As the coronavirus continues to deeply affect the greater Houston region and the state, parents and guardians are making a decision on how their children will return to school — in-person or virtually.
Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen has been managing Humble ISD’s response to the coronavirus pandemic since schools were closed after Spring Break in March. Now, she’s laying out the district’s path back to in-person learning.
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Fagen said the district will have about 65 percent of its students on campus while close to 35 percent of families opted to do distance learning.
Students and teachers on campus have to learn to navigate a learning environment with masks, as required by Gov. Greg Abbott, gloves, hand sanitizer and constant fever checks. Fagen said the coronavirus will force the district to implement some outdoor lunches, create outdoor learning opportunities and limit some extracurricular activities. The district is also incentivizing sick students and staff to stay home by removing exemptions from select finals so students can take an online test while staff will have 10 days of emergency leave through the CARES Act, FMLA plus FMLA, and sick leave provided by the state yearly, Fagen said.
The Observer spoke with Fagen about these plans and what to expect for the upcoming year.
The Observer: Will there be a system in place for testing for the coronavirus on campus?
Elizabeth Fagen: We’re going to limit visitors because, you know, the fewer adults on the campus that are unnecessary the better. In addition to that, we’re going to require self-screening and parent screening. So basically we’re going to be asking our parents to make sure that they’re sending their children symptom-free, fever-free, every single day.
What we learned during our strength and conditioning camp this summer is that parents are our very best partners in this — they’re the ones who know where their students have been. They’re the ones who, when they get suspicious, take their students to have them tested. So what we learned also is that taking kids temperatures was really not effective at all as they came in, we never caught a single case. The way that we did learn was always through our partnership with parents.
TO: Will staff members who are at high risk or have family members at high risk have the option to work from home?
EF: So it depends. We are definitely working with each and every employee who has a concern for themselves or a family member to see how we might be able to accommodate their needs. There are certain positions where working from home is not an option, so for instance police officers. We don’t have a work from home option for them. We can certainly encourage them to wear masks and gloves and to be a patrol officer as opposed to an in-the-school officer…
We think the very best way to approach this is to work to meet the individual needs of individual staff members who are great and wonderful and we want to retain them because our teachers are the best. And so we need to show them the same support that they show our students, and that’s what we’re working to do right now.
So we’re just encouraging them to work with their principal or their department leader, whoever that is, and sort of lay out what they feel like they need to be successful and safe, and where we can meet that we’re actually going to do it.
TO: Some parents have indicated on social media that they would like to vote again on the return to school options now that cases have spiked in Houston. Will that be an option for parents who have changed their minds about their original vote, and does that affect the plans for returning to campus?
EF: Absolutely. Every parent who has emailed me or any member of my team and said ‘you know, I had a different opinion then.’ We said great and we adjust their selection. It wasn’t really a vote, it was really a selection for their family, and so we’ve absolutely and will continue to be completely flexible. People have dynamic needs in their own households, and we want to support that.
So if they want to change they absolutely can. That information gets to the school, the school makes an adjustment to the master schedule, and we’re just really working hard to be prepared for that Aug. 11 start.
TO: For students in the performing arts, such as theater, dance, choir, band, or orchestra, what are the plans to protect them from the coronavirus?
EF: We have performing arts wheels in two of our elementaries this year, North Belt and Lakeland, and we just purchased additional instruments because we don’t want to have as much sharing of materials as we historically have. That is true across the board. We’re going to continue to reduce the sharing of materials in all areas.
As far as choir goes, that is a real tough one… we have pretty good information that singing with a bunch of other people in a closed space is a bad idea, it has produced super spreader events. And so, one of my principals said to me ‘How do you feel about outdoor choir with everybody 6 feet apart?’ I said ‘You know, that could be the answer.’
So the bottom line is this: we’re approaching this with knowledge and an innovative spirit. We’re searching for solutions but we’re making sure we understand the problem. Choir teachers will come up with other options, smaller groups, one-on-one kind of things, probably outside or in great big spaces.
TO: What is the plan for fall sports, especially those that are high contact sports like football?
EF: Well, the UIL is really dictating all of that. So the UIL came out about a week ago and said strength and conditioning camp could return and drills that had offense versus defense were welcome to return also, and so some districts brought all their sports back. We choose to bring four back, and the four that we choose have contests in August. So we felt it was important that they got the opportunity first, and we’re going to see how that goes. We’re going to re-evaluate it after two weeks and then we’ll see if it’s a good idea to bring on more or to wait a little longer.
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