Tarrant County’s health department on Tuesday ordered public schools and non-religious private schools in the county to conduct online-only classes until at least Sept. 28.
The mandate does not apply to private religious schools, but it "strongly urged" them to follow the same plan as public schools "to protect the health and well-being of students, teachers, staff, parents and our community."
It also restricts all school-sponsored activities, including clubs, sports, band and academic or athletic competitions, to be done remotely or outside with proper social distancing.
The decision was a curveball to parents who had planned on their children being in school in just a few weeks.
"Life is a full stop right now," said Bridgette Ralliford, a mother of four FWISD students who lost her job as a home health care nurse in March. "Everyone is being asked to adapt and adjust in a moment's notice."
The order was signed by local health authorities from Tarrant County, the city of Arlington and the city of Burleson. Vinny Taneja, director of Tarrant County Public Health, was part of the discussions prior to the announcement Tuesday.
"These decisions are based on what local data is showing us in Tarrant County. We are in a significant surge scenario in Tarrant County," Taneja said. "A lot of people think, 'Oh, young kids, they get the illness but they’re going to bounce back.' That is true, but that doesn’t mean they can’t spread it to others."
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At least two weeks before reopening, school districts must submit a written plan for on-campus instruction to health officials, according to the order.
The order was first revealed in an email to employees from Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner.
Fort Worth ISD will conduct the first six weeks of classes online, Scribner said.
The order also affects other schools in Tarrant County.
In the email, Scribner said he had been in close touch with officials at the health department.
"This fall, it will look very, very different. We will have a Fort Worth ISD curriculum, taught by a FWISD teacher. It is our intent that instruction will originate from our classrooms, that principals will be able to provide support, provide guidance," Scribner said. "Instruction will be four hours. Engagement with a teacher and a student. Three hours for our younger students."
According to Scribner, exceptions include students enrolled in special education with individualized education plans that cannot be fulfilled online. Those students will be allowed into school buildings with appropriate social distancing and protections, Scribner said.
The two largest districts, Fort Worth and Arlington had announced plans to start classes Aug. 17.
Fort Worth had planned to reopen classrooms but also offer online classes for those who wanted them.
At a news conference, Scribner said the current learning environment has put students at a disadvantage. Students haven't been in the classroom since before spring break, he noted.
"We expect to see historic academic regression," he said. Our perspective is we must do as good of a job as possible. Humanly possible."
Former Lewisville superintendent and University of North Texas visiting professor Stephen Waddell said it's a regression that also widens the performance gap.
"I think it is a concern that there’s going to be an exaggeration on that regression divide that those kids that are at risk socioeconomically or for other reasons that place them at risk academically are going to regress more," Waddell said.
Waddell said he's confident districts will help students overcome those deficiencies, but he doesn't believe it can be done in a year. He also said it will take cooperation between families, districts and state agencies.
“This COVID generation, we may call them that, but it does not need to be negative for these kids. If anything, I think it gives them an opportunity to be more resilient, to learn to do things in creative ways, more perseverance," he said.
Scribner said the district would hold town hall meetings at 5 p.m. next Monday and Tuesday to further explain the plan.