The union that represents teachers in Texas’ largest school district wants the 2020-21 school year to start with virtual instruction until the area sees a decline in new COVID-19 cases for 14 consecutive days, a positive test rate of less than 5%, and a transmission rate of under 1.0 percent.
On Monday morning, the Houston Federation of Teachers and other Houston educators and community groups released their recommendations for reopening Houston public schools in response to Houston Independent School District’s guidelines.
The teachers’ union said it “won’t sacrifice the health and safety of any student or school employee just for the sake of reopening school buildings.”
The Houston Federation of Teachers and the Houston Educational Support Personnel announced recommendations for reopening safety during a Zoom conference call.
“We won’t be bullied into reopening schools prematurely and dangerously,” said Andy Dewey, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “We’re not willing to sacrifice the health of anyone who enters our schools and the people they have contact with after school.”
“It is the height of hubris that the governor is more focused on opening the economy than on the health and well-being of our children and the people who educate them,” the guidelines state.
Here are a few highlights from the guidelines.
The HFT recommended the 2020-2021 school year start with virtual instruction and a virtual learning plan that would provide additional support for most vulnerable student populations and funding for additional staff. The guidelines state, “providing physical space at school (or other locations) for homeless students and those with challenging home environments, and, if possible, face-to-face small-group early childhood instruction (instead of virtual).”
The HFT says “there must be a robust public health infrastructure from the state, county and local health departments to provide support to school districts for effective disease surveillance, tracing and isolation protocols for those who are infected or quarantined.”
“If the statistics are right, there will be one or two students in every class that is infected,” said Dewey.
“It should be anticipated there will be a shortage of teachers and bus drivers,” Dewey said.
“Most of our bus drivers are elder and have health problems. That’s suicide. That’s setting the drivers and students up for disaster,” said Wretha Thomas, president of the Houston Educational Support Personnel.
“They opened the state too early and they are opening the schools too early,” Thomas said.
Dewey couldn’t share the numbers of teachers considering retirement but said teachers are talking about it.
“We are suggesting to teachers to make their own personal choices for themselves and family and to use the sick time they have built up,” he said. “The teachers at the highest risk will get priority to be virtual only.”
The groups’ recommendations also include suspending state and district high-stakes testing and assessments for the school year.
“Educators, support staff and families want to return to school, but we fear reopening too soon,” Dewey said.
The group provided additional criteria for the school year.
- No plan to open should be developed without key stakeholders, such as youth, families, educators, workers, union leaders and community partners.
- Schools must maintain strict physical distancing (such as requiring virtual learning) until the number of new cases declines for at least 14 consecutive days, the positivity test rate is less than 5 percent and the transmission rate is less than 1.0 in Harris County.
- Local governments and the school district must collaborate to provide the infrastructure and resources to test, trace and isolate new cases.
- School plans should be consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for daily sanitation, disinfection and physical distancing.
- Provide a massive investment in our public schools, including a nurse in every school; more custodians, counselors and mental health professionals; and expanded staffing to reduce class sizes, in line with CDC guidelines.
- Schools must reopen only as a part of a racially just recovery.
- No standardized testing; teachers will assess their own students.
- Professional development for educators should include social-emotional learning for COVID-19-related issues and other issues, and teacher training to improve and personalize online curriculum.
- Families should be allowed to choose their preference — in-person or virtual instruction.
- The virtual instruction “runway” period must extend through the fall or until the community thinks it is safe to return.
- Priority should be given for in-school instruction to special education students and those who live in poverty or are homeless.
- Schedules should be staggered for beginning and ending school days as well as while passing in hallways between periods and lunch times.
- More teachers and tutors will be needed to implement staggered schedules with smaller class sizes.
- Establish a mobile health clinic with testing capacity at every school or school hub, available to family and community members.
Other recommendations include “installing modern HVAC systems and HEPA filters in schools, adhering to CDC guidelines for regular screening, and expanding the nurse and custodial staff budgets.”
Claudia de Leon, a parent with Community Voices for Public Education, said the plan also includes important points to create a “new and better normal.”
“We can’t return to the pre-COVID-19 status quo that failed too many students, their families and educators,” she said, adding that “the governor needs to step up.”