Waco High, University High and two Waco Independent School District magnet schools will close their campuses for a week starting Friday because of a growing COVID-19 count, officials said Thursday.
All students at the two high schools, along with the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy and the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy, will learn remotely until Oct. 19. Brazos High School, Waco ISD’s alternative school, will remain open for its students who have chosen in-person instruction.
Waco High and University High football games scheduled for Friday have been canceled. Waco High had been set to play Killeen High School at Waco ISD Stadium, and University had been set to play Rudder High School in Bryan. The district decided to cancel these games before it chose to close the four campuses, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said.
At least 25 people at the four affected campuses have reported testing positive for COVID-19 since the start of school, including 14 in the past week, Kincannon said.
Eight students and five staff members at University High have tested positive since school started Sept. 8, while nine students and two staff members at Waco High have tested positive, according to the district’s dashboard. One case has been reported at both GWAHCA and GWAMA, but it is unclear if they were in students or staff members. Waco ISD does not make that distinction unless at least five cases have been reported on a campus, for privacy reasons.
University High has about 1,497 students and 168 staff members on campus for in-person instruction, and Waco High has about 1,387 students and 206 staff members on campus, according to district numbers. In-person enrollment for GWAMA and GWAHCA are more difficult to pin down because many students do not stay on these campuses all day and many come in from other districts.
“As the number of cases of COVID-19 reported at our high schools has increased, so too has the number of teachers and other employees required to quarantine for 14 days from their last contact with someone who tested positive,” Kincannon said in a statement Thursday. “While most of our educators are able to teach remotely while quarantining, the number of employees out presents a challenge for appropriately supervising students without bringing large groups of students together in the same space.”
Meanwhile, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported Thursday that another resident of the county has died from COVID-19 complications, a 73-year-old woman. That brings the county death toll to 123 people.
The health district also reported that 84 more residents tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the county total to 8,800. An estimated 485 are currently sick with the disease. Waco hospitals were treating 45 COVID-19 patients Thursday, with five people on ventilators.
Kincannon said she could not predict whether other Waco ISD schools would close in the coming days or weeks but that she expects to see more school closures around the area and the state.
While 25 positive cases may not seem like many on such large campuses, contact tracing led the district to quarantine many teachers who came into contact with sick individuals, leading to an increase in the need for substitutes, Kincannon said. Both high schools have more than 20 substitute teacher requests daily, many of which remain open.
“Our ability to operate the campus is becoming an issue for us,” she said during a Zoom call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “These closures of these schools are really to help us reset and get all of our staff back.”
Kincannon did not have the specific number of students and staff required to quarantine available. She said the number changes daily but that it is a large number.
The state limits school closures due to COVID-19 to five days, so Waco ISD decided to begin these closures Friday and extend them until Oct. 19, with Monday being a school holiday, Kincannon said. That way, the district does not violate state rules but still gives students and staff 10 days to see if they develop symptoms. She said anyone sick should stay home.
Most of the cases identified in the past week are not connected, and few came from close contact with an individual on campus who tested positive for COVID-19, Kincannon said. Waco ISD will continue to monitor the situation to see if more people become sick.
“Those numbers are growing, and every time we conduct contact tracing, we’re having to send more of our staff home,” she said. “That really is impacting our ability to operate the campuses.”
G.W. Carver Middle School closed its campus for in-person instruction this week for similar reasons, Kincannon said. The campus plans to reopen Monday.
“We don’t take these decisions lightly,” she said. “We took a look at the number of subs on campuses, the number of subs needed across the district and our ability to manage all of our campuses, and sending the high school students home at this time to learn remotely not only allows us to make sure that all of our staff comes back well and that we manage the spread of COVID-19 at those schools, but it also frees up our ability to manage our other campuses with substitutes.”
Students at closed campuses can still pick up free meals via curbside pick-up, in addition to hotspots if they did not receive one before leaving campus Thursday. All students were supposed to receive a Chromebook and a hotspot, if they lack internet access, to take home Thursday.
Students who need assistance with technology can call the district’s help desk from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 254-284-1072.
Kincannon said she encourages high school students and staff to take advantage of free COVID-19 testing available next week at sites including Waco ISD Stadium, which offers tests from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. More information is available at wacoisd.org/covidtesting.
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Tribune-Herald reporter Brooke Crum and Managing Editor J.B. Smith contributed to this report
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