As the delta and mu variants continue to spread, there are more than 12,200 active COVID-19 cases among students and staff in our area, as of Wednesday afternoon.
On Thursday, school leaders and education experts joined Eyewitness News anchor Rita Garcia for a town hall tackling everything from virtual school options and mask mandates, to protections for teachers and high risk students.
More than a week after temporarily closing campuses due to rising COVID-19 infections, Angleton ISD superintendent Phil Edwards joined ABC13 to discuss his district's decision to mandate face masks in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott's order banning them.
The mandate goes into effect on Sept. 13, and Edwards has received criticism from many sides. Parents in Angleton have been given the option to opt their children out of the requirement.
Edwards was also joined on the panel by:
- Elizabeth Santos, HISD Board of Trustees
- State Rep. Harold Dutton, Houston
- Mandi Kimball, Children at Risk vice president
- Zeph Capo, Texas American Federation of Teachers president
Dozens of ABC13 viewers reached out to us offering questions for our panelists, and we did our best to answer as many as we could. Here is some of what we learned Thursday:
Q: Will students go back to virtual learning due to COVID-19 cases?
It depends on the school district, and whether state funding is available to support virtual learning.
"The evidence is overwhelming, in Angleton and everywhere, that kids learn best in schools with their teacher in a classroom," Edwards said. "Obviously, when health situations become such that we would have to think about that, you never want to say never, but I believe our task will be to keep kids in school as much as possible."
Edwards said data in Angleton ISD shows students who learned in person last year outperformed on the STAAR test better than in 2019.
Q: I have a sibling who is a teacher with three school-aged children. Two have had to quarantine, which means she has to take off work to be with the children, and in turn, she also has to quarantine. How are (schools) compensating teachers for missing so much time since, of course, this may not be the only incident of exposure and risk that's being taken.
- Taylor, Stafford
A: Capo said school districts are taking different approaches to this issue, with some providing additional cover days to staff when they are forced to quarantine.
"I think Houston (ISD) took an innovative approach in providing those additional days, both the 10 days and potentially additional cover days if those staff members have been vaccinated," he said. "I think that is something that we support, because we certainly know that increasing our vaccination rates amongst all staff, particularly because our kids below 12 cannot receive those vaccinations, is very, very important to controlling this virus."
Capo said some school districts, however, have required staff to use their own personal days when they were forced to quarantine.
Q: How are schools partnering with medical experts on updates and best practices for pediatrics and adolescent students? Is there a contingent plan for the immunocompromised?
- Alfreda, Pearland
A: In addition to partnering with Texas Medical Center and various children's hospitals to learn the latest COVID-19 data, school superintendents and administrators throughout southeast Texas are partnering with health authorities to offer testing and vaccinations.
At HISD, Trustee Santos said immunocompromised students can take advantage of its virtual academy or classes through Texas Connections Academy, if eligible. See the HISD website for virtual learning options.
Superintendent Edwards said Angleton ISD is handling contingencies on a case-by-case basis as it accepts applications for its Angleton Virtual Academy, which is set to begin Sept. 27.
Q: Why aren't there any protocols in place for students who are at severe risk and cannot wear masks due to their disabilities?
- Dee, Lower Heights
A: School districts are unable to act largely because of Gov. Abbott's mask ban and because of current Texas law, Rep. Dutton said.
With a third special session looming in September for the Texas Legislature, Dutton suggests parents and families need to make their voices heard about the absence of protections for students at severe risk of infection.
"I don't think (Gov. Abbott and some legislators) understand necessarily what parents are going through, what students are going through, and what teachers are going through in terms of this pandemic," Dutton said, "and until we get everybody on the same page, we're going to see a virus that continues to mutate, that continues to cause havoc in our communities."
Q: What are you able to do with the kids who can't get the vaccine? What about us that work within the building with them?
- Tropea, school cafeteria manager, southeast Houston
A: We received multiple questions about school cafeterias, which in turn brought a lot of answers from our town hall panelists.
Both Capo and Edwards pointed to mitigation techniques, including changes to school scheduling, to help protect educators and school staff who work with children who cannot get vaccinated.
For example, Edwards said Angleton students will sit six feet apart at lunch for the foreseeable future.
"We've asked principals to spread cafeteria tables out, we've brought in cafeteria tables and we've got kids eating lunch up and down hallways right now at cafeteria tables," Edwards said. "Principals have redone schedules where we're creating twice as many lunches."
Rep. Dutton cautioned that districts need to exercise more consideration when it comes to school buses first.
"When they ride the school bus, where are they sitting? Are they not wearing a mask and sitting right up next to each other, causing the bus driver problems, perhaps?" Dutton asked. "Consider what's happening out there when these kids get picked up on a school bus, because therein lies the start of the problem."
Watch a recap of the event, live newscasts and in-depth reporting from ABC13 on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and Google TV. Just search "ABC13 Houston."