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HISD keeps schools open, going against own COVID plan

Houston ISD campuses remained open for in-person instruction Monday, despite county COVID-19 statistics meeting a threshold that district officials had said would trigger the immediate closure of schools.

In the district’s reopening plan, Houston ISD officials wrote that employees would work from home and students would learn virtually if Harris County’s COVID-19 test positivity rate averaged more than 7 percent over a 14-day period. On Monday, Harris County’s COVID-19 dashboard put the 14-day average percent of positive tests at 7.4 percent.

Houston ISD officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Schools in Texas’ largest school district reopened for in-person instruction on Oct. 19, but 16 campuses closed the following day due to presumptive positive and confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. On Wednesday, officials walked back their criteria for closing campuses due to infections, requiring there be at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19 before shutting down individual school buildings. Previously, a single suspected or confirmed case would trigger a campus closure.

Michelle Williams, president of the Houston Education Association and a math interventionist at Kashmere High School, said she worried Houston ISD officials were “moving the goalpost” on their COVID-19 plans by not closing down campuses after the county positivity rate rose above 7 percent.

“Teachers come with it and expose students, and vice versa, and then it goes home and you have more community spread,” Williams said. “If you look at the coronavirus, it’s an exponential growth model. Based on what’s happening across the nation, we know the positive rate is going to increase.”

Schools across the state are limited in how long they can close after COVID-19 infections under current Texas Education Agency guidance. School districts themselves set their own criteria for when to close individual campuses due to positive cases of COVID-19, but TEA rules say campuses can be closed for a maximum of five days.

Entire districts were allowed to spend the first four weeks of the school year online, and school boards could apply for a waiver that would allow them to remain virtual for an additional four weeks. Houston ISD’s waiver to keep students learning remotely expires Nov. 2. Texas Education Agency officials did not immediately respond to questions about district-wide closures outside of the 8-week waiver window.

However, TEA did grant a two-week waiver extension to El Paso ISD, and several other school districts after that area experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases that has strained local hospitals. El Paso education officials said on Twitter that TEA would monitor COVID-19 conditions and review the waiver extension on a week-to-week basis.

Unless such a waiver extension is granted to Houston ISD, the district cannot close all of its schools due to the community spread of COVID-19 alone after Nov. 2.

Williams said she hopes the state will allow HISD to return to remote instruction.

“I’m confident if they have done it for one school district, they’ll do it for HISD,” Williams said