At Aikin Elementary School, teachers are busy preparing their classrooms for back to school. Mandy Barnett said the theme this year is superheroes. On Wednesday, she was stapling decorations to a board in her classroom, mask-less.
“I feel funny being up here to not have it on right now,” she said.
In March 2020, students went on spring break and just didn’t come back to school. In the fall, they started back with masks firmly in place. This coming school year, the masks are gone, but the number of coronavirus cases are rising again, and the state has said districts can’t require masks.
“Gov. (Greg) Abbott issued a law that makes it illegal for us to require masks,” Clarksville Superintendent Kermit Ward said. “For this reason, masks are at anyone’s full discretion.”
The order from the state came as the number of coronavirus cases are rising in the state, most of them now from the delta variant. According to the latest from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant made up 63% of cases nationwide by July 3, and by July 17, it was 82% of cases. In Texas, where 43.4% of the population is fully vaccinated, 45.9% of new cases are the delta variant, and 31.9% the original strain. The number of active cases is up from an estimated highest in June of 715 to an estimated 2,800 on Wednesday across the state. In Lamar County, the Texas Department of State Health Services’s dashboard shows an estimated active case rate of 105.
All of this leaves questions about what the school schedule will look like for parents and teachers. Over the last legislative session, funding for remote learning stalled and ultimately never passed, leaving most districts, including those in Lamar County, unable to continue their programs.
“North Lamar ISD will return to 100% in-person learning on Aug. 16 for the 2021-22 school year,” North Lamar ISD Superintendent Kelli Stewart said. “At the end of the last Texas Legislative Session in May, the Texas Legislature did not approve funding for remote learning of any kind. As a result, remote learning will not be offered at North Lamar ISD.”
Ward said he has told his board not to completely write off remote learning as a tool, though the board has removed that option for the school year.
“What I have constantly communicated to teachers is that our board had indeed removed distance learning as a parental option, yet it would be wise if the ISD was prepared to make exceptions for any reason,” he said. “We may find ourselves with kids being at home sick from any other reasons outside of Covid that we want to offer distance learning to, or the kid that is forced to quarantine because they are living with someone that has been diagnosed with Covid. Schools should be nimble enough to easily offer distance learning to the student. So, I have constantly preached to our staff that distance learning will likely never go away.”
He added he liked having the option available.
“It only fails when parents have the same approach with their children as if they are in school,” Ward said. “This Covid-19 year ushered in many opportunities for kids to learn in a different way. Succinctly put, kids were asked to follow a college-level schedule that requires independence along with self and time management. We do have some that have made the best of it in that environment, yet we have so many who, to put it mildly, simply were not ready or interested in developing new opportunities for learning. The parents that were really on top of their children, this worked. Remaining nimble with this gives us lots of flexibility when we are experiencing inclement weather or any major facility issues, so we are not fully moving away from this.”
As some families include members who are immunocompromised, some parents may worry about their child not being able to get the vaccine just yet, though federal estimates are that school-aged children under 12 might be eligible for the vaccine by winter. But this leaves those families with two options, tell their child to wear a mask at school or homeschool. But districts have made it clear their teachers can’t enforce masks. It’s a discussion between the parent and child.
“If a parent would like for their child to wear a mask while at school, we will be more than happy to allow and support that decision,” Paris ISD Superintendent Paul Jones said. “Parents will need to enforce this with their child at home since our teachers will not be able to enforce it at school.”
Ward echoed the sentiment.
“If the parent insists and the student does not comply, we will share that information with the parent, however, I do not expect any teacher to force the student to pull the mask up on behalf of the parent,” he said. “That type of situation would place us in direct violation of the governor’s order.”
At Chisum ISD, Superintendent Tommy Chalaire said his district will follow both the governor’s and Texas Education Agency’s policies.
“We are going to do whatever TEA tells us to do,” he said.
Other Covid-19 protocols from the previous school year remain in place in all districts, including emphasizing hand washing, hand sanitizer stations, etc.
“North Lamar ISD will start the school year with many of the same health protocols from last year in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” Stewart said. “Among them include providing hand-sanitizing stations, routine cleaning of classrooms and buses, as well as deep cleaning in the event of illness.”
School administrators added they are also keeping up with the health department for any updates to help inform any future policies.
“Paris ISD will continue working with the Lamar County Health Department to help make decisions for this upcoming school year,” Jones said. “Our district will also continue to follow all protocols that are given by TEA as they arise throughout the school year.”