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Back to School in a Covid-19 World

by Susannah Wollman

As the summer nears its end and local stores stock up on school supplies, what will the 2020-21 school year look like? There are so many questions and confusion about going back to school this year, we decided to go directly to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and find out the real answers. Here’s what we found out.

Q&A about options this school year in Texas

1) Will schools be reopening in the fall?

Yes. All Texas schools will be reopening this fall, although the start date may be a bit later than expected due to the time necessary to prepare to comply with measures to keep COVID-19 in check. Research shows us that although some children do get sick with the coronavirus, the percentage is relatively low with correspondingly low mortality. The teachers are at much higher risk than the students of contracting COVID-19. The American Academy of Pediatrics says it’s important to balance the risks of COVID-19 with children’s need to attend school in person. In fact, eliminating physical access to school can lead to placing “children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity, and in some cases, mortality.”1

2) Will all children be required to attend school on campus?

No. Schools will be offering  at least two options for returning students, on-campus learning and virtual learning. Additionally, if a school’s campus must be closed for quarantine, remote learning will temporarily replace on-campus learning. The difference between virtual learning and remote learning is that virtual students have opted to learn from home for the school year (or during the first grading period at least) and remote learning is a no-options requirement only for a determined period.

3) How do I know my child will be safe on campus?

While there is no perfect way to keep children 100% safe from the spread of COVID-19, the government is requiring 4 steps from all schools in Texas.

  1. PROVIDE NOTICE: Requirements for parental and public notices
  2. PREVENT: Required practices to prevent the virus from entering the school
  3. RESPOND: Required practices to respond to a lab-confirmed case in the school
  4. MITIGATE: Recommended and required practices to reduce likely spread inside the school

PROVIDING NOTICE REQUIREMENTS

School systems must post for parents and the general public, one week prior to the start of on campus activities and instruction, a summary of the plan they will follow to mitigate COVID-19 spread in their schools. It must be sent to parents of all students in whatever way the school deems necessary and also must be easily accessible from the school’s website. No government entity will need to approve the plan.

Per Texas Education Code (TEC), §25.092, students must attend 90% of the days a course is offered (with some exceptions) in order to be awarded credit for the course and/or to be promoted to the next grade. This applies whether the student is learning online or on campus. (Virtual students may transition to on-campus students but schools may limit the transition period to grading periods, typically 9 weeks of instruction.)

School systems are required to provide parents a notice of their public education enrollment and attendance rights and responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic using a document published by TEA.

PREVENTION

All students and staff must self-screen before coming onto campus each day. If there are any symptoms present (see infographic), the teacher, staff member, or student will be required to stay home. Teachers and staff are required to report to the school symptoms or lab-confirmed positive results and any contact with a person who has a lab-confirmed positive test. A fourteen-day quarantine is required for those individuals.

Schools have the option of screening students with a temperature check and yes-no response questions. At no time should the school ask questions that may violate the student’s privacy.

SCREENING QUESTIONNAIRE INFORMATION

  1. When asking individuals if they have symptoms for COVID-19, school systems must only require the individual to provide a “Yes” or “No” to the overall statement that they are symptomatic for COVID-19, as opposed to asking the individual for specific symptom confirmation. School systems are not entitled to collect information during screening on the specific health information of an individual beyond that they are symptomatic.
  2. Once it is determined that individuals who responded “Yes” to either of these questions have met the criteria for re-entry, school systems must destroy those individuals’ responses. 

If an individual develops symptoms during the school day, the following three steps are required.

  1. Schools must immediately separate any student who shows COVID-19 symptoms while at school until the student can be picked up by a parent or guardian.
  2. Schools should clean the areas used by the individual who shows COVID-19 symptoms while at school (student, teacher, or staff) as soon as is feasible.
  3. Students who report feeling feverish should be given an immediate temperature check to determine if they are symptomatic for COVID-19.

RESPONDING TO COVID-19

Required Actions if Individuals with Lab-Confirmed Cases Have Been in a School

If a confirmed case of COVID-19 occurs on campus, the school must notify its local health department, in accordance with applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations, including confidentiality requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). All areas used by the person having COVID-19 must be closed off until cleaned and disinfected, and parents must be notified if they have on-campus students.

MITIGATION TO PREVENT THE SPREAD OF COVID-19

There is a complete list of all the requirements for schools to follow requiring hygiene and cleaning located here. The most often asked questions include whether students and teachers will be required to wear masks or face shields and if social distancing (6-foot rule) will apply. The short answer is yes. Schools are required to comply with the governor’s executive order regarding the wearing of masks. There are exceptions for a few situations, but students will be required to wear face coverings at least wherever social distancing cannot be followed. Teachers and staff are required to wear masks or face shields while they are on campus.

4) Will my student be allowed to participate in school sports?

In some cases, yes. The best way to find out what sports will be offered at your student’s school for the 2020-21 school year is to visit their website.

5) Where can I get more detailed information?

Your school’s website will keep you informed of plans and changes for the upcoming year. To get detailed information from the TEA, you can visit their website where state-wide updates are posted.