Waco Independent School District may delay the start of school by almost three weeks, opening after Labor Day to allow time for the current spike in COVID-19 cases in McLennan County to drop, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said Thursday.
The school district’s COVID-19 response task force recommended pushing back the first day of school to Sept. 8 from Aug. 18, making up the lost days by extending the school year to end June 10. The task force also recommended masks for all students.
The Waco ISD board of trustees discussed the proposal at Thursday’s 6 p.m. meeting, which was broadcast online at wacoisd.org/live and on WISD-TV, Cable Channel 17.
In a virtual press conference Thursday morning, Kincannon said the task force had not discussed the possibility of providing only remote instruction for a certain time frame. State officials told the Texas Tribune on Wednesday that school districts could choose that option under certain conditions. During a Waco ISD Board of Trustees meeting Thursday night, officials acknowledged the press reports but said the Texas Education Agency had not given formal guidance to that effect.
The TEA released guidelines on reopening schools last week that would require schools to provide in-person instruction five days a week for students who want it. The requirements give school districts a three-week transition period at the beginning of the school year to hold classes virtually, while preparing for students to return to campus and putting safety measures in place.
But TEA officials said Wednesday that districts would continue to receive state funding if local health officials order them to remain closed, as long as they provide remote instruction for all students, the Texas Tribune reported.
Kincannon said the Waco ISD task force did not discuss that option because it was not on the table at the time, and TEA has not released any official guidance on the comments made by officials.
“With a late start of Sept. 8, we buy ourselves nearly three weeks. We end up in about the same place, so at this point there’s not a real advantage to us,” she said. “Things are developing. They still continue to be somewhat fluid for us. The vision’s getting a little bit clearer, but it certainly has been a challenge to plan. Slowing things down a bit for the fall, beginning after Sept. 8 seems to make a lot of sense to us so that we have enough time to work with our staff and make sure we’re prepared for our students.”
The task force recommended that students be required to wear masks, as well, even students under age 10, Kincannon said, although that will be “tricky” with kindergarten and prekindergarten students.
McLennan County saw local cases of the start to increase dramatically in mid-June.
If a student does get COVID-19, the school district must immediately remove them from class and isolate them, while notifying the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District and conducting contact tracing to determine who the student had close contact with, Kincannon said. That could mean more students and staff members would have to isolate themselves at home. Waco ISD also would disinfect the spaces where the student was.
“We might see an entire classroom shut down for a period of time,” she said. “If we get too many cases, we could close down a school. We will just have to work our way through each one of those individual situations.”
Kincannon lamented the lack of local control school districts have over how to provide instruction this school year. Waco ISD’s task force considered a hybrid model of in-person and remote instruction, but that is not currently allowed under state guidelines.
The school district conducted a survey of teachers and families, using a random sample of 400 families and responses from 693 of Waco ISD’s 993 teachers. Most families, or 67%, responded that they were “somewhat” or “very uncomfortable” sending their students back to school, and most teachers, or 57%, responded the same way.
Waco ISD will hold a virtual town hall at 6 p.m. Tuesday to get feedback from families and allow them to ask questions. The school board could vote on a final reopening plan at its July 23 regular meeting.