The following editorial published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on June 25:
With COVID-19 surging, we need straight talk from Texas leaders about schools reopening.
Texas education officials were set this week to unveil guidance for school districts about how to start the new school year and try to manage the coronavirus pandemic.
But coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to smash records. Gov. Greg Abbott told people to stay home and gave local leaders new power to limit crowds. On Thursday morning, Tarrant County became the last large Texas county to order businesses to require that employees and customers wear masks.
Suddenly, talk of millions of children, teachers and staffers back to school seems ill-timed. It’s no surprise the Texas Education Agency pulled back.
A short delay is fine. But the clock is ticking, and districts — not to mention Texas teachers and families — need to know what they’re in for, especially if the pandemic may rage on for a while.
Thanks to a draft posted on the education agency’s website and discovered by a Texas Tribune reporter, we have a sense of what the state may recommend. The guidance is heavy on recommendations and light on mandates, causing some to question whether the state should at least require the wearing of masks.
It’s probably best not to lay down sweeping requirements for more than 1,000 districts. What makes sense in Fort Worth may not be right for Fort Stockton.
What districts need most is to understand what the state will ask of them and what support it will provide. Some good news came with assurance that students attending virtually will be counted as at school for the purpose of providing per-student funding.
But districts may need additional help paying for needed technology to improve virtual learning and ensure low-income students can fully participate. They should be able to look to the state to acquire and pay for personal protective equipment, even if it’s not a mandate.
Families, too, need information from state and local officials as quickly as possible. Many face difficult decisions on whether to send their children back. Of course, the status of the pandemic will be the main factor for most. But some will have to balance risks to family health with decisions on child care. Their ability to go back to work, and thus their very livelihoods, may be at stake.
Leaders have been adamant that schools will be back in session for the fall semester. Whether that was optimism or determination, we’re down to just weeks to make that work. If the pandemic is kicking into a new gear and schools might not be able to reopen as planned, the foundation of restarting our economy is at stake.
Abbott and local leaders need to prepare us for the worst-case scenario. We need to hear from them about contingency plans, particularly to ensure under-served children can get the food assistance and other help for which they rely on schools.
Let’s not forget that universities, too, are facing these decisions. The state’s big public systems will require masks in public rooms and outdoor settings where social distancing isn’t practical. That seems sensible, and it gives families a bit firmer ground to decide whether it’s worth a student trying to live on campus.
We can’t expect our leaders to know what the future holds. But we need them to do more to persuade people to wear masks and observe social distancing.
The reopening strategy has often relied too much on hope and not enough on data. We can’t afford to make that mistake with our schools.