Will local students start the school year in school, at home – or both?
On Wednesday, Killeen Independent School District officials will announce their plans for starting the fall semester.
Most signs point to the district returning to some form of in-class instruction when the school year begins Aug. 17, more than five months after KISD campuses closed their doors in the face of a growing coronavirus outbreak in the area.
While reopening schools may serve the district’s students and parents best in terms of quality of education, it’s a choice that poses dangerous health risks — not just for the students, but for their teachers and families as well.
School is scheduled to begin in just over one month. Yet the spread of the coronavirus in the local area is showing no signs of abating. In fact, it’s increasing — and at a frightening rate.
On Thursday, Bell County reported 140 new cases of the coronavirus — in a single day. The total for the week ending Friday was 541, with three of those five days showing an increase of more than 100 new cases.
To put that in perspective, the five-day total was more than half of the entire number of cases reported countywide in June. Even more startling is the jump in total cases over the past three weeks. On June 18, the Bell County total stood at 699. On Friday, that number had jumped to 1,977, just 23 cases shy of 2,000.
The odds of reversing this trend over the next 35 days — even with social distancing, hand washing and mandatory mask wearing — is highly unlikely.
In other words, reopening of the district’s 51 campuses couldn’t be coming at a worse time.
Many local officials are aware of the potential health risks of bringing people together at a time when the pandemic seems to be peaking.
The Bell County Expo Center has canceled the Central Texas State Fair, scheduled for early September. The Tablerock Theater has called off its annual production of the play “Salado Legends,” citing health concerns. The city of Killeen canceled its Movies in Your Park series, and the city of Harker Heights decided against opening the Carl Levin Park pool this season, also due to public health concerns. KISD also canceled its in-person graduation ceremonies set for mid-July at the Expo Center.
If all these events and activities were shelved out of concern for public health and safety, why would it seem to be a good idea to put 46,000 students and 6,000 school district faculty and staff members in confined spaces for extended periods of time?
No doubt, many students and parents are eager to see a return to in-school instruction, for a variety of reasons.
The community’s views are reflected in an online survey KISD conducted between June 17 and 22, the results of which were released late Wednesday.
The survey, which drew more than 16,100 responses from KISD parents, showed that 60% of respondents overall are concerned about their child falling behind in school because of virtual/online learning. However, about 58% of respondents said they were not comfortable with sending their children back to school. Of that number, 32% said they were “not at all comfortable” with having their child return to the classroom.
In answer to a question on viewpoints for starting school, 47% of parents responding said school should reopen with significant changes to lower the risk of transmission of the virus; 17% said school should reopen as close to normal as possible; and 36% said schools should be virtual or online only.
Given those responses, with 64% in favor of some form of in-class instruction, the district is likely feeling encouraged about reopening its campuses next month.
Another factor in favor of reopening is the positive response rate from 1,504 secondary students who took part. About 74% said they were comfortable returning to in-person instruction.
However, some important considerations must be taken into account.
First, while the safety of students may be an overriding concern for parents taking the survey, the safety of faculty and staff must be a part of the equation. Whereas children and teens generally face a lower risk of serious health impacts from the coronavirus. that is not always the case for adult faculty, staff and administrators — many of whom are older and potentially at higher risk of developing severe symptoms.
Granted, 56% of the district employees who responded to the survey said they were comfortable returning to class in the fall. But it’s hard to know how many of those employees would be in classroom settings.
Second, even if a relatively small number of students contracts the virus, the potential to spread the disease to parents, grandparents and the community at-large makes in-class instruction an extremely risky proposition.
Third, the survey was taken at a time when the county had fewer than 800 cases of the coronavirus, and about 20-25 new cases were being reported daily.
It’s highly likely that the survey’s results might be different if it were taken last week, with cases surging at the rate of 80 a day or more, and total cases nearing the 2,000 mark.
No doubt, the district finds itself in a difficult spot.
Students obviously learn better in a classroom setting than with virtual instruction.
Parents aren’t always well equipped to provide guidance for at-home learning. In addition, many parents have work considerations and childcare issues that must be addressed if schools are closed.
The local economy also stands to be impacted by the district’s decision, with retailers who sell school supplies, clothing and electronics affected most.
Ultimately, school district officials must do what is best — and safest — for all concerned.
At this point, even opening schools with strict cleaning, social distancing and hygiene protocols seems problematic, given the current surge in virus cases.
Perhaps a better option — though likely an unpopular one — is to start the year with virtual learning, then phase in classroom instruction after the first nine-weeks grading period, provided the COVID-19 case numbers have dropped dramatically by that time.
But that plan would have to be announced this week, so students, teachers and parents can plan accordingly. It would serve no purpose to announce a total reopening of KISD campuses, and then have to change course at the last minute.
We all want to see our students back in school. We all want to give them the best education and the most complete on-campus experience possible.
In short, we want to return to normal. But wishing it were so won’t make it happen.
There are no do-overs here. If schools reopen and an outbreak of the virus sweeps the community, we will be living with the fallout for years to come.
KISD officials have a responsibility to keep the district’s students and staff safe.
Keeping schools closed — at least for a few more weeks — is the best way to do just that.