Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in Texas, leading to new cases spreading at a rate similar to measles. To lower the risk in schools, some districts have made temporary plans to extend holiday breaks or move back to virtual learning. But that puts parents in a difficult position, once again forced to juggle an ever-changing school and work schedule.
Three Texas journalists joined Texas Standard to talk more about the recent COVID-19 surge and how Texas schools are responding: Emily Donaldson, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News’ Education Lab; Claire McInerny, education reporter for KUT-Austin; and Matt Wilson, education reporter for the McAllen Monitor. Listen to the interview with the reporters in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Let’s begin with you, Matt, because you’ve reported that Weslaco Independent School District has decided to extend its winter break. What’s the thinking behind that decision?
Matt Wilson: From what I can tell, it was made strictly on a health basis. You know, schools in the Valley have been pretty proactive about the pandemic since it began. And usually when we see a new semester roll around, we’ll see kind of a wave of new programs and new protocols come out to try to combat the pandemic related to it. We had Weslaco delay the start of school, Mercedes ISD, which is right next door, actually made the same decision late yesterday, and we’ve had three districts in Cameron County decide to delay as well, and we actually had our first confirmed case of omicron in Cameron County yesterday.
Emily, I want to ask you about what’s happening with school districts in North Texas. Are there many that are going online from what you’ve heard?
Emily Donaldson: No. We’ve actually only heard about the one in Lancaster ISD. They announced on Friday that they would not only delay the start of the semester by one day, but that it would also be all virtual for the first week. And they’re hoping that by keeping kids at home for this first week of school, that they are going to prevent them coming back only to have to return home the following week. No other districts have taken up and copied them, and most of them are planning to have kids back, as expected, this week, in person. And Lancaster is actually hoping to have kids back in person by next Monday.
What about in Austin, Claire?
Claire McInerny: The biggest school district in Central Texas, Austin ISD, is going forward as planned. The superintendent told parents last week, I understand it’s nerve-wracking, but we have gone back to school when cases were higher. So, Austin was in Stage 5 in the fall when students went back. Same with last spring. And so it’s like, We know what to do. We have great protocols, and they are doing all-day testing around the city right now that parents, staff and students can go get a test.
The numbers haven’t been officially posted, but yesterday I was seeing, like, only a thousand people had gotten tests and there’s 80,000 kids in the district. So it’s not a great indication that everyone’s getting tested, but they are going to open their doors Wednesday as planned. And what’s notable here is there isn’t a virtual option anymore. So some students had been online for a semester and AISD is taking that away, so families do have to go back if they were virtual during this surge.
I wonder if conversations are happening or precautions are being taken since reporting of these latest COVID numbers might be slow. Since the holiday, a lot of people may have gotten home tests and so the real situation isn’t really known by state health officials or district administrators. Are you hearing any any conversations about the possibility of having to shift gears again?
McInerny: I know in Austin, at least what I’m anecdotally hearing is, as we’re kind of seeing with omicron, it’s not necessarily overwhelming the hospitals like delta did. Even though a lot of people are getting sick, it’s a lot milder. And so I think what I’m hearing from teachers, mainly, is they’re worried about not having enough substitutes or them getting sick. And so the quality of the school day [is] changing dramatically. So, rather than the fear of, people are going to get sick and people are going to die, it’s more, Are we just going to even have enough staff to do the school day, because they’ve had some shortages since the pandemic started?
Donaldson: And I think that’s really what the fear is around school closures here in Texas. It’s not really about closing schools, I think, or largely it’s not about closing schools because of the virus or fears of it, but it’s really about staff shortages because if you test positive for the virus or if you’re suspected to have the virus, state health guidance says that you shouldn’t be in the classroom. And for a lot of the school districts that are already experiencing staff shortages, they don’t have the staff to come back and back them up when a large population reports out sick. And so that’s where we’ve seen the biggest school closures, and I think that’s what we’ll be really watching is to see if there’s going to be a ton more just because there’s not enough people to fill in the holes when they pop up.
Matt, you mentioned earlier about how proactive some officials in South Texas have been in trying to combat COVID. Has there been any talk about masking or COVID vaccination policies or any changes in guidance for parents or teachers?
Wilson: No, we actually kind of got some indication that we wouldn’t have any kind of action like that. This round, masks have remained required of most districts in Hidalgo County. I think three have dropped that requirement. But we actually got a release from our county judge yesterday that basically said don’t expect any major disruptions to schools or businesses for this wave of the pandemic. So I think everyone was kind of waiting on that and now their eyes are on the school districts to see what individual superintendents and boards decide.
I wonder if school leaders might feel like they have a little bit more of a COVID-19 protocol toolbox than they did, certainly compared to earlier in the pandemic:
Wilson: Yeah, I mean, it kind of feels like a boxer getting back in the ring for another go. They’re not quite as nervous as they were the first time. They kind of know what they’re doing. I would agree with everybody else on the show right now: I think the big concern is staffing shortages. I talked to the superintendent from Donna ISD yesterday. It’s a mid-sized district down here. And she said that they would keep operating if she had to go in and teach a classroom herself, essentially. So that’s a concern, and they’re pulling people from central staff, their central office, to go teach classes.
What are you hearing from parents? It seems parents all across the country are feeling frustrated about this.
Donaldson: I think there’s just a lot of anxiety around what is to come because at this point people are about to go back to school, but they don’t know if there’s going to be widespread closures and scrambles for child care. So it seems like we’re kind of on the precipice and people are just gearing up for what’s likely to be a long last semester of this year.
McInerny: It feels very different from previous surges in the sense that school-age kids can be vaccinated now, so I feel parents – the stress they’re feeling is more logistical because some people sent their kids back before they could get vaccinated. And so the fear of contracting the virus with no protection has been at play. But now kids can be vaccinated, and so it’s more, Are we going to get jerked around with school happening? Do I quarantine? Do I not quarantine? All those questions, rather than just kind of a smooth-sailing semester of, show up and do your schoolwork.