Concerns continue over what is ‘safe’ with return to school approaching

Dallas ISD to require masks, despite governor’s order (Houston ISD to follow?)

This past week was a whirlwind of activity around pandemic safety issues as reality set in that the start of school is just around the corner for most districts. At the forefront were three issues: 1) Concern from parents and school employees about returning to classrooms with the Delta variant of COVID-19 causing a huge spike in infections; 2) The realization that those under 12 still can’t be vaccinated; and 3) Questions about  the authority to require masks in schools.

Texas AFT continued our Back to School for All campaign, acknowledging that our members want to be back on campus, while also recognizing their safety concerns and urging local decision-making on the use of masks. The campaign also called for federal funding to improve school air quality and safety. (A significant majority of members we surveyed back local decision-making on masks.) However, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled down on prohibiting mask mandates in schools with his newest executive order on July 29, and he also called for legislation addressing such a prohibition for the new special session that started Saturday. Texas AFT is asking school employees to send an online letter to Abbott and the Texas Education Agency demanding local control on mask use.

At least one district is adamant about local control, regardless of the governor’s order.  Dallas ISD announced that it will require masks for all students, staff and visitors to schools. Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II also announced he would seek School Board approval this week for requiring masks in school. 

Meanwhile districts are releasing updated safety plans, and we urge you to check your district’s website to view the protocols for campuses and employees. Many district plans are not requiring asymptomatic vaccinated students or employees to quarantine if they come in close contact with an infected individual. Many also are requiring school employees to use sick leave if they are required to quarantine for any reason, although we noted a small number that are providing emergency, paid sick leave. (The federal funding that backed paid sick leave for quarantining school employees expired for public schools on December 31.)

New guidance from TEA released Thursday removed requirements for contract tracing for students and staff testing positive, and also requirements for case notifications sent to parents. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo released a statement Friday calling the guidance inadequate.

“TEA is wrong in getting rid of “contact tracing” for COVID-19-positive students and staff,” Capo said. “If we are thorough in reporting cases of lice, why can’t we do the same for COVID-19? At the very least, we need to continue rigorous assessments of how to respond to exposure to the virus, and that won’t happen if parents, students, and staff are left in the dark on transmissions on their campuses. We urge districts to also continue reporting positive cases and a breakdown by campus directly to all parents and posting them online.”

TEA also announced that it would fund remote instruction only for students who are quarantining or recovering from COVID-19 up to 20 days, with more days possible with a TEA waiver. Some districts have, however, committed to providing remote options for select populations of students, and federal pandemic funding to districts is available for that purpose.