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Online-only schooling is the 'best option,' Tarrant County health director says

"I don’t envy our school superintendents trying to decide on what the right path is," Vinny Taneja said.
Credit: AP
Des Moines Public Schools custodian Joel Cruz cleans a desk in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

As school districts prepare for the fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic, many administrators are facing tough decisions between public health, funding and the best option for teaching students.

The Texas Education Agency has tied funding to a requirement that schools offer an in-person option five days a week, but that's not the best idea for some districts, Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja said during a Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday.

"CDC guidance is very clear and—common sense," he said. "The most low-risk scenario is online-only schooling because when you put people together, the risk starts to escalate."

Taneja said that by having students physically in the same room sitting together, it could be a challenge to enforce social distancing. 

While the health director acknowledged competing interests such as funding, the quality of education and childcare, he still believes online schooling is the right choice. 

"From a health standpoint, online-only is the best option because it’s the lowest-risk scenario," he said. 

At the same meeting, health officials said at least 537 more cases would be announced in the county on Tuesday, while there were around 645 people currently hospitalized there with COVID-19. 

That's compared to 626 COVID-19 patients in the county's hospitals Monday. 

As of Thursday, around 57% of Fort Worth Independent School District students who had registered have chosen to take in-person classes, while around 43% favor virtual instruction, a district spokesperson said. 

About 14% of the district's students have registered so far. 

"I don’t envy our school superintendents trying to decide on what the right path is," Taneja said. 

Indeed, superintendents from Dallas, HEB and Fort Worth ISDs wrote a letter to Governor Greg Abbott this week, asking him to allow “full online learning for students for a minimum of the first six- or nine-week grading period without state aid reduction.”

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley struck a different tone. He said he is concerned about health, but he also doesn’t know how well virtual learning will work.

“I am very concerned about the long-range effect we have on the kids if we don't get them back in school pretty quickly,” he said. 

Taneja reiterated the dangers of a full return to class in the midst of a pandemic.

“That will be a very, very high-risk scenario if everybody's asked to come to school at the same time, like we were in normal times,” he said. “This is not normal times.”

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