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Houston Teachers Stage Sick-Out Protest To Demand Better COVID-19 Protocols

Among their demands are capping class sizes at 15 students with six feet of social distancing required, and serving meals outside or in large, well-ventilated areas.

Houston ISD Headquarters
Florian Martin / Houston Public Media
HISD’s Hattie Mae White Administration Building.

Updated 4:47 p.m. CT

Teachers from a few dozen campuses across the Houston Independent School District staged a "sick-out" protest Thursday, calling out of work to demand a safer learning environment for themselves and their students during the pandemic.

Organizers urged teachers who called in sick to take the day to get a COVID test.

Among their demands: capping class sizes at 15 students with six feet of social distancing required; serving meals outside or in large, well-ventilated areas, and not in the classroom as many schools are doing; improving HVAC and air circulation for all classrooms; and adding mask policies to the student and staff code of conduct.

The planned sick-out in Houston comes at the same time HISD is reopening 16 schools that had to close this week because of confirmed or presumed cases of COVID-19 on campus. In a statement late Wednesday, HISD said that all of its 280 schools will reopen for face-to-face instruction Thursday, and that schools that had temporarily closed have been deep-cleaned and disinfected.

HISD also announced that it’s decided to revise its policy on when a campus should close due to COVID-19. Citing a review of procedures in collaboration with the Houston Health Department, HISD will now close schools and shift their students to virtual learning if there are two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“That’s simply frightening to me,” said Traci Latson, who teaches at Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School. “Elementary, the students are pretty confined to one classroom. But when you’re on a secondary level, that’s a lot of exposure to a lot of students and educators in a building, so that’s frightening.”

Previously, the state’s largest school district had stricter criteria: Just one confirmed or presumed case of COVID could trigger a school’s closure for deep-cleaning. That led to the 16 schools closing after the first day of in-person learning this week.

“We quickly realized that we do not know if we are COVID positive or negative. And we are just openly going into the building on a wish and a prayer that we are negative,” she said of HISD’s reopening this week.

Even though Latson’s principal has allowed her to continue teaching virtually for now, she said she called in sick Thursday to get a COVID test and to stand with her colleagues.

Latson said she is trying to protect her mother, who has stage 4 cancer. She worries that later in the school year, she will be forced to either lose her income or expose her mother to the coronavirus.

“Even though I am quote ‘protected,’ I’m still stressing out. I stress out, I worry every day,” she said.

If anything comes out of the sickout, Latson said she hopes HISD will not try to revoke teachers’ certifications if they resign this school year due to COVID.

Teachers in Houston and across the state are concerned about the risks to their health and students as campuses reopen for face-to-face instruction during the pandemic. In Austin, students planned a “sick out” to protest reopening policies and support their educators.

In Texas, it’s illegal for public school employees to strike. If they do, they can lose their teaching certificates and their pension benefits with the Teacher Retirement System permanently revoked.

The Houston Independent School District released a statement, but did not address the sick out directly. It said that it will “remain focused on providing our students with a high-quality education while ensuring that the health, safety and well-being of both our students and staff are held to the highest standard.”

“Face-to-face instruction will continue to occur with safety measures in place in accordance with guidelines provided by the CDC, state and local health authorities. The health, safety and well-being of our students and staff remains our top priority as we work to meet the educational needs of all families in the district,” according to HISD.

High school freshman Alexavier Mendoza, 14, said some students at Chavez High School almost joined the teachers in the sick out because they feel there’s not enough social distancing in the classrooms.

“I don’t blame them,” Alexavier said of teachers calling in sick. “I knew it was going to come up and something like this was going to happen. The reason is because teachers don’t have a choice to work virtual. They have to go in school.”

He said he supports teachers taking a stand because “they do a lot for us, one, and, two, they’ve been going overboard, especially during this virtual learning.”

Alexavier said he and his siblings are still learning remotely from home because their community in Houston’s East End is at higher risk for the coronavirus.

“We just looked at data and we said now is not the time to go back to school,” he said.

Houston Public Media has also contacted the Houston Federation of Teachers for comment.

This is a developing story and will be updated.