FORT WORTH, Texas — In roughly a month, students head back to school in districts across North Texas, but COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising rapidly. Legislative decisions, along with orders from Gov. Greg Abbott, have left districts and parents with few options.
Irene San Juan is the PTA president at Waverly Park Elementary School in Fort Worth ISD and has a first- and third-grader.
“We were definitely very cautious throughout the whole COVID season,” San Juan said.
Her father-in-law died after fighting COVID-19, and her mother-in-law was hospitalized with the virus for more than 130 days before recovering. Last year, she kept her kids at home until the second semester when they decided to return because her son struggled with learning disabilities, but they were still concerned if it was the right decision.
“I'm worried that my son has asthma, and so that's the reason why we locked down so much,” she said.
Across North Texas, COVID hospitalizations have tripled in the past month according to the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council. As of Tuesday, 3,319 people were hospitalized due to COVID across Texas.
Dr. Dawn Johnson is the primary care clinic medical director at Children’s Health in Dallas. She says increases in cases and hospitalizations in kids have paralleled the rise in adults.
“Most kids do well, really well and some kids don't, and it's difficult if not impossible, to predict who those kids will be,” she said. “As a physician, I've also participated in the care of many kids who've had who've been hospitalized, had more severe symptoms.”
This year across Texas there is no funding for a virtual learning option, which STAAR scores showed led to a decrease in learning. The legislature passed a bill taking away the option for Commissioner Mike Morath to provide a funding waiver for districts. A bill to provide funding for virtual learning died when democrat lawmakers walked out of the House to kill a bill changing voting in Texas, and Gov. Greg Abbott did not place virtual learning on the agenda for the special session.
“We want our kids to be back in school, but safety has to be first,” Johnson said.
Several studies last year showed schools could be conducted relatively safely in-person if districts took certain preventative measures.
The current CDC guidance recommends ventilation by opening doors and windows and using air filtration systems. It also says students should keep at least a three-foot distance and recommends screening testing and contact racing along with isolation. In addition, districts should have disinfecting procedures and all students who have not been vaccinated should wear a mask.
Abbott has banned school districts from requiring masks since June. He told WFAA Tuesday that he would not be changing that decision.
Johnson says she supports the suggestion from the American Association of Pediatrics recommending that all children wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
“We don't know who's been vaccinated and who's not been vaccinated, and so it operationally, will be difficult to monitor that,” she said. “There's just great concern that with kids not being encouraged to wear masks while at school, we are going to have pockets of outbreaks.”
San Juan says explaining masking guidance to her children has been tough, especially with her young daughter.
“She could understand that we had to wear our masks to protect each other, but she doesn't understand why adults were not wearing their masks.”
Johnson says parents should watch for children who are acutely ill with fever, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, headache, nausea or vomiting.
San Juan says she’s hoping for more guidance and answers from district leaders with just weeks to go before the first day back. She wants increased communication between parents and teachers, too.
“If my kid's mask is falling down, help me out and give me that peace of mind that my kid is going to get a new mask at school,” she said. “I feel like it'll still be very similar to what it was at the beginning of last year where decisions were not being made and communication wasn't as clear.”
Both of Johnson’s children are vaccinated, but in Dallas County, just 29% of kids 12-17 have received at least one dose of a vaccine, the lowest rate of any age group.
“There is no way that any of U.S. physicians who are also parents would encourage people to do something that we felt was dangerous,” Johnson said.
San Juan’s children, like many, are too young to be vaccinated but she says the rest of her family has been vaccinated. Johnson says the best way to protect children who can’t receive it is for all other family members around them to be vaccinated. She also recommends families consult their doctor, especially if their child has an underlying health condition.
San Juan says some parents are opting for home school, but for them, that’s not an option.
Johnson believes if schools and families follow best practices, in-person school could still be successful even as cases continue to surge.
“Can it happen safely? Absolutely,” she said. “We know that the safest way to do that is masking, disinfecting, social distancing all of those things that we've learned.”
Some school districts sent WFAA guidance on how they’re preparing for the upcoming school year now.
See those guidelines below.
"We’re continuing to make safety our top priority, as we know kids learn best when they’re healthy.
• Implement updated safety guidelines based on the direction of the CDC and Dallas County Health Department
• As many are aware, masks are not mandated, however, we recommend wearing a face covering regardless of vaccination status while on district property.
• Physical distancing with a minimum of 3-ft, up to the preferred 6-ft to be observed
• PPE available at every campus, to include masks and hand sanitizers
"Will continue contact tracing in collaboration with Dallas County Health Department for known positive cases
"Encourage good hand hygiene and for students and staff to stay home when ill
"Continue to provide opportunities for staff and eligible students to be fully vaccinated
"Enhanced cleaning and ventilation strategies, to include weekly disinfectant spray cleaning at campuses."
Fort Worth ISD
"The Fort Worth ISD will be 100% in-person starting on August 16. We will encourage daily self-checks from home before work and school. We will continue to promote any vaccination opportunities within our community for those who are eligible. Social distance will be employed to the best of our ability. We will encourage, and welcome, anyone who prefers to wear a mask, but they can’t be required. We will continue daily cleaning and encourage good hygiene practices (hand washing, hand gel). Our COVID reporting effort will still be in place, as per the CDC guidance. And, lastly, we will monitor school trends and consult with the Tarrant County Public Health and the TEA."
"Frisco ISD had intended to launch a permanent Virtual School to serve students in grades 3-12 starting this fall. But after the 87th regular session of the Texas Legislature ended this spring without final approval of a bill that would have expanded online learning in Texas and provided funding for full-time virtual students, FISD had no choice but to put these plans on hold. All students will attend classes on campus starting with the first day of the new school year on Thursday, August 12."
Find more Frisco ISD protocols are on its website.
Garland ISD has posted its ‘Safe Return In-Person’ plan on its website as well.