Houston ISD moved Tuesday to temporarily close 16 schools with confirmed or presumed COVID-19 cases on campus, charting a different course from other local districts continuing to offer in-person classes at all campuses in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
One day after celebrating the reopening of in-person classes in the state’s largest district, HISD officials faced their first reported COVID-19 cases with students on campus. The disclosures led to swift closures in a fraction of their 275 campuses, in some cases over a single confirmed infection at a school.
While some staff members and parents lauded the quick shutdown of more than a dozen campuses, others argued HISD should follow the lead of nearby districts that have kept campuses open after learning of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19.
District officials said some of the 16 campuses were closed Tuesday and others will shutter on Wednesday, when all students are expected to remain at home due to previously scheduled teacher in-service training. Reopening plans varied by campus, with some schools notifying families that in-person classes could resume Thursday.
HISD officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the rationale for shuttering schools. Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has said district leaders would consult with city and county health officials, the district’s communicable disease plan task force and HISD operations staff to determine needed actions and closure length.
District officials said four schools reported confirmed COVID-19 cases and 12 documented presumed cases. HISD did not disclose the number of cases at each campus, though emails sent by school leaders and district statements suggested several were shut down due to a single case.
Ankhi Dutta, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, said school leaders should consider multiple factors when deciding whether to close a school. They include the level of community and campus COVID-19 spread, how well students and staff follow in-school safety precautions and how often an infected individual interacted with others.
“Whether the school school needs to close or part of the school needs to be closed, that depends on the circumstances,” Dutta said. “It’s very hard to generalize this.”
Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease specialist with UT Physicians and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, said he believes schools can stay open after learning of active COVID cases — under the right conditions.
“A school that is having a lot of cases but also has good mitigation practices and contact tracing that is very diligent, they can probably operate to a certain degree,” Ostrosky said.
Some campuses subjected to a shutdown rank among the largest in HISD for their grade level, including Bellaire, Waltrip and Westbury high schools, and Lanier, Lawson and Pershing middle schools.
For some parents of the roughly 80,000 HISD students attending in-person classes, HISD pulled the trigger on campus closures too fast.
“I just don’t think it would be sustainable for the entire community to wait every night for the notice on whether or not there’s school the next day,” said Rebekah Maddux El-Hakam, the mother of four HISD students, including two at Lanier Middle. “Of course none of us want an outbreak, but this just doesn’t seem like the right move.”
Robin Legare, whose sixth-grade son attends Lawson Middle School, said she does not believe it is necessary for HISD to shut down the campus every time a presumptive positive test arises — though she will watch for any COVID-19 outbreaks at the school. Legare said her two sons struggled with online learning after she would leave the house to work her guest transportation job at Ben Taub Hospital, with teachers often calling to say they had not logged into classes or missed assignments.
“If they say, ‘Hey, one of their teachers got it,’ or a student in their class, or if there are multiple cases and no precautions, then I will take my kids out and go virtual,” Legare said. “We’ll figure it out from there. Their health is my main priority.”
At the same time, HISD’s vigilance drew applause from some teachers, including those in neighboring districts.
“I think we’re hearing more from people out in the suburban schools that HISD is actually closing and cleaning schools when they’re getting cases, and their districts are not,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and Texas’ American Federation of Teachers chapter. “I’ve not had any of our members tell me yet that they’d rather not have the schools closed.”
HISD administrators have moved more cautiously than other Houston-area education leaders amid the pandemic, partially owing to the district’s size and large population of lower-income students of color. Black, Hispanic and poor adults have died and been hospitalized due to COVID-19 at higher rates than those who are white and more affluent.
While nearly all local districts had resumed in-person classes by late September, HISD opted to delay most face-to-face instruction until Monday.
The guarded approach carried over this week into decisions about closing campuses. By contrast, nearly all of the Houston area’s largest districts have kept all schools open despite hundreds of students and staff visiting schools and later testing positive for COVID-19.
Aldine, Conroe, Cy-Fair, Humble, Katy, Klein and Spring Branch ISDs have not closed a single campus even after totaling about 850 cases as of Oct. 11. Several high schools in those districts have reported double-digit active cases — Atascocita and Kingwood in Humble combined to show 55 active student cases and 4 active staff cases as of Tuesday — though none have seen significant outbreaks in elementary and middle grades.
“We have not had a circumstance or occasion rise to the level of denying all children on a campus in-person access to their teachers, nurses, counselors or classrooms,” Humble Chief Communications Officer Jamie Mount said in a statement.
Rather than shutting down campuses, districts neighboring HISD often close off locations where an infected individual spent significant time, disinfect those spots, conduct contact tracing with those in close, extended proximity to the COVID-positive person and notify families about the confirmed test.
The diverging approaches across Houston reflect a lack of clear state or federal guidance on when to temporarily stop in-person classes.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that school leaders “close off areas used by a sick person and do not use these areas until after cleaning and disinfecting them.” However, the guidance does not define “used by.”
The Texas Education Agency issued a mandate that schools disinfect areas “heavily used” by an infected individual, but did not require school-wide closure. Public school districts can keep a campus closed for up to five days before losing state funding for days beyond that, according to TEA guidelines.