The clock is ticking for Killeen-area parents of school-age children.

Between now and July 27, parents who live in the Killeen Independent School District will have to choose between sending their children to school for in-person learning or having virtual instruction from home.

KISD Superintendent John Craft announced the two-pronged approach at a news conference on Wednesday, as the district rolled out its plan to educate more than 45,000 students in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic.

For parents who opt to return their child to the classroom on Aug. 17, the district has myriad hygiene and safety protocols intended to keep minimize the threat of infection to students and school staff. These include social distancing on campus and during extracurricular activities, limiting large gatherings, closing playground equipment and providing school supplies to reduce communal use of items.

For those who wish to keep their children at home from school, instruction will be available in real time through Zoom conferencing, in which students can access their classroom live. Online instruction also will be available in a prerecorded format so it can be viewed on a delayed basis.

Most importantly, at any point in the semester, parents will be allowed to change their choice from in-person to virtual and vice versa.

Obviously, district officials have put a lot of planning into this effort and are to be commended for coming up with a dual approach to instruction that checks most of the boxes for those parents who want to send their children back to school, as well as those who don’t feel comfortable doing so.

With the “Return to Learn” plan, the district met state mandates of providing in-class instruction, while also offering a quality alternative to at-home learners.

However, on Friday those mandates changed, as the Texas Education Agency and Gov. Greg Abbott announced that school districts could keep campuses closed for up to eight weeks after the projected mid-August