13 Investigates survey shows back to school in flux for millions

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The hallways of Burnett Elementary School are lined with stickers reminding students and teachers to maintain social distancing.

Inside, a large table that would typically seat four pre-kindergarten students is now designated one table per student.

About 600 children fill the school's halls during a typical school day. But, with just six weeks until the start of the 2020-21 year at Galveston ISD, administrators are still trying to determine just how many students teachers can expect to see in person.

"There's a lot of strong opinions from the community, from parents, from staff, from everybody involved, all the stakeholders," said Jeff Paysse, a bilingual/ESL instructional coach at Galveston ISD. "It's a challenge that all of us are facing in the entire country and the state so I think we're all going to do our very best to figure it out."

From who will be required to wear a face mask to how transportation and UIL participation will be handled, 13 Investigates reached out to nearly every school district in Texas to see what their expectations are for the upcoming school year.

We heard from more than 125 school districts that are home to about 2.5 million students. Each either responded to our survey or provided a statement. We scoured public statements and websites for those that didn't reply to give you the most complete Back to School picture possible.

With the Texas Education Agency releasing its 2020-21 public health guidelines last week, some districts, like the state's largest - Houston ISD - are still finalizing their plans and will respond to our survey later this week.

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Of those who responded to our survey, 84 percent say they expect more than half their students to return to in-person learning on the first day of class; 90 percent expect to offer a mix of in-person and virtual learning.



At Galveston ISD, the district says it is split between parents who want their children to return to campus in person versus those who want to start the semester the way the spring ended with virtual classes. It's something they've been preparing months for through an in-person summer literacy program and on campus pre-kindergarten classes.

Paysse said the goal was to use the summer learning programs to plan, on a small scale, what in-person classes would look like so they could adjust for any problems they encounter and better plan for a larger in-person group in the fall.

Planning ahead

The TEA issued a nine-page planning guide on July 7 that offered some guidance on how to address on campus and virtual instruction, administrative activities by teachers and staff and non-UIL extracurricular sports and activities.

Aransas Pass ISD told 13 Investigates, "we are finally getting the guidance, but it is going to be very difficult to make this all happen and keep all safe."

But, with some districts starting classes as early as Aug. 3, the late guidance has left some districts finalizing their plans with just weeks to go.

13 Investigates asked districts how they feel about the guidance they've received from the TEA.

And more than 40 percent of the districts said they would like more direction from the agency.

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Alief ISD's superintendent shares his thoughts on TEA recommendations



Goose Creek Consolidated ISD said it proposed a plan on July 7, which was the same day the TEA released its guidelines. Now, the district is working on its revised plan.

In Polk County's Leggett ISD, the district said "keeping up with changes and additions from TEA has been challenging" and in Central Texas, Dime Box ISD said "in the end, any plan from any school to reopen is only good for about 24 hours due to the fact that a situation at a school could change daily."

13 Investigates reached out to the TEA but they only referred us to current guidance. An agency spokesperson said it is constantly evaluating the ever-changing public health situation.

FULL: Read the Texas Education's latest guideline for districts

When the TEA announced last week that districts would have to provide an in-person option, Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers said he was disappointed that the state agency was taking that decision making authority away from local school boards superintendents.

"I didn't believe that was a reasonable approach for every district in Texas. In some it is, there are some communities and some districts across the state, absolutely. But there are also some in highly densely populated urban areas, like Alief and the Houston area, in the Dallas area, San Antonio area -- I didn't feel it was appropriate and I still don't."

The TEA gives districts a three-week transition period, which allows districts to "temporarily limit access to on-campus instruction" and offer online only instruction. This means some parents who want their students to receive instruction on campus may be required to provide virtual learning from home if the district makes sure they have the technology for it.

And, after spending weeks watching the positive COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Alief, including some cases among his staff, Chambers said his district plans to utilize the online learning while it is still available.

"You can't convince me that while we're seeing the spread increase at alarming rates like we're seeing right now in our area, that bringing thousands and thousands of students and thousands of adults, employees, into buildings is not going to contribute to that spread. It is," Chambers said. "I don't want to be responsible for the asymptomatic student, perhaps passing it along to a teacher or another student and it making it, the, the virus making its way home and because we brought children back into the school or teachers back in the school, this virus is spread even greater than what it is right now."

