Shortly after Houston ISD’s 2019-2020 school year ended, Adela Justice decided her soon-to-be second-grader, Laurenzo, would remain in online-only classes for the foreseeable future.
For Justice, a Mexican-American single mother watching COVID-19 disproportionately impact Houston’s Latino community, the prospect of sending Laurenzo back to Parker Elementary School with hundreds of other children remained too risky.
“It’s just the two of us, and if he brings it to me, we could be done for,” Justice said Friday. “He’s doing fine both physically and mentally. I’ve asked him repeatedly, ‘Do you want to go back?’ and he says, ‘No.’ He’s happy to be home with Mommy and have the room to move around.”
If the state’s largest district follows through with reopening campuses to students on Oct. 19 — the tentative plan, still based on public health conditions — more than half of the district’s nearly 200,000 could remain at home for at least one grading period, HISD officials said this week.
Newly released data shows that 80 percent of the district’s families committed in recent days to a back-to-school option. Of those, about 40 percent chose in-person instruction and 60 percent opted to stay in virtual classes. HISD officials are unsure whether the remaining 20 percent of families will send their children back to classrooms, but district staff are planning as if they will show up on campus.
With those totals in hand, HISD officials are using the next few days to finalize arrangements for Oct. 19, which marks the start of the district’s second grading period. Key decisions are expected to land next week, including whether to limit attendance at some high school campuses and shuffle students’ already-assigned teachers.
“Based on the enrollment data breakdown, campus principals will create schedules to accommodate students returning for face-to-face instruction and those continuing remotely,” HISD’s administration said in a statement.
The close divide in back-to-school selections reflects the difficult choices facing families across the country amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
While some families worry about the safety implications of sending kids back to classrooms, others have concluded the academic, behavioral and emotional benefits outweigh the health risks. HISD families who choose in-person classes can switch to online-only instruction once campuses reopen, but those selecting virtual classes must remain at home until at least early December.
Nearly all of the Houston area’s largest districts resumed in-person classes for families that want it in recent weeks, though a few remain in the early stages of reopening, including Alief and Fort Bend ISDs.
To date, only Crosby ISD has reported more than 10 active cases of COVID-19 at a single campus. The district temporarily closed Crosby High School this week and Crosby Middle School last week for cleaning.
HISD will be the region’s last district to offer face-to-face instruction, though the district has operated learning centers at 36 campuses and churches for students without at-home technology access since the 2020-21 school year started virtually in early September.
If HISD reopens classrooms in mid-October, the district likely will bring back thousands of employees who remain fearful of returning to work.
A survey of roughly 7,400 teachers conducted between mid-June and early July found that 35 percent were more comfortable staying in online-only classes, while 14 percent were ready to return to the classroom. About half of respondents said they were open to a hybrid model, in which students wanting in-person instruction spent part of their week on campus and part in at-home classes.
“There have been numerous concerns about the size of the classrooms,” said Scott Parker, a science teacher at Navarro Middle School. “You have literally thousands of students coming back, and they’re all within a closed, confined area.”
Nearly all of the district’s 280 campuses are expected to host all students wanting in-person instruction for five days each week. HISD officials did not release a campus-by-campus breakdown of expected in-person attendance rates Friday.
State education leaders are allowing public school districts to employ a hybrid model only at high schools, an option HISD is considering at 13 of its larger campuses. They include Bellaire, Chavez, Lamar and Westside high schools, as well as Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center.
“We look at the capacity of the building, we look at the number of students based on enrollment, and then can they accommodate physical distancing and students moving throughout the building,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said.
At Lamar High School, home to about 2,900 students just west of downtown Houston, Principal Rita Graves told parents this week that meeting social distancing recommendations “may be difficult” if more than 30 percent of students choose in-person classes. About 35 percent ultimately opted to return to campus, while another 10 percent did not respond and could unexpectedly show up to school, Graves reported Thursday.
While district officials have warned that some schools could move around teachers to accommodate schedule changes, Lamar students will remain with their current instructors.
“As a parent, it was comforting to know that, no matter which decision I made, my child would have a measure of consistency either way,” said Chrysi Polydoros, president of Lamar’s parent-teacher organization.
Guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency dictates that public school districts must offer five days of in-person instruction to all students who want it — with the exception of high schools on a hybrid schedule — starting with their ninth week of classes.
For HISD, that day arrives on Nov. 2, giving Lathan a two-week cushion for any further delays beyond the district’s tentative return date.