Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that as of June 5 school districts will no longer be able to impose masks on students and staff, ended a debate among some over whether to require masks during the next school year.
But many other aspects of the school year – including social distancing requirements and e-learning programs – remain in limbo.
However, it is already clear that most districts are trying to get as close to pre-pandemic normal as possible after more than a year of turmoil and shifts in focus.
The in-person learning came to an abrupt end in March 2020 as concerns over the coronavirus swept through the region. When the school reopened in August, the situation was different with masking and distancing.
This school year has been marked by changes, with students moving from virtual learning to in-person learning. Students and staff have also had to quarantine themselves at any time of the year if they come into close contact with someone who tests positive for the coronavirus – sometimes sending entire classes home to learn virtually.
Abbott’s order on Tuesday banned government entities from issuing mask warrants. School districts can leave their terms in place until June 4, when most districts will have completed the regular school year.
But the Texas Education Agency has yet to release specific guidelines for the 2021-2022 academic year.
The agency is still working with state officials on the best options for students, according to a statement.
“ JUST NOT PRACTICAL ”
Many local districts are already considering reducing or eliminating social distancing.
For the Clear Creek Independent School District, separating students to prevent the spread of the virus has been the biggest challenge, spokeswoman Elaina Polsen said.
Only about 20% of Clear Creek’s roughly 40,000 students are still online, she said. Finding room to separate the remaining 80% had been difficult, she said.
This has also been the challenge of the Hitchcock Independent School District, said Superintendent Travis Edwards.
“The idea of having people 6 feet away all day long is just not practical in a classroom of 20 kids,” said Edwards.
The district will continue to separate students where possible, he said.
Other districts will still try to provide some distancing.
The Galveston Independent School District will likely still attempt to distance and place divisions among students, said Dyann Polzin, head of human capital management and student services.
Whether districts will continue to offer virtual schooling is a mixed issue in the county.
The Dickinson Independent School District will not have a virtual school, spokeswoman Tammy Dowdy said. Neither does Hitchcock, Edwards said.
Clear Creek plans to have a virtual option, if the state allows it, although that will change the structure of the program, Polsen said.
“This year we’ve had a lot of hybrids where students are basically beaming in a classroom,” Polsen said. “It was not the best educational outcome for the students.”
Many districts have yet to make up their minds.
If Galveston offers virtual education, it will also require more student engagement, Polzin said.
Texas City and Santa Fe School Districts are collecting feedback from parents before announcing virtual options.
COVID cases in Galveston County are on the decline. Over the past seven days, the Galveston County Health District has reported an average of 23.7 new cases per day. That’s a far cry from the record seven-day averages of 264.3 cases per day in January or 245.1 cases per day in early July, depending on the health district.
And the vast majority of students in Galveston County attend school in person.
But some students are still worried about going back to class.
Sophomore Nicholas Norman’s parents have been careful to stay safe from the coronavirus, he said. He’s not sure if he wants to go back to his Dickinson school in the fall.
“COVID is still active,” Norman said. “It will be a long time before COVID simmers.”
Norman has remained virtual during the school year for the safety of his parents, he said.
Galveston sophomore Ayanna Hollins has also taken online classes this year.
Hollins’ parents encouraged her to pursue virtual learning for safety reasons, she said.
SANITIZE TO STAY
What districts will keep next year are improved sanitation practices.
Hitchcock wants to remove its water fountains and install bottle filling stations to reduce the spread of all viruses, Edwards said.
Districts have improved their game by communicating with parents by broadcasting live updates and making information easily accessible online, said Polsen of Clear Creek.
Districts are still awaiting advice from the state on next year’s practices regarding when to quarantine students and how far to go.
But most are ready to return to a more stable school year.
“We hope to get back to normal as much as possible,” said Edwards.