Chambers told 13 Investigates the driving force behind that decision is the health and safety.

"Nothing will substitute for face to face (learning), so I want that," Chambers said. "But the education community is being put in a situation where we have to prioritize between two things. One is the health and safety and then the quality education and those are two competing priorities right now and I don't see how we can serve both of them equally well. We have to choose one over the other, at least right now and I'm choosing the health component of those two issues."

Alief ISD asked the TEA for an extension of the three week transition to in-person learning. At last check, the request was still pending.

Face masks

The TEA said districts should follow Texas Governor Greg Abbott's orders on masks, which right now doesn't require them to be worn by people under the age of 10.

However, some districts said they will require them for everyone.

During the pre-kindergarten summer school program, Paysse said they encouraged the 4 and 5 year olds to wear masks and tested it out to see if it was developmentally appropriate. He said the first day was a little challenging but the children actually handled it well, and it had minimal impact on learning.

"It's the first time coming back, we wanted to make sure everybody was protected," he said. "We know that there's a large outbreak and an uptick in cases in our area so we wanted to try it out and see how it worked to give us better information for our district going forward."

Paysse said teachers are used to routines and spending the first few days or weeks of school getting them acquainted with new routines - including hand washing and using hand sanitizer. He said it's just the intensity and frequency of the hygiene that will be new and challenging for the upcoming years.

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A Galveston ISD employee talks about mask recommendations ahead of the new school year.



Chambers said while elementary school teachers are more accustomed to asking students to stand in rows while walking in the halls, and wash their hands, it's difficult to ask teachers to be "mask police" and "handwashing police" for middle and high schoolers.

"You add on top of that some of the requirements that are now, the TEA has placed on us for checking attendance for virtual learners who they didn't engage with or they didn't get logged in," he said, "What we're trying to do is put in systems in place to take that responsibility away from the teacher so that he and she can continue to teach."

Preventing learning loss

Making sure students are checked into classes is important though, to ensure that they don't fall behind in learning. Barbers Hill ISD Superintendent Greg Poole said parents should have a choice whether or not they want their parents to participate in school in person or remotely online, but that distance learning isn't anything close to a substitute for the value of in-person learning.

"The reality is, there is nothing that substitutes having in-person school with professional educators," Poole said. "The biggest fear is for those students who truly are lacking support at home or are behind in the first place, it's not existence. It does not do anything to help them."

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Barbers Hill ISD talks about options for parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.



On Monday, Fort Bend ISD announced it will also begin the new school year on Aug. 12 with 100 percent online instruction "to give students, parents and staff an opportunity to adjust to online learning and safety procedures. No in-person extracurriculars will occur during this period of distance learning."

During ABC13's 'COVID-19 and Our Schools' town hall last month, Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupre said the reality is that school will look different this year. The district is determined to make sure whatever structure it has in place will ensure no student falls behind.

"We have high performing students as well as our low performing students that will be struggling for the next two or three years and our goal is to not let them get any further behind, because the further behind they get, the more likely it is they are to drop out and face challenges," Dupre said during ABC13's town hall last month. "Their whole life can be affected by what happened during this pandemic and our job is to close that gap and help them get caught up and not lose that time permanently."

Poole said Barbers Hill ISD spent millions on laptops for their students to make sure they had resources during the spring semester when districts went to online learning, but even with those resources he said students did not get the same education. He said the risk of losing the in person instruction outweighs the health risks.

This fall, the district said it expects almost every student in person. He said it's impossible to completely eliminate the risk of the virus, but the district is taking steps to mitigate it as much as possible during an unprecedented time. One of those measures includes spending $1.5 million to reopen a closed school to create enough social distance elsewhere.

Poole said he expects parents will become more comfortable with the new in-person learning routine once their children start classes.

'There's just so much fear," Poole said. "Once a week goes by and they realize the wheels are going to fall off and there's not a dire danger to their child, whatever that number is, it will increase the next week."

13 Investigates' survey show only 10 percent of districts are looking to mainly offer in-person instruction. Those districts that don't plan on virtual learning are mostly rural, with only a few hundred students.

Transportation

At Alief ISD, where the district's survey indicates 65 percent of students were concerned with coming back to campus, Superintendent Chambers said busing can be done safely, "but it's going to take forever."

