The Houston Federation of Teachers wants to go back to only virtual learning as classes begin again after the Thanksgiving break. However, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) says that students will return to online and in-person classes after the break. The teacher union asked HISD to revert back to only online instruction because of the recent spike in coronavirus cases.
The Houston Independent School District is the largest public school system in Texas, and the seventh-largest in the U. S. The original reopening plan for the schools in the district noted that if the average coronavirus positivity rate was greater than 7% for a 14-day period, then all schools would go to virtual learning. In October the policy changed to adjust protocol for schools closing due to positivity rates. Like a lot of school districts across the country, there is a struggle between union demands and the needs of students.
Andrew Dewey, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers said the union wants the district to go back to online learning and the Harris County Judge (a non-judicial position) seems to agree. HISD, it should be noted, was the last school district in the Houston area to reopen for in-class instruction this fall. The district held out until well into September though the school year begins in August. School districts take public health authorities’ recommendations, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) but school leaders have the final say. The local teachers union didn’t want to go to in-person classes when the district did in September. Now the teachers union wants to solely have online learning through the end of the semester.
On Oct. 26, the Harris County COVID-19 dashboard showed the average positivity rate for the past 14 days at 7.4%, a rate that would have called for all HISD schools to go virtual under the original policy. Even more alarming, on Nov. 17, the 14-day average was up to 8.4%, according to the Harris County COVID-19 dashboard.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reiterated this point.
“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.”
“The reality is we have to go back to virtual. 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,” said Dewey.
It’s not just that schools lose a portion of state funding if classrooms aren’t filled, the main worry should be that Houston-area students are not thriving while under online learning lockdown. Students are failing classes at unprecedented rates. In the first marking period, some districts reported nearly half of their middle and high schoolers received at least two F grades because they routinely missed classes or neglected assignments. The percentage of students failing at least one class has doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled in several of the region’s largest school districts. If this failure rate continues, graduations will be affected and summer school enrollments will increase. HISD offered only on-line classes during the first 6 week grading period. The results were not good – 42% of students failed two or more classes in the first marking period, up from about 11% in a typical year. Texas legislators and education officials have not pledged to allocate additional funding for summer school yet. Given some disastrous failure rates from virtual learning, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath decided last month to allow public school districts to force their failing online students back into the classroom, with some exceptions. This means some schools are requiring students failing classes to come in for in-person instruction while students passing their courses can continue with only online classes if that is how their school is proceeding.
HISD’s response is 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.”
Teacher unions have been a source of contention for many parents. Teachers in 35 school campuses held a strike – a sick-in – to protest the school COVID-19 policies in October. It was only days after schools re-opened. The confusion isn’t good for families trying to keep their school-age children current in classwork as well as looked after at home if the parents are working outside the home. Teachers complained that the governor wasn’t doing enough to have safety procedures in place for schools but that falls on deaf ears to many Texans. School districts have had plans in place since last summer.
The reality is that there is no big outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases being reported from HISD schools. Schools are a relatively safe environment for students and teachers with protocols in place to keep the spread of the virus down. It’s important that children get back into the classroom as soon as possible. Virtual learning isn’t better than classroom instruction for most students. The cure can’t be worse than the problem, as shutting down all the schools again for the rest of the semester would be. Schools are closed when necessary and deep cleaned so that students can return as soon as possible. It has to be done on a school by school basis, as problems arise, instead of a blanket order to close all school campuses in the district.