Much has changed since last fall when it comes to Texas public schools’ pandemic precautions. School districts can no longer mandate face masks and the state is no longer paying for virtual learning.
Those changes have some parents and educators concerned about the fall semester, as the delta variant of the coronavirus spreads more widely across Texas and puts at greater risk younger and unvaccinated Texans.
Texas Standard spoke with two education reporters covering the response in different parts of the state: Molly Smith reports for El Paso Matters, and Emily Donaldson reports for The Dallas Morning News.
School started for El Paso public schools on Aug. 2. While the district can’t mandate masks, it is recommending them for all students and staff according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. But Smith says guidance from state education officials isn’t as pointed after Gov. Greg Abbott doubled down on banning mask mandates.
“The big difference is that the CDC says masks should be worn indoors by anyone in schools, age 2 and older. And the TEA [Texas Education Agency] just says that’s a decision that parents need to make; it’s an individual decision and, and districts can’t require that their students or their staff wear [them],” Smith said.
The recent surge is a reminder for El Pasoans about how bad outbreaks can get. Last fall, the city was a hot spot for COVID-19 hospitalizations. This time around, without the guarantee of mask-wearing or the option of virtual learning, Smith says some parents are worried.
“I think in the coming weeks, it’ll be kind of more clear of what parents decide to do: do they decide to pull their kids out of school?” she said. “It’s kind of, I think for parents, really a wait-and-see, and see what happens in terms of our cases.”
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, three districts started school on Monday. They, too, are recommending mask-wearing, though they can’t mandate it. Donaldson says all of those schools had masks available for students in need.
At least one North Texas school district does have plans to continue virtual learning for students who prefer it or feel unsafe returning in person. But others have had to scrap such plans because the Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have funded it. The bill was scheduled to be taken up after a vote on the voting bill known as House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, but died as a consequence of House Democrats’ walkout over that voting bill.
Donaldson says Frisco ISD is still offering virtual learning for younger students who are ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines, but they’re doing so at a financial loss.
“It’s a very expensive endeavor,” Donaldson said. “The [Frisco] superintendent said yesterday that for about every thousand students that participate, it’s going to cost them $3.5 million. And then for every student that enrolls in virtual learning, the district is expected to lose about $40 dollars per child per day, so it kind of hits them twice.”
So much is still unknown about how the current COVID-19 surge will affect the ongoing problem of student learning loss, as well as student enrollment in Texas schools. Some parents’ wait-and-see approach could mean school leaders won’t know how many students they’re serving until much later in the semester.
“The Dallas superintendent actually said yesterday that he typically knows by around the eighth day of the school year what the enrollment trend will look like. And he doesn’t think he’ll know, really, until the eighth week of the school year,” Donaldson said.