A socially distanced, packed boardroom convened in person Monday, Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. for the first time since the spring for a special school board meeting to address the Fall 2020 reopening of the district’s campuses, which is scheduled for Aug. 11 online followed by three phases of returning in-person learners.
All board members were present in the boardroom except for Trustee Nance Morrison, who attended virtually via Zoom.
Board president Robert Sitton addressed his colleagues and the public with a prepared statement, saying, “Tonight we are facing new challenges at Humble ISD. Who would have thought when we left for spring break that our kids would not see the inside of a classroom for roughly six months? We, the board and Dr. [Elizabeth] Fagen, have received hundreds of emails, phone calls over the past few weeks.
- Survey shows majority want to return -
“Some want all kids in school on day one. Some don’t feel we should continue in-person instruction until much later. Any decision that is made tonight will not be met with unanimous consent with any community. We understand that, but now is not the time for divisiveness. This is not the way our community handles itself. We are a strong community with strong feelings. We are resilient. We persevere through adversity.
“Decisions of this magnitude should never be on a whim and should not be made in a political nature. We are dealing with our kids; 44,437 of them at last count. Several board members up here have children or grandchildren enrolled in Humble ISD. I am one of them. I have a daughter and a grandson both attending school next week.
“Our staff members, in my opinion, are the best in public education. We want them excited about the new school year and all it has to offer. Dr. Fagen and her team have been working all summer to get ready for a blended approach to learning, giving families the ability to choose between online only, in person only, or online plus UIL. We know the past few weeks have been filled with many emotions from happy to sad to confusion and even fear. Tonight, hopefully, we can add some clarity so we can get back to what we do best: educate kids, making a difference in our community.
“Any decision we make must be based on medical data and scientific research. I’m hesitant to talk statistics because the numbers are ever changing and sometimes those conversations come off as dismissive of the virus and the pandemic.”
Sitton detailed some of the statistical information he had gathered. Harris County has a population of 4.713 million residents.
“According to the Harris County Public Health website,” Sitton said, “there are currently 31,183 active cases [of COVID-19], which is 0.66% of the population. From the Texas Department of Health website, the six zip codes that make up Humble ISD currently have an active positive case rate of just shy of 1%. As of yesterday, The Texas Medical Center was reporting 3,170 vacant beds which was up week over week.
“Again, not minimizing the virus. Just adding some perspective. Many families have been affected by this terrible illness. In Harris County, 760 individuals lost their battle to this dreadful virus. So how should we proceed? Is the virus going away? Will we have a vaccine in the near future? What is the damage to children and adolescent development if we don’t reopen schools? Is it safe to reopen? Are we putting lives at risk?
“I can give you my opinions. We all can. But what does science and the health community say? According to the CDC, school closure disrupts the delivery of critical services such as meal programs and social, physical, behavioral and mental health. It also adds additional economic and psychological stress on families. They go on to say schools play critical roles and as such make them a priority for opening and remaining open.
“I think we all can agree that in-person education is the best for kids, but we also understand the apprehension this virus brings to our community. I personally believe we should begin in-person instruction as soon as possible, so I am prepared tonight to present a compromise.”
Public comments were opened to patrons who attended either in person or virtually. Due to social distancing, in-person public commenters were limited to the first 25 persons who signed up, resulting in 14 that chose to attend. Virtual commenters were not limited in number, and 35 chose to address the board through the virtual option. However, all commenters were allotted only one minute each to address the board.
The majority of public speakers expressed a desire for parents to be given a choice, allowing families who wanted on-campus learning to have it available, and families who wanted online learning to have it available. Other expressed opinions included the health and safety concerns for the community at large, teacher’s choices, teacher safety, on-campus learning for self-contained special education students, resources and learning for 504 plan students, safety for children who are abused at home, student mental health, consideration for students who struggled with online learning, education for students whose parents work away from home full time, and teachers who have children in elementary grades.
The board of trustees also raised concerns and questions about various topics, one of which was detailing the plan for having to change the plan. Trustees Robert Scarfo and Martina Lemond Dixon both inquired of the definition of “if all goes well” in the plan to continue with the phasing process. Another concern mentioned by Lemond Dixon was what options or “flexibility” are being offered to the teachers as far as instructing online, on campus and for those with children in elementary school.
Trustees Keith Lapeze and Lori Twomey both mentioned that the virus is not going away, and time is better spent deciding on and preparing for “the new normal.” Twomey added, “Make it the norm that if you are sick, you stay home. This is our chance to stop more than just COVID.”
Humble ISD sent multiple surveys to the parents asking what the preferences were for each household. According to Chief Communications Officer Jamie Mount, “Parents have opted for on-campus classes for 65% of our students (28,749) and online instruction for 35% of our students (15,688). This is current, July 31, 2020 data.
“Humble ISD allows both online and on-campus students to participate in middle and high school UIL athletics and performing arts activities in person. Humble ISD understands that each family has unique needs and that circumstances can change. Therefore, parents may change their choice anytime throughout the school year. It is our goal to be flexible and supportive.”
Humble ISD also surveyed the employees of the district. Results of the most recent employee survey were 4,544 responses received. All employees were sent the survey: 76% indicated they were excited or ready to return to buildings; 15% indicated they were worried and needed help resolving their concerns; 9% indicated they wanted online only work; and less than 1% indicated they were planning to retire or resign.
More detailed data:
- “I am excited to return to buildings.” 1,417 responses, 31.18%;
- “I am worried about returning to buildings, but with conversations I have had with my health-care provider, district and campus precautions being put in place, modifications to my work area, changes to my normal routines, and the PPE I have, selected ‘I am at low risk, so I am planning to return,’” 2,021 responses, 44.48%;
- “I am worried about returning to buildings and I need help from someone resolving my concerns so that I can feel comfortable,” 660 responses, 14.52%;
- “I am worried about returning to buildings and I will be talking to my supervisor to see if online work is available for me. I understand that my current job must have an online option, that I will have to be online certified if a teacher, that there must be student demand for online classes in my areas of certification. I understand that to make this happen I might have to change my typical class assignments if I am a teacher.” 417 responses, 9.18%
- “I am worried about returning to campus and I am making plans to retire or resign. I understand that the district is being flexible with employees and will not penalize me for a late retirement or resignation.” 29 responses, 0.64%.
After nearly four hours of comments, concerns, questions, discussion and two recesses, the board passed, 6:1, an amended motion that begins the school year next week and phases in varying groups for on-campus learning.
The motion read, “On Aug. 11 all students will begin school online only. On Aug. 17, all self-contained special education students will be in person with a family-choice online option; all others will be online. On Aug. 24. pre-K-5 students will be in person with a family-choice online option; all other students will be on an A/B schedule with a family-choice online option. On Oct. 12, pre-K-8 students will be on campus with a family-choice online option and high school students will continue on an A/B schedule with a family-choice online option.” Scarfo opposed the motion.