Cooke County schools have been handed down guidelines for the upcoming school year from the Texas Education Agency including the requirement of masks and social distancing protocols.
Superintendents from across the county had a chance to digest the guidelines laid out Tuesday, July 7 by the TEA, and begin to put plans in place to implement those.
Gainesville Independent School District Superintendent DesMontes Stewart said his initial reaction to the guidelines was surprise.
“The guidelines provided [Tuesday] are very generic and leave a lot of discretion to the local school districts,” Stewart said. “I was expecting more specificity and guidance to be provided, but I understand TEA’s approach with the ever-changing status of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lindsay Independent School District Superintendent Trevor Rogers said he understood that the TEA is doing the best it could under the circumstances.
“They’re trying to do their best to encourage safety while at the same time allowing flexibility and trying to make sure kids state-wide are being educated,” Rogers said. “For the most part, I’m pleased. We’re going to able to have school, which is what I want.”
Callisburg Independent School District Superintendent Don Metzler said his biggest worry is not being to pull off all the various plans in place.
“My second concern is whether we’re going to maintain as safe and clean of building for staff, students and visitors,” Metzler said. “We think we can. We have some electrostatic sanitizing guns. A classroom can be sanitized in about two minutes or less.”
According to the TEA, any parent may request that their student be offered virtual instruction.
Metzler said Callisburg ISD will be able to make online instruction available and is already looking at the equipment needed for it. However, he is worried about the learning environment at home.
“Parents have to ensure that they have that ability to do that at home and we can loan them devices, but at our location, there are spots where there is no internet,” Metzler said. “It’s going to be complicated by the fact that parents are going to be able to do that. Are they working? Will they be able to oversee their kids doing stuff? What will they do for childcare?”
Rogers said the experience Lindsay ISD earned with at-home learning during the last few months of the 2020 spring semester was valuable for the upcoming school year.
“We’re not shocked, surprised or disappointed,” Rogers said. “We’ve been talking all spring knowing that was coming. We feel like we did an OK job in the spring, but we’ll do better this time around with more knowledge and experience of how to do it. Quite frankly, COVID-19 is going to lay the foundation for that going forward.”
Stewart also shared his concern with virtual learning at home.
“If a student elects to participate in a virtual learning environment, parents must be prepared to support the student at home, ensure that he or she is working daily and that they have the proper internet network or technology needed to complete all assigned work,” Stewart said. “I support parents electing for their students to engage in virtual instruction. This provides our parents with a great opportunity to actively engage in the learning process with their students while in the comfort of their own home.”
The TEA has also stated that schools are required to comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order mandating masks in most public spaces.
According to the TEA, the mask requirement doesn’t apply to students under the age of 10, but schools can also require the use of masks for students for whom it is developmentally appropriate.
“I’m going to have to fall back on what science is telling us because I’m not an expert on it,” Metzler said. “Masks are interesting and local districts have the choice. There is a real big emphasis of people pre-screening themselves. If they’re not running a temperature or having a cough or showing symptoms, then they’re free to come to school. If not, then they need to realize to keep them home. The biggest part is trying to get moms, dads and teachers that you have to monitor your own health.”
Rogers said he knows there will be some difference of opinions when it comes to the mask requirements.
“I don’t personally have an issue, but it has been a hot-button topic,” Rogers said. “I believe we can find a middle ground of meeting the governor’s requests while at the same time not make it over-obtrusive for the kids and parents that aren’t fans of wearing the masks. As long as there is distancing in the classroom, they won’t have to have them on. They’ll have to wear them in the hallways, but in the classrooms, they won’t.”
Social distancing practices will also be difficult to apply at the Callisburg elementary campuse, according to Metzler.
“We have an average of 20 to 21 kids in our classrooms and they have all this additional shelving and equipment in there,” Metzler said. “At my high school and middle school, I can easily put 24-25 kids and a teacher in a science room because it is so large. I can have desks and chairs and 16-17 in a normal room. We need to guarantee that those rooms are getting sanitized.”
The TEA recommended that classrooms consider putting student desks a minimum of six feet apart and in classrooms where students are regularly within six feet of each other, schools should plan to for more frequent hand washing and or hand sanitation. If possible, increased airflow from the outdoors via windows is suggested.
Stewart said there are worries for GISD over the social distancing protocols.
“The social distancing piece is one of my main concerns going into the 2020-2021 school year,” Stewart said. “We will work through the parameters that have been provided as best we can, but we will not be disciplining kids who fail to follow social distancing protocols. We will continue to educate those students who may not fully understand the importance of this recommended safety precaution.”
Rogers said Lindsay is fortunate to be a small school and that he doesn’t anticipate as many complications with social distancing.
“We’ll have kids sitting one per bus seat and we might have to have an additional route,” Rogers said. “It will be the same in the cafeteria. We’ll spread them out. The best thing we can do is the best you can do and that’s from the conversation with the commissioner of education in Texas. You’ll have some classes that are pretty big and some that are pretty small.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday, superintendents across the state have joined video conferences with the Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, who has been adamant about what to do if a student tests positive for COVID-19.
“They have to be out for 14 days,” Rogers said. “We have to track their interaction and we’ll go to those individuals that they have made contact with, you may have them get tested or quarantine them. There isn’t going to be one size fits all. You may have to let school out for a single day and sanitize. There are no mandates.”
“We don’t want to panic and have folks running around scared,” he added.
Metzler said at the Callisburg ISD upcoming board meet in July, he plans on proposing that school start two days earlier on Aug. 17 just in case school has to shut down due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Stewart said GISD will act swiftly if there is a positive test.
“If a student receives a lab-confirmed positive test, we will begin the process of notifying our local health officials as well as parents, teachers and staff,” Stewart said. “We then would work to remove students from the areas that the student may have had access to and proceed with a deep cleaning to disinfect the classroom. The student will then have to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days and provide medical documentation clearing them to return to school.”
As schools move forward, superintendents know that they will have to play each situation by ear.
“Planning for the opening of school as well as adhering to the many regulations that have been put into place has been challenging to say the least,” Stewart said. “With the latest guidance that has been provided, my team and I, will continue to plan accordingly understanding that change is inevitable.”
Rogers said the hardest part of the whole situation is the politics involved.
“There are some that are scared and fearful and there are some that are the other way that think this is a political ploy of some type,” Rogers said. “Somewhere in the middle is the schools and whatever decision we make, someone isn’t going to like it, but we have the stay-at-home option and we have trained people that have experience teaching kids. If you don’t like what’s going on, keep them at home and we’ll teach them. You can have the best of both worlds.”