In a 6-1 vote, Pearland Independent School District trustees have set Aug. 31 as the first day of school, opting for the later start in response to the high number of COVID-19 cases in the region.
Previously, the district had aimed for classes to start on Aug. 19.
Superintendent John Kelly said many teachers and staff have expressed apprehension about returning to school. Students register for either on-campus instruction or remote learning from home.
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“The teacher and staff anxiety level is very high,” he said. “That is one of our main reasons for proposing a change in start date.”
Trustee Jeff Barry cast the sole dissenting vote.
Medical official: District needs to be flexible in plans
At the July 28 virtual meeting where the vote occurred, medical professionals advised trustees and district administrators to prepare to be flexible when it comes to reopening plans and even ongoing plans for the school year.
Dr. Kelly Ochoa, vice president of operations for Memorial Hermann Health System’s Southeast and Pearland hospitals, vigorously stressed to those in the meeting that the district must be ready to change protocols quickly if virus conditions worsen.
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“Chances are you will have to modify the plan as you go,” she said. “That’s the very best thing you can do. I cannot say this enough.”
20 more minutes in school day
The board’s vote included approval of the district calendar. To ensure students wrap up the 2020-2021 school year before Memorial Day while still fulfilling the state-required 75,600 minutes of education per year, the school day will be longer by 20 minutes.
That means elementary schools will be open from 8 a.m. until 3:35 p.m.; junior high and middle school campuses will welcome students from 8:35 a.m. until 4:10 p.m., and high students will attend class from 7:15 a.m. until 2:50 p.m.
The July 28 meeting, a marathon session lasting more than five hours, focused largely on the district’s reopening plan, which is not yet final. The working model features a four-week, phased-in approach for on-campus learning for those who choose it.
District administrators emphasized they are still tweaking the plan using feedback from trustees, parents, teachers and medical professionals as their guide.
“The district is reviewing phase-in plan details and considering revisions to what was included in the board book,” said Kim Hocott, the district’s executive director of communications. “We will communicate all of the information as soon as it’s available to parents via email, on the district website and district social media channels.”
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Several people spoke during the virtual meeting, and anywhere from 700-900 viewers were watching the meeting at any one time, underscoring strong community interest in the discussion.
A team of medical experts was on hand to answer board members’ questions regarding school opening as it relates to the pandemic.
In addition to Ochoa, participants included: Pearland pediatrician Dr. Jason Decker; Jeff Morris, professor of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania who also works with the White House’s coronavirus task force; and Chris Orlea, director of the city of Pearland’s Parks & Recreation Department. Orlea holds a master’s degree in public health education and promotion as well as a doctorate degree in public administration.
Community member express preferences, worries
Parents, community members and teachers weighed in with mixed opinions.
Music teacher Page Martinez worried that teachers would be at high risk of contracting the virus and advocated for full-time virtual instruction for everyone until the area’s positive case count is on a downward trend.
Kathryn Frazier, who has one child attending Pearland schools this coming year, agreed with the delayed opening. “Opening too soon will weaken our community,” she said. “A few weeks (delay) won’t stunt our children’s learning.”
However, parent Carolyn Richard said full-time, on-campus learning is what kids need and what she and the majority of parents want for their children. In the district’s current working draft for a phased-in return to school, she argued, many kids would be left home alone to learn as their parents headed to work.
“I don’t believe online is the best option,” she said.
‘Nobody has the answers here’
The medical officials were cautious with their advice about how to best open the schools. All agreed opening would likely contribute to more community spread of the virus and they agreed the delay in the start date could help bring down the positive case count, particularly if the community at large follows recommendations of mask wearing, social distancing and staying home whenever possible.
“The virus spreads very fast, and the potential is there for it to get out of control (around school opening),” Morris said. “The idea of opening a school (in a community) with high viral levels has not been done anywhere; so we have to be cautious and put our toe in the water (in a way) that allows the district to evaluate how it’s going. It’s wise to follow the virus conditions and adapt.
“Our hope is the community pulls together and follows guidelines to bring these numbers down,” he said.
Some board members questioned the doctors regarding how young children tolerate the virus.
Decker said while it’s true the majority of children “do quite well” if exposed to COVID-19, he’s more concerned about them bringing it home to parents and grandparents.
“This is a public health issue,” he said.
Morris agreed. “It’s tricky to balance this out,” he said. “The risk to kids is quite low, but it’s not zero. The big risk is the exacerbating of the spread in the community.”
Decker, who has children in Pearland ISD, said the district’s planning to open as safely as possible is commendable, but he added that any decision about welcoming kids to school is difficult.
“I think your (working) plan looks great. Nobody has the answers here. You have to put your best effort forward and hope our society does the same thing, and then maybe in a month or two from now we can start to do more (in schools) rather than have to pull back.”
Trustees speak out
Some board members addressed the community, including parents and teachers, regarding their vote.
Trustee Crystal Carbone said she’s listened to everyone’s concerns and wants to see kids in school as much as anyone.
“I want your kids in school, too,” she said. “I hear teachers and I hear dual-income families’ (concerns), but there’s no way to vote to make everyone happy. I also feel for the teachers. We’re asking them to do things they’ve never had to do before.”
Trustee Lance Botkin said, as a parent, he understands how tough this situation has been on families with school-aged children, particularly having to choose between in-person and virtual learning.
“I want my kids in school. I don’t want my kids to hate me any time I try and teach them anything (from home),” he said, “but (this delay) is just 12 more days and the administration needs this time to figure this stuff out; so I want to show big support for those who need this time.”
Alvin ISD, which neighbors the Pearland district and has campuses in the city of Pearland, has opted for a phased reopening in which school will start Aug. 24 with all students initially receiving lessons online. Campus accommodations will be made as requested for students who do not have internet access, special education pupils served primarily in a self-contained program and children of Alvin ISD staffers.
For more details about school opening, including planned health and safety protocols and answers to the most common questions, read the district’s Plan To Proceed at www.pearlandisd.org.