HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston ISD says students will return to virtual and in-person learning after Thanksgiving break despite the Houston Federation of Teachers urging the district to go online 100%
Andrew Dewey, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the teachers' association asked HISD in a meeting Thursday to move all schools to virtual learning after Thanksgiving, due to the prolonged and ongoing COVID-19 surge.
Houston Independent School District has continued to keep its schools open to in-person learning.
Following the meeting with HISD, Dewey said the district told the federation there is no decision at this time and currently as it stands students will be returning online and in-person.
In its original reopening plan, the district noted if the average positivity rate was greater than 7% for a 14-day period, then all schools would have gone virtual. In October, Houston ISD announced a change to its COVID-19 policy that adjusts the protocol for schools closing due to positivity rates but did not illustrate the new metrics it was based on.
When ABC13 reached out to HISD to clarify the protocol for schools and to ask if there was a plan for when students would return from the holiday break, the district said the following:
Decisions about whether HISD returns to 100 percent virtual instruction would involve collaborative guidance from the district, City of Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health authorities. We may also receive guidance from physicians and medical experts in the Texas Medical Center.
On Oct. 26, the Harris County COVID-19 dashboard showed the average positivity rate for the past 14 days at 7.4%, meaning under the original policy, the schools would've gone virtual.
As of Wednesday, the 14-day average is now up to 8.4%, according to the Harris County COVID-19 dashboard.
"The reality is we have to go back to virtual," Dewey said. "We thought it was a mistake to open in-person when they did. HISD, to its credit, delayed it as long as they could. Strangely enough, the surge has been going on since schools began to open up in September. It's now again in a situation where it's out of control. We are asking the district today to go all virtual after Thanksgiving break, at least through the end of the semester. And we understand the consequences that may be coming to the state regarding funding, but it's time to do this, just in the name of safety."
ABC13 also reached out to Katy ISD and Fort Bend ISD. Fort Bend ISD has not responded, but Katy ISD sent the following statement:
As students and staff members head off to enjoy their Thanksgiving break, Katy ISD is encouraging our school community to follow the recommended precautions and safety measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Earlier this week, the Katy ISD Superintendent released a video message to the Katy ISD community about being mindful of the virus and the return of students on Monday, November 30.
Our Katy ISD Dashboard will continue to be updated throughout the break. On the far right side of the dashboard, you will see the Stages and the actions attached to those stages. Confirmed COVID-19 cases exceeding 10% of current facility occupancy merit a closure of the campus, however anytime Katy ISD's district emergency management team determines that the spread of COVID-19 cannot be mitigated within a student program, campus or district worksite, a partial or full closure of the program or site may be merited as well.
This is happening just a day after New York City announced its schools will be going all-remote due to increasing COVID-19 cases. Its threshold was an average positivity rate of 3%.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said according to the Harris County Public Health guidance, school districts in Harris County should already be closed to in-person and learning virtually only.
"In-person instruction is a lifeline for working parents and we all recognize that," Hidalgo said. "But I also recognize and we have to be realistic and accept that the current set up where schools open before the numbers got to where they needed to be has us on a ping pong, of sorts, a yo-yo effect where we're opening schools only to see numbers rise dramatically and that's not a sustainable situation."
Hidalgo said Harris County is currently at level red, with uncontrolled community spread, which means it's not the time for in-person instruction or large gatherings and families should only celebrate the holidays with people within their household.
According to the Texas Education Agency, school districts can take public health authorities' recommendations but ultimately the school leaders have the final say. According to the state's latest update on its 'Pandemic School Formula' to be eligible for full funding, school districts must offer in-person learning to parents who want that option for their child.
Due to the pandemic and the stress that it has caused on school districts across the state, a group of Texas lawmakers is calling for the TEA to suspend the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam or at minimum not use student scores to rate schools or districts this school year.
Allison Newport, an HISD parent to two students, said she has walked her children through the practice tests and it is challenging.
"This has been my first experience seeing my kids taking the STAAR test, you know doing practice tests in a virtual environment," Newport said. "It's really stressful even if they do well on the test it's very hard to get through and I would be really happy if they didn't have it this year and I think that the students don't need any more stress. The teachers don't need any more stress and testing doesn't work well in this virtual-blended environment."
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has an online dashboard with the number of cases of COVID-19 reported by Texas public schools, which shows a steady increase in reported cases for both student and staff.
The Houston Health Department also released the following statement on working with schools:
"The Houston Health Department is prepared to continue providing the necessary COVID-19 support and guidance to our community partners. In anticipation of the surge, the department is working closely with schools to identify mitigation strategies that will allow them to evaluate their individual circumstances, examine available resources and then make the best decision for their institution. With support from epidemiologists and environmental, health and safety officers and contact tracing subject matter experts, the department can provide the best practice guidance needed for the COVID-19 response."