Campuses reopened Monday in the Houston Independent School District for the first time since March, as parents and caretakers continue to have questions about what exactly school will look like.
More than 80,000 students are expected back for in-person learning since schools were closed to in-person instruction by the COVID-19 pandemic.
District administrators held a phone bank to try and provide answers to the school community. They heard questions like: where’s lunch, how big are classes and where’s the drop off for the car line?
“We know that every campus is going to have a different route. But that they should exercise a lot of patience for that first day,” said Amy Poerschke, a school support officer, in an online video.
Some details vary school by school. But expect masks, even at recess, as well as staggered dismissals and maybe lunch in the classroom.
It's the new normal in HISD, which took full advantage of the state’s guidelines to delay the return to in-person learning. Many other school districts in Greater Houston, such as Humble, Katy and Spring Branch, have already reopened brick-and-mortar classrooms.
For Michael Lecclier and Lan Ma, the decision to send their two boys back was a long process. Their fourth grader is a little nervous. Their second grader is more upbeat.
“He’s very excited about going back, he's just been asking about his friends,” Ma said.
For her, it came down to the quality of their education. She works in remote learning. But Ma doesn’t think it’s effective for younger kids and said it was tough to keep them motivated in front of a computer all day long.
Her husband, Lecclier, felt their sons were missing social interaction.
“After a while, it really started to take a toll on our kids. You could just start to see the emotions becoming a little more raw as time went by,” he said.
The final piece in their decision: Lecclier himself is going back to school fulltime for a career change and can’t guide them as much with virtual school.
“The old paradigm wouldn’t work anymore. We had to do something different,” Lecclier said.
If they decide to change, they and other HISD families can switch back to online learning at the next grading period. For now, they're trusting their neighborhood school.
Educators, however, will likely need more reassurance. Over the weekend, more than 100 Houston-area educators sounded off their frustration with the district’s plans for face-to-face instruction. They pulled up to HISD headquarters and formed a car caravan that wound its way to an early voting site.
Their message for Gov. Greg Abbott and education administrators: do more to keep school communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several school employees said they’re angry that Abbott didn’t give local health officials more autonomy in reopening campuses.
“Our current policies do not protect Texans. The only way you can protect yourselves and your family is to vote them and their friends out of office,” read a statement from Zeph Capo, president of both the Houston Federation of Teachers and Texas AFT.
To get ready for in-person learning, teachers have stocked up on cleaning supplies and protective gear. Some don’t trust the equipment from their schools and have bought their own masks.
At Navarro Middle School just east of downtown, eighth grade teacher Daniel Santos has a face shield on his desk, three boxes of gloves, two packages of antibacterial wipes and an extra package of disposable masks for students who need them.
He said he felt unprepared for the return to in-person learning in a way he’s never felt in his 15 years in the classroom, including two years winning teacher of the year.
“I’m anxious. I'm demoralized. And it’s frustrating to me because I’m such an advocate for my students and for my community,” Santos said.
Santos said he's worried there’s not enough personal protective equipment and there aren't enough teachers to keep kids spaced out. He originally had 11 desks, now he's up to 14 — which he welcomes but also recognizes as a risk.
Adding to his anxiety: trying to teach online and in person at the same time, and wondering how he'll find out if there's a positive COVID-19 case on campus.
“I had no idea that a particular staff member here was COVID-19 positive until it was published (on the news),” he said. “What kind of reassuring message does that convey to our teachers who are already anxious?”
Santos said school communities need a real investment from their local districts and state authorities.
“If we are to ask teachers to come in person and to be able to safely resume, we need that investment, so they can have more teachers and the technology and the infrastructure and address other social needs,” he explained.
His middle school is one of several HISD facilities that have already been exposed to COVID-19.
So has Chavez High School, where Principal Luis Landa said if they avoid more cases, it will be his biggest win this year.
Land said that he’s taking everything one step at a time. For now, lunches will be in classrooms, maybe later the gym. There’ll be more time to transition between classes. And most rooms will have just seven or eight students.
“It won’t be exactly like it was before the pandemic,” Landa said. “But one thing that we’ll make sure of is that safety comes first and that we’re going to continue to give 100% and make sure students do learn.”
Just 20% of his 2,700 students are expected to return. Landa figures some students want to continue with virtual school because they help care for younger siblings or work. Another potential factor: Over 80% of his students are Hispanic, and Houston’s Latino community has been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.
Overall in HISD, about 40% of its 210,000 students are expected back in the classroom. About 60% plan to learn remotely.