North Texas students are returning to campuses this year that have less stringent safety plans in place even as COVID-19 cases have spiked throughout the state — mirroring and in some places exceeding the worst periods of the pandemic.
While school safety debates have centered around legal battles over mask mandates, mask requirements aren’t the only thing that might have changed at your local school this year.
A review of more than 20 return-to-school plans from Dallas/Fort Worth-area schools by The Dallas Morning News found that districts are backing away from some of the precautions implemented last year, including many social distancing efforts and temperature checks.
Instead, districts have shifted much of the responsibility of mitigating coronavirus’ spread on students and staff members, just as Gov. Greg Abbott has emphasized the role of “personal responsibility” in responding to the pandemic.
Some of these changes, administrators say, were made this summer when COVID-19 numbers were much lower and hopes were high for a relatively normal school year.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that when his district wrapped up classes in June, it looked as if Dallas County had seen the worst of the virus.
“When we finished the year, there were about 100 new cases in Dallas County daily,” Hinojosa said. “And that pretty much stayed the same until Aug. 2, when we started back up.
“We thought we were going to have some normalcy this year, and that obviously changed in a hurry.”
Other moves ended practices that were ineffective or inefficient. And even more were made in the absence of direction from the Texas Education Agency, which — until Thursday — had issued far less prescriptive guidance than a year ago.
Relaxed safety plans
In The News’ research, we found school systems altered their policies on a wide array of items, such as temperature checks, traffic flow in hallways, physical barriers in the classroom, visitors on campus and mandated student quarantines.
Snapshots from the first weeks of school have shown crowded hallways or cafeterias. Parents have expressed concerns that classrooms look much as they did prior to the pandemic, with desks clustered together.
One photo from Coppell ISD’s student newspaper depicts hundreds of students — many without masks — clogging a passageway.
Return-to-school plans don’t indicate that efforts to reduce congestion during passing periods have been continued.
Many districts, including Dallas and Plano, reconfigured their hallways last year, turning certain corridors into one-way areas. Some districts staggered class releases for the same reason.
Most districts won’t rely on plexiglass shields to divide student workspaces as many did last year. Richardson ISD is providing clear dividers for students and teachers upon request, but not all districts have announced plans to do the same.
Researchers have suggested that plastic shields can provide people with a false sense of safety and at times, can prevent normal air flow, according to a report by The New York Times.
Hinojosa said that many of the changes in Dallas ISD were practical. Many of the traffic flow changes, for example, were not only disruptive, but inefficient, he said.
“It cost us time [needed for] learning in the classroom,” he said.
Many of the social distancing requirements were also contingent on having space, something made possible when around half of the district’s students chose virtual learning last school year, Hinojosa added.
And with that option largely off the table, schools are once again feeling cramped for space.
The CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of distance between students inside classrooms.
Claire Hess, a mother of two Coppell ISD students, said that she’s been alarmed by the safety steps that the district has taken to start the year (Hess works as a COVID-19 social services coordinator for Dallas County Health and Human Services, but was not speaking to The News in a professional capacity).
“They aren’t really doing anything, except contact tracing — which they finally agreed to do the night before school started — and hand hygiene,” Hess said. “Masks are optional … and we found out about that decision right before school started.”
Hess removed her incoming sixth grader from a charter school, where he was taking virtual classes, to enroll him in Coppell. Her hopes were that the district would have a more robust health and safety plan, she said.
Some districts, including Dallas and Cedar Hill ISDs, are providing stickers and signage to campuses that remind everyone of appropriate social distancing.
Lewisville ISD is making a concerted effort to implement social distancing for younger students ineligible for the vaccine. The district will incorporate additional space in cafeteria seating arrangements for elementary schoolers, according to LISD’s safety plan. It also plans to install standalone air purifiers in K-6 classrooms within the first few weeks of school.
Meanwhile, other daily protocols have been scrapped by many.
For example, last year in Dallas, Richardson and Garland ISDs, staff members gave temperature checks for students upon entry to start the school day. All three districts have done away with the practice.
