Following hours of public comments during an emergency meeting, Fort Worth ISD leaders decided Thursday to begin the school year online on Sept. 8. for the first four weeks of the school year.
At a news conference Thursday, FWISD superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner said the hope to be able to bring students back to in-person learning as soon as possible, but he also recognized the "ever-changing landscape of health conditions and guidance from local agencies."
"If after those four weeks, health conditions don’t improve...the board would then have to take a vote to continue it. They would be continuous four weeks, so eight weeks potentially at the beginning of the year," Dr. Scribner said. "However, situations change. We’ve seen that this week, we want to monitor and adjust."
Originally, the new school was supposed to start on Aug. 17. However, Scribner said the additional weeks will be used to continue to train faculty for online instruction.
"What we have decided is our first year teachers and our brand new teachers, that they would be reporting to the school building. Their instruction would originate from the classroom," he said. "For our experienced teachers, we are allowing them to continue with at-home learning. Although, we are going to be monitoring that very carefully providing them support, providing them guidance."
The emergency meeting began at 8 a.m. Thursday to discuss options for the reopening of schools during the 2020-2021 school year. Speakers were given one minute and 30 seconds each to make their comments before the Fort Worth ISD school board with most of the comments made by parents and teachers, along with some students and other staff members.
The meeting comes days after newly issued guidance from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said local health authorities may not issue ‘sweeping orders closing schools’ for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections. Such orders had been issued in Dallas and Tarrant counties, with a joint order issued last week stating public and non-religious private schools in Tarrant County would be online only until Sept. 28.
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Most of those who spoke on Thursday morning were in favor of delaying the start of in-person instruction, including Steven Poole with the United Educators Association. Poole cited comments by the Tarrant County Public Health director Vinny Taneja who said this week, online learning was the safest option as of right now.
Another speaker who identified herself as both a teacher and a parent noted that COVID-19 has spread in the community over the past few months even while students have been out of school.
“It would be disastrous to bring students and teachers back to campus now,” she said.
Those in favor of in-person learning said they recognized that not everyone is comfortable yet, but they implored the board to allow families to make the decisions.
One of those speakers said she was speaking to them as a parent and a pediatric nurse.
“I have frontline experience,” she said. “Our pediatric admission rates at my institution are low. Those who have been admitted have been discharged with good outcomes.”
Amanda Saenz has been a pre-kindergarten teacher with the district for seven years. Saenz, who also has children within the school district, spoke in favor of online learning starting out.
"The governor’s orders have said ‘anybody under 10’ do not have to wear a mask. Well, that’s my classroom, and I have myself and my TA that…you know, my family is important. Her family is important," Saenz said. "I love my students and I think any of my parents can vouch for that. I love them with all my heart. I would take a bullet for them. I would, and I’m trained to do so…but how much more are we going to put on top of our educators where it takes away from our real job of educating?"
Others in favor of in-person learning questioned how starting school virtually would affect working families, such as those in single-parent households.
“People like my daughter who work in the day and would now have to come home and play ‘teacher’ along with everything else,” one woman said.
Haley Manulik also spoke in favor of in-person learning, though she understood why some parents and teachers would be hesitant.
"I also know there are a large number of families are ready to go back in school and I think it’s fair to give both sides of the equation a choice," Manulik said. "School and being in person allows students safety, it allows mental reprieve. Sometimes that might be the only smile they might see for the day."
Last week, the board approved the purchase of 10,000 additional devices to help students gain access to virtual learning. Scribner said those will be distributed next week.
This is developing story. Check back here for updates.