Faith Sanford Washington woke her mother up at 5 a.m. Monday, unable to contain her excitement about returning to school for the first time in seven months.
“She said, “Momma, it’s time to go to school,” and I had to tell her, ‘Not yet,’” Yolanda Sanford said
Two hours later, Sanford pulled up to the front entrance Houston ISD’s Young Elementary School and walked Faith to the front door of the Sunnyside campus, where she was among the first students greeted by a masked temperature-checker.
An estimated 80,000-plus HISD students poured into classrooms Monday as the state’s largest district resumed in-person classes, joining all of the region’s other public schools in offering face-to-face instruction. District officials did not report any major hiccups in the first few hours of classes.
For many parents, the return ensures their students will receive a better academic and social experience, while also allowing them to return to work during the school day. HISD has been closed for in-person classes since mid-March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Our staff and principals have done a phenomenal job teaching our students online, but nothing takes the place of face-to-face,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said Monday at Highland Heights Elementary School on the city’s north side.
At the same time, many school staff members remain concerned about the possibility of on-campus COVID-19 spread. While the vast majority of schools are not reporting school-based outbreaks, public health officials continue to monitor the impact of reopening campuses on community transmission of the virus.
Families saw extensive changes to school operations Monday in what district officials often describe as a “year of flexibility.” At Young Elementary, all students and staff wore masks while on campus, a bus driver helped riders off while donning a face shield and parents waited with their children in a socially-distanced line for their temperature checks.
Dezmond Chambers, the mother of Young Elementary pre-kindergartner Luke, left campus disappointed that a back-to-school ritual — walking your child to his or her class on the first day — had been squashed due to COVID-19.
“I was a little sad about that because I haven’t even seen the classroom yet,” Chambers said. “Hopefully, it gets better and I’ll be able to pop in, but for now, this is what we have to do.”
HISD officials projected about 40 percent of the 196,000 enrolled students would return to buildings Monday, with the remaining students still learning from home. Most teachers were expected to face-to-face and virtual classes simultaneously, juggling students in both settings during the school day.
Some safety measures were common across the district, including mandatory mask usage and the placement of stickers offering distance reminders throughout each campus.
However, principals and other district administrators had to tailor their plans at each school, often based on students’ age and the percent of children returning to campus.
Leaders of seven high schools debuted a “hybrid” schedule, in which students choosing in-person classes will split their days between on-campus and virtual instruction.
On the district’s northeast side, Eliot Elementary School Principal Matthew Schwer focused most on working with lower grades. About half of Eliot Elementary’s 560 students chose in-person classes.
“In a regular school year, working with 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds is difficult, getting them to understand new procedures,” said Schwer, the first-year leader of the Denver Harbor campus.
“Some of them have never been in school before, so we’re really focused on our younger students and making sure we’re going through the procedures on how to walk through the hallway while staying socially distant, how we sanitize when we walk into the cafeteria or a classroom, how we wash our hands.”
All of the Greater Houston area’s largest districts resumed in-person classes between late August and late September, often phasing in students over a few weeks. Several schools have registered more than 10 active COVID-19 cases since reopening, with Klein Oak High School reporting a region-high 38 cases last week, but no elementary or middle schools have reached double-digit active cases at one time.
Under Texas Education Agency guidelines, public school districts could limit access to in-person classes through their eighth week of instruction, which landed on Nov. 2 for HISD. However, Lathan said she still would choose to open campuses this week regardless of state deadlines.
“People can say what they want, but we have tried to rely on the science and follow the data,” Lathan said. “If we had been in a position where we were back at 10 to 15 percent positivity rate in the city, there would have been a different type of decision made.”