A new school year can bring a rush of emotions and this year, some educators and parents say there is both excitement and lingering concern amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.
Jennifer Yacio is the parent of an incoming third-grade student within Arlington Independent School District, which will return to in-person learning on Aug. 16. Yacio said her daughter spent most of last year learning remotely.
“For us personally because we’re vaccinated, my mom is vaccinated, we probably don’t have much danger to us. But I’m concerned about the community general,” Yacio said. “We’re just going to roll with it and hope for the best. We can send our kid in with a mask, which will help a bit for the classroom.”
Steven Poole, executive director of the United Educators Association based in Fort Worth, said teachers are excited for the new year with many districts returning fully in person. However, Poole said they are still cautious.
“They’re ready for some normalcy, but they also know with the Delta variant sweeping through our area, school may not be back to absolute normal,” Poole said. “School districts are going to have to be ready to adapt to changing conditions but work under the guidelines issued by the Governor and Texas Education Agency, too.”
This week, the TEA issued guidance reaffirming Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order that masks cannot be required in Texas schools while adding that contact tracing is not required if positive cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in classrooms. Poole said that the lack of requiring contact tracing is an area they do not with, referring to the TEA’s guidance.
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“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. Contact tracing in schools should continue. The second is school districts are not required to notify parents of a COVID-19 positive case in the school. Parents need that information about their students and their students’ classrooms in the school,” he said. “The third is parents can keep sending students to school who may have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.”
Citing data from the last school year, the TEA said that due to very low COVID-19 transmission rates in a classroom setting and data demonstrating lower transmission rates among children compared to adults, schools are not required to conduct any COVID-19 contact tracing.
The data cited by the TEA comes from a school year when many students were attending class virtually and were not physically present in the classroom or from summer school where there is generally lower attendance. Under an executive order, school districts can no longer mandate masks.
Dr. Marcial Oquendo, a pediatrician in Frisco, said a safe return to normalcy will require pandemic mitigation efforts.
“A little of the masks, a little bit of the social distancing, the vaccines for those kids who can get vaccinated, and especially the parents and the grandparents and the people who are at risk and at home,” Dr. Marcial said. “It’s all about striking a balance between minimizing the risk as much as we can. We’re never going to get the risk down to zero but making sure that the risk is low enough for us to be able to continue to live and to be safe.”
Yacio said as a parent, she felt the guidance from the TEA was “worrisome” but has to trust her child’s school.
“I haven’t met our teachers yet, but I really trust our principal and so at this point, all you can do is send your kid in and hope for the best unless you want to withdraw them,” she said.
With school just a few days out, other parents are considering withdrawing their students and turning to homeschool with no option for virtual learning.
"It's kind of a mixed feeling, you know. We're excited for him to go to the fourth grade. At the same time, we're really worried about him going to school with no mask mandate," said Plano ISD parent Ravi Chadalawada.
Others like Stacey Silverman will do what they can to rely on their own precautions.
Silverman said she plans to have her daughter, a senior in Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, double mask and eat her lunch somewhere other than the cafeteria.
"We feel like this is a tinderbox. We're terrified," said Silverman.
NBC 5 reached out to the TEA regarding the concerns raised by the UEA and parents. A spokesperson for the agency emailed the following clarifications:
- TEA’s guidance requires DSHS be notified of test-confirmed positive cases as well as the local health authority whose jurisdiction the school system falls under; the latter of which is in accordance with state and federal laws.
- If a school system is made aware that a student is a close contact, the school system must still notify the student’s parents (that, of course, would only happen at schools that are doing voluntary contact tracing).
- It is important to note that as provided for in this newly issued Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Rule, school systems must exclude students from attending school in person who are actively sick with COVID-19 or who have received a test-confirmed positive result for COVID-19.