HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Dozens of teachers from at least 35 campuses called in sick Thursday, days after Houston Independent School District campuses reopened for in-person learning.
The educators planned to be tested for COVID-19 after claiming Gov. Greg Abbott and HISD aren't doing enough to keep them and students safe from the virus' spread, according to the group Educators for a Safe Reopening.
"Today's actions by teachers highlight the ongoing concerns teachers and school support personnel have as cases of the novel coronavirus spike again nationwide and reverse direction in Harris County," the organization said in a statement.
Schools reopened for face-to-face instruction on Oct. 19 after weeks of virtual-only learning. Days later, several campuses closed again due to positive COVID-19 cases.
Claims made by the group include a number of teachers who shared their plights as learning resumed during the pandemic.
"My principal told me not to report my absence," a high school teacher was quoted in the statement. "He threatened to corral students in the auditorium to deter us from taking a sick day to get tested for COVID. That they would endanger children this way speaks to the heart of why we are doing this. No one, especially students, is safe right now."
"These are unhealthy work conditions both for my physical and mental health," an elementary teacher was quoted as saying. "The district and the State of Texas need to get their act together -- and fast."
The claims have not been independently verified by ABC13.
District officials responded Thursday with a statement in response to the sick calls.
As the Houston Independent School District continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain focused on providing our students with a high-quality education while ensuring that the health, safety and well-being of both our students and staff are held to the highest standard. Face-to-face instruction will continue to occur with safety measures in place in accordance with guidelines provided by the CDC, state and local health authorities. The health, safety and well-being of our students and staff remains our top priority as we work to meet the educational needs of all families in the district.
Houston ISD reported 90 COVID-19 cases on its online dashboard Thursday, which included 80 staff cases. HISD employs 27,195, according to the dashboard.
The group has made what it calls seven demands for a safe reopening.
1. Six feet social distancing required: Class sizes limited, capped at 15. Schools that cannot follow these social distancing guidelines must provide additional personnel to divide and monitor overflow students in a separate location/room.
2. Meals should be consumed outside or in a large open, well-ventilated area. Students should not eat meals in classrooms as they will not be wearing masks, nor should anyone- teacher or support personnel-be required to monitor a classroom full of students eating without masks.
3. Staff with pending ADA/FMLA applications should not be required to return to work in person until ADA/FMLA is approved or denied. HISD must provide a clear process for appeal if denied ADA/FMLA. Data on denial percentages must be public.
4. All classrooms must have an optimized HVAC system and a plan to optimize air circulation/filtration. Campuses must have a distribution plan for supplies and a defined plan for weekly replenishment.
5. The district must include an addendum of the Student/Staff Codes of Conduct for PPE/Mask policies and disciplinary procedures for safety infractions for students and staff. Refusal to agree to this will equal the student returning to virtual instruction.
6. Quarantine should be for the entire campus if anyone on the campus contracts COVID-19 due to the airborne transmission of COVID 19. The district and campus must immediately communicate information about ALL probable and positive cases to all staff and parents at that school. Schools who are under quarantine must be made public.
7. No teachers or staff who resign should receive TEA sanctions during the 20-21 school year. Primary protections should be provided to those who are denied ADA and FMLA applications which are then forced into resignation.
The group said multiple attempts were made to talk to HISD administrators about concerns, but safety protocols haven't been consistent across the district's campuses.
The district said this week that changes were made after Monday's reopening.
"Now that we have returned to face-to-face instruction, I wanted to provide you with an update about closure and cleaning procedures that are being implemented when we receive a report of a positive or presumptive positive case of COVID-19 on one of our campuses," HISD said in a statement. "As we reviewed our processes in real time on Monday and Tuesday, we have made some necessary adjustments that are in alignment with our latest guidance from the Houston Health Department."
HISD changed cleaning procedures at schools and contracted with two commercial cleaning companies to deep clean campuses when needed, according to HISD's website.
While the district continues to attempt a new normal during the pandemic, teachers say the standards in place aren't enough.
"I am in a classroom where seven different classes rotate throughout the day. They are sitting barely three feet apart, 45 minutes at a time," a middle school teacher said in a statement from the safe learning group. "Students eat lunch in my little classroom - maskless - while eating lunch and conversing with their friends, as students naturally do. I can't pretend that this is safe."
It wasn't clear if the sick-out will continue beyond Thursday.
List of schools involved:
Baylor at Ryan
Nat Q Henderson