are expected to be issued next Tuesday.
The agency listed safety procedures in four groups: provide notice, prevent, respond and mitigate.
Districts must post for parents and the general public a summary of the plan they will follow to mitigate COVID-19 spread in the schools one week before the start of on-campus activities and instruction, according to TEA.
The plan must be posted on the school system homepage or another easily found area on the system website.
For attendance, TEA will allow virtual instruction to count. Any parent can request virtual learning for their student.
“I like the idea that we’re going to be able to generate full funding for a student who wouldn’t be safe to come to school,” Clugston said. “There’s no doubt they saw some schools struggle with the previous remote instruction and the need for a more robust system with an increased amount of work to meet the demands of teaching new material.”
For prevention, the agency released recommendations for districts to follow. The recommendations include requiring teachers and staff to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms and screening students and all visitors. The guidelines allow districts to permit people who fail the screening from entering a campus.
Schools also must immediately separate a student who shows COVID-19 symptoms until he or she can be picked up by a parent or guardian.
In response to a confirmed COVID-19 case at a school, the local health department must be notified.
Additionally, the campus must close off areas heavily used by the patient who tested positive until the surfaces can be disinfected, and the school must notify all teachers, staff and families of all students in a school if a lab-confirmed COVID-19 case is identified among students, teachers or staff who participate on any on-campus activities. The notification should comply with legal confidentiality requirements.
Also in guidelines, TEA released mitigation practices schools can follow.
Most practices are those already encouraged by health officials such as frequent hand washing, hand sanitizer and disinfecting of surfaces.
The guidelines also encourage campuses to open windows to improve air flow when possible.
TEA recommends schools consider having all employees wear masks or face shields.
The agency also asks schools to consider students having wear masks if possible at times they will be in close proximity to other students for an extended period.
The documents said it is not developmentally appropriate for students in kindergarten and below or for some students with disabilities to wear masks.
For students in first grade and above, the determination of whether wearing a mask is developmentally appropriate is up to the student’s parent or guardian, according to the documents.
Clugston said Pine Tree will not look at mask requirements until it is closer to the school year.
Wilcox said masks will be recommended at Longview ISD.
Guidelines also recommend spacing desks 6 feet apart where possible, students gathering outside when possible, wearing masks on buses, opening bus windows when possible and cleaning buses after each trip.
The guidelines do not currently say anything about keeping classrooms to 10 or fewer students.
“We’re working on coming back to school as normal,” Wilcox said. “We’re looking at A/B schedules, where half our students come Monday and Wednesday and the others Tuesday and Thursday, but we’re planning on returning to school as normally as possible when we start the 2020 school year.”
Clugston said most schools simply do not have the space to keep class sizes that small.
“If they’re not careful, the guidelines create a system where you can’t have everyone at school,” he said. “For a parent who is working, they have to figure out what to do with their kids. It’s like not having school.”
Wilcox said plenty of planning and updates still have to be done before the schools open in the fall.
“We don’t have the answers yet, but we, like every other district in the state, are going to be pushing forward to try to have the best strategy locally for our students and our district,” Wilcox said.