The director of the Tarrant County Public Health Department says school districts in the county should prepare to return to virtual learning rather than “waiting for an outbreak.”
Public health director Vinny Taneja made the statement Tuesday morning during a meeting of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court where he said all of the county's COVID-19 key indicators are trending up, including hospitalizations. On Tuesday, the county added 477 new cases of the virus and another death -- the 694 COVID-19 related death since March.
As of Tuesday, Taneja said there are 1,148 COVID-19 cases among Tarrant County schools. This is a 33% increase from the week before, he said.
“It takes a lot of effort to switch from in-person to virtual. Lesson plans have to be ready. Teachers and students have to be ready. Communication has to be had with parents,” Taneja said after the meeting. “All we’re asking is that they are very, very prepared – that this is a possibility because our data in our community is showing things are not conducive for in-person learning.”
When asked for clarification on his recommendation, Taneja pointed to the dashboard unveiled by Tarrant County Public Health in early September. The school data dashboard is meant to help school leaders and residents better understand the COVID-19 metrics in their area. It is color-coded to correspond with various learning scenarios.
“Over the last four weeks, one after the other, all of our indicators have started to go above thresholds [to] start turning ‘red.’ Color coding is ‘red,’ but if you look at the data breakdown, indicators that were flat or downward arrows, are now upward arrows. Ones that were yellow, or had no color, are turned up on red. So, almost all of the indicators are confirming the data is not conducive for in-person learning,” he said. “As we head into fall and the flu season’s going to be upon us, and every year even without COVID, we have situations with the flu within our schools. This is going to be a double situation to deal with, so they should be ready and prepared to go to a virtual learning environment.”
All Texas schools are required to make virtual learning an option for parents during the 2020-2021 school year and have hybrid in-person and distance learning programs in place.
A spokesperson for the Fort Worth Independent School District said the district was monitoring the spread of the virus in the community and can switch between in-person and virtual models at any time.
“Today is our third 'first day' of school. We opened completely virtual on Sept. 8. We invited Pre-K, K, one, six, (some seven) and ninth-grade students to return to school if they wanted to on Oct. 5. Today, grades, two, three, seven and 10 were eligible to return for in-person learning. Next Monday is scheduled to see a full schedule of in-person and virtual classes for elementary and middle schools as well as the start of the hybrid cohort model for high schools," a spokesperson for the district said. "We are very aware of the extent of the virus in our community. Since Oct. 5 we have had a live student and staff COVID report on our website to help families make important decisions. We are maintaining the in-person and virtual models and can switch at any time the Board believes that to be in the best interest of our children and employees.”
A spokesperson from Arlington ISD, on behalf of superintendent Dr. Marcelo Cavazos, issued the following statement.
"Today, we learned that Tarrant County Public Health recommended that all Tarrant County schools return to virtual learning. From the beginning of the pandemic, we have engaged our public health officials in every decision made on behalf of our students, staff and community. Learning this news today, we will continue to consult with our local health experts to review all of our safety protocols to ensure individuals on our campuses are as safe as possible."
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said decisions on school operations ought to come from district leaders.
"I’ve sat on a school board before and that’s always your focus. It’s a balance there, too: health versus getting these kids prepared for the next year or the next step in their life. There’s no question in my mind, they’re doing what they think is best," Whitley said. "I’m going to try and stay in my lane and let them make the decisions. I’ll stick with the other ones."
In Dallas County, the Dallas Independent School District said they had no plans to shift from what is currently being provided.
According to TCPH data released Tuesday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county reached 419, a number that represents 8% of hospital bed occupancy and a number that is twice what it was a month ago. Around mid-July, the 7-day average for hospitalizations in Tarrant County began to decline before reaching a low of 222 patients on Sept. 21. From there it began climbing again to the 419 reached today. The county said 110 of those 419 hospitalized patients are in the ICU.
On Monday, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley announced he was allowing bars to reopen to 50% capacity on Wednesday, Oct. 14. Whitley was given the authority to open bars by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) last week and said the decision to allow them to reopen was a tough one and that he could order them closed again at a moment's notice if needed.