El Paso schools brace for continuing, record-breaking COVID-19 infections

Unions around the state are fighting for flexibility to keep instruction virtual

El Paso County spiking COVID-19 cases (Source: El Paso Strong)

Our unions west of the Pecos—El Paso AFT and Socorro AFT—are mounting campaigns to continue virtual learning after the area hit a record high in new COVID-19 cases yesterday at 1,161 and is now one of the nation’s worst hot spots for infection. El Paso AFT President Ross Moore has urged union members across the state to email Education Commissioner Mike Morath demanding that the El Paso region’s districts be given maximum flexibility with TEA waivers to continue virtual instruction. Our unions are pointing out the dire situation with hospital beds and ICU beds at capacity. The El Paso and Socorro ISD School Boards last week were granted and approved two-week extensions for a return to campus between November 6-9, but indications are that Morath isn’t willing to give the flexibility for the districts to delay returns until after the semester.

After returning for in-person instruction on Monday, Houston ISD students and staff saw an almost immediate shutdown of 16 schools as a result of positive COVID cases. The schools will be conducting intense disinfection and sanitization during the closure.  The length of the closure is not determined, but the district is working alongside the city and county health departments to determine safe return procedures. 

After school closures, the district has chosen to revisit its COVID-19 policies. Instead of closing a campus after one confirmed positive case, the district has decided that campuses will only close if there are two or more positive cases identified. HISD teachers are angry and disappointed with the district and the state’s failure to enact adequate safety regulations in the pandemic. A high school teacher in HISD expressed to ABC News, “My principal told me not to report my absence. 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.”

About three dozen Alliance AFT members spoke at the Dallas ISD School Board meeting last night asking for a return to virtual instruction as the county’s threat assessment has dived to red, meaning “Stay Home, Stay Safe.”  The district’s COVID Dashboard is updated daily according to the administration, but not all cases are showing up. So far, the district has reported 405 cases, with 362 just this month.

“The call to return to remote learning for all Dallas ISD students is not done lightly,” said Alliance/AFT President Rena Honea. “We understand the hardship it causes for many families and employees in the district, but when human life is at stake and the workers are extremely uncomfortable and don’t feel safe, their focus cannot be fully on delivering the best instruction to the students.”

Dallas ISD officials noted that they are not likely to ask for a waiver from TEA to return to virtual instruction, noting in a statement that “TEA now has restrictive requirements for districts to receive waivers, which are generally short in duration and includes a phased-in plan for in-person learning. For this reason, Dallas ISD is staying the course.”