Several Dallas-area school districts don’t have set COVID-19 benchmarks that would trigger a campus closure.
Local officials say they’ll make the call to temporarily shutter a school on a case-by-case basis; however, the state won’t require contract tracing on campuses.
Already, a handful of small, rural districts in East and West Texas have shut down campuses because of the rising number of coronavirus cases. The start of this school year coincided with a COVID-19 surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant, as more than half of all public school students remain ineligible for the vaccine.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning districts from mandating masks, though several are openly defying him, which has complicated safety protocols for schools.
On Monday, the Gorman ISD superintendent announced that the school year would start a week late “due to positive COVID cases within the school community of both faculty and students.” The district, about 100 miles from Fort Worth, serves roughly 300 kids.
Texas’ local health departments have no authority to close campuses to preempt the spread of COVID-19. Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance last summer that clarified health authorities cannot issue sweeping orders to close schools in advance of an outbreak.
So districts must set their own standards to determine if or when to send students home.
Dallas ISD has one of the most specific shutdown policies in place locally. The district will close an entire building if officials are unable to determine close contacts; there are multiple linked cases; or if 25% or more of the teaching staff are affected by positive cases and quarantined with substitutes unavailable.
Carrollton-Farmers Branch school officials plan to follow a detailed flow chart that will dictate if a two week building closure is necessary.
District officials will examine the level of community spread and determine how easily they can contact trace linked COVID-19 cases. In instances where there is extensive exposure and the district is not confident it has identified all close contacts, CFBISD will seriously consider a two week building closure.
District representatives should be in contact with the local health department for advice over how to proceed, CFBISD guidance states.
Other North Texas districts won’t follow a specific policy. Instead, superintendents will monitor COVID-19 data to determine whether individual classes, grade levels or entire campuses must quarantine.
“It’ll be based on the circumstances of the situation,” Duncanville ISD spokeswoman Tiara Richard said. “We’re taking it on a case-by-case basis.”
In Richardson ISD — where no campuses were forced to close last school year — the district plans to again monitor cases and consult the health authority if cases begin to rise significantly in a school.
“A decision to close a campus would not be made without consulting [Dallas County Health and Human Services,]” spokesman Tim Clark said via email.
Districts largely took the same approach last school year, though some tied their steps to specific health metrics. In Garland ISD, for example, officials determined that if more than 10% of staff or students were absent or there were positive COVID cases linked to campus exposure, the district would conduct an investigation.
Last year, Coppell had to temporarily close the district’s 9th grade campus and high school, but it wasn’t because of a large number of students and staff testing positive, spokeswoman Amanda Simpson said via e-mail. Instead, the school had a substantial number of students and teachers quarantined, and the district wasn’t able to find enough substitute teachers.
“There is no magic number of cases to close a campus,” Simpson wrote.
Statewide rules over when students determined to be close contacts must quarantine have changed since last school year.
Last summer, TEA advised schools to have close contacts follow the stay-at-home protocol as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC generally recommends close contacts quarantine at home for 14 days following exposure to COVID-19, unless a person has been fully vaccinated and shows no symptoms. The guidance carves out an exception for K-12 students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student both were wearing well-fitting masks at the time.
This year, the Texas Education Agency’s updated guidance veers from CDC’s advice.
“Given the data from 2020-21 showing very low COVID-19 transmission rates in a classroom setting and data demonstrating lower transmission rates among children than adults, school systems are not required to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing,” a TEA document states.
Parents of students determined to be close contacts of a COVID-19 positive person “may opt” to keep their kids at home during the recommended quarantine period. Meanwhile, some local districts will continue contact tracing.
“I’m responsible for Dallas, so I can’t control what [TEA does],” said Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. “They said, ‘You don’t have to contact trace.’ That’s not what we’re going to do. We’re going to contact trace.”
County districts plan to publish COVID-19 trackers, which families can use to monitor positive cases within their schools. The Texas Education Agency will also update a coronavirus dashboard each Friday, with data for the previous Monday through Sunday.
Unlike last year, most school districts aren’t offering widespread virtual options this fall, which could complicate a school closure should students be unable to immediately switch to online learning.
North Texas school leaders had hoped to provide a virtual learning program for students wary of in-person learning, but many backtracked when Texas lawmakers failed to approve state funding for online school in the regular session.
In the current special session, Senators advanced a proposal that would fund virtual classes. The bill has since stalled in the House, which lacks a quorum.
As the school year approached and COVID-19 cases began to rise, many Dallas-area districts quickly propped up a limited virtual program for students ineligible for the vaccine.
Hinojosa said earlier this month that his team is looking into a potential virtual option.
The state education agency proposed changes around how student attendance is counted to allow for limited remote conferencing in specific cases, including for a child who has tested positive or is a close contact of a COVID-19 patient.
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The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.