"To do it safely means you're going to have to have social distancing on the bus, which means ... if I had a bus route with 65 students on that bus at any given time, and now I can only have 25 on that bus, that means I've got to run that route three times," he said.

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Alief ISD superintendent talks about busing students during the COVID-19 pandemic.



Chambers said the idea of multiple routes works in theory, but is not practical in getting students to class on time.

Poole said Barbers Hill students will absolutely be required to wear masks on busses, but he still expects students to violate social distancing guidelines.

"Education is inherently social and, even with our resources, we couldn't order the buses now because it takes nine months to even get one," Poole said.

Poole said there will be some ways to stretch routes and offer more distance than typical, but in some instances that won't be possible so it'll be important to make sure parents, students, teachers and bus staff are educated on the new mask-wearing protocol.

He said student safety risks associated with in-person learning isn't something he takes lightly.

"If I were perhaps looking for an easier way, I would sit here and say, let's do all distance learning because that would eliminate some of that risk that we incur when I'm telling you that we believe we can pull this off," Poole said. "I think it's the right thing to do and I do think the risk is minimal."

Aransas Pass ISD said it will offer transportation but that all riders must wear a mask.

"Students will sit one to a seat unless in the same family. A monitor will supervise to keep all facing forward," the district said.

At Angleton ISD, bus riders will also have their temperatures taken and screened for COVID-19 in addition to assigned seating and wearing masks.

Hardin-Jefferson ISD said Thursday that it's still in the planning stages of transportation, but that it's looking into the possibility of staggered bus routes.

The TEA also recommends that, whenever possible, "schools should open windows to allow outside air to circulate in the bus" and districts should "encourage families to drop students off, carpool or walk with their student to school to reduce possible virus exposure on buses."

In the 13 Investigates Back to School survey, the most frequent strategies for bus safety, in order of frequency, were encouraging students to wear masks, making sure students' hands are sanitized when entering the bus, seating families or only allowing 1 child per seat, enhanced cleaning, opening windows and temperature checks. Just one district told us it could do multiple runs of bus routes to ensure social distancing.

UIL, extracurricular activities

When it comes to contact sports, Jefferson ISD said Thursday that the season "cannot occur normally if social distancing requirements are not lifted. It's simply impossible."

Still, districts are looking for ways to participate in and showcase extracurricular activities.

In West Texas, Floydada ISD said although UIL activities will be allowed, the district has "discussed possibly only allowing essential personnel at events as well as only immediate family of students/athletes."

FULL: Read the UIL's latest guidance for districts

Last week, the UIL issued an update saying students who choose to participate in remote learning may still be able to participate in UIL activities if they meet all other eligibility requirements.

Prior to that announcement, some school districts told us students would only be allowed to participate in UIL if they also participated in face-to-face instruction.

Districts are encouraged to take into account local cases when making decisions about strength and conditioning, according to the UIL. Masks won't be required when students are actively exercising, but will be required by anyone over the age of 10 who is not exercising but in an area where UIL activities are being conducted.

Poole, who is chair of the UIL Standing Committee on Athletics, said education is all encompassing, so he expects extracurricular activities at Barbers Hill to be offered as the UIL allows.

"The educational needs of the child include extracurricular activities and if we indeed are saying, and the state is saying, that it's safe to have traditional learning for those parents that choose, then we need to offer all of it," Poole said. "We'll do our best -- I mean, we're doing things we've never done in football and other sports, but we're not eliminating them.

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Barbers Hill ISD superintendent Dr. Greg Poole talks about UIL participation during COVID-19.



Districts said they're also concerned with the financial burdens of meeting all of the TEA's guidelines while juggling concerns from teachers.

When 13 Investigates visited Galveston ISD's elementary school last week, we had to wait until all of the students left the campus. Inside, masks were mandated, hands were sanitized and temperatures were checked.

It's the new routine for students and districts across the state as the new school year approaches.

"A year from now, I don't want to look a staff member or even a student in the eye and say I made a decision a year ago that compromised your health," Chambers said.

SEE ALSO:

Goose Creek CISD pushes back start of 2020-2021 school year

Fort Bend ISD will begin 2020-2021 academic year online

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