The CDC’s updated guidance does not recommend schools conduct symptom screening for all students on a daily basis, but iInstead, it encourages parents or guardians to monitor their children for infectious illness.
Visitors and volunteers are largely permitted on campus this school year, a shift from a year ago. Some districts are limiting visitors or asking them to self-screen, while others are returning to normal protocol.
State guidance changes
A change in state guidance also played a major role. The TEA’s “public health guidance” for districts was far more streamlined coming into this school year, excising several pages of mitigation strategies. The changes initially reduced last year’s nine-page document to two pages.
The guidance also, in many ways, became more permissive and less prescriptive.
Last year, for example, many districts required employees and students to walk through a self-screen process, with some using apps with a checklist of questions that needed to be completed daily or weekly.
If someone responded that they were experiencing a cough or another symptom, they would have to remain at home for the day.
That self-screening process, like many other decisions set in place before in-person learning resumed last fall, was predicated on guidance from the TEA.
This year, as the TEA’s guidance became more permissive — going from “must” to “should,” as it relates to staff screening — district plans changed accordingly.
For example, in a section labeled “Protocols for Screening and Isolation” in Plano ISD’s 2020-21 plan, the district demanded that families, staff and visitors check daily whether they had COVID-19 symptoms.
This year’s plan, however, only recommends that those groups “should” screen daily.
Plano ISD spokesperson Rosemary Gladden said that as the district continues to work within the parameters provided by the TEA and Collin County Health Services, the district would “continue to evaluate and adjust protocols as needed — and will communicate changes with families and staff.”
One of the most significant changes is over close contacts and mandated quarantines.
Last summer, the TEA instructed schools to have those in close contact — within six feet for a total of 15 minutes — with a lab-confirmed COVID-19 case to immediately follow the stay-at-home protocol as outlined by the CDC.
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 if both were wearing well-fitting masks at the time.
TEA’s new guidance gives parents the option of keeping their kids at home during a recommended quarantine period: “Parents of students who are determined to be close contacts of an individual with COVID-19 may opt to keep their students at home during the recommended stay-at-home period.”
If staff members are identified as close contacts and return to school, “rapid testing must be performed at the start of the day, at least once every other day until the end of day 10,” according to this year’s guidance.
TEA guidance from earlier this summer removed the requirement that schools alert staff and families of confirmed COVID cases on campus. The agency reversed course last week clarifying that school officials must issue such notifications.
While school systems don’t have to conduct coronavirus case investigations, Thursday’s updated guidance read, local public health entities have the authority to do so.
“Participation by individuals in these investigations remains voluntary,” TEA’s guidance states.
Morath went over the guidance changes in a conference call with state superintendents this week, stressing that education agency officials will continue to monitor schools’ coronavirus data in real-time.
As of Friday in Dallas ISD, 185 students, 207 campus staff members and 62 central office staff reported a confirmed coronavirus case since the start of the school year. Close to 5,000 of the state’s 5.4 million public school students have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Aug. 15, according to state data.
Districts are likely to see such numbers increase as the school year gets underway throughout Texas.
“If the facts change,” Morath said, “then this policy could change again.”
Mask mandates banned
The biggest change in safety plans for most districts is the absence of mask mandates.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates, issued in May, left most area districts strongly encouraging face covering, rather than requiring them. A small number, including Dallas and Richardson ISDs, have bucked Abbott’s order as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal masking, regardless of vaccination status.
On Thursday, the Texas Education Agency stated that it won’t enforce Abbott’s executive order as it faces legal battles. A few hours later, the Texas Supreme Court denied an initial foray from Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton to block a statewide temporary restraining order allowing for masks.
But school policies largely remained unchanged by Thursday’s decisions.
For instance, Irving ISD spokesperson Erika Pedroza said that her district would wait on rulings expected sometime next week before altering its policy, where masks are “highly encouraged.”
Mask wearing will likely fluctuate greatly between districts depending on community support. In the conservative Highland Park ISD, for instance, parents observed minimal mask use among students, families and educators at the “Meet the Teacher” night this week. One parent estimated 95% of people went without at his child’s elementary school.
Staff writer Talia Richman contributed to this article.
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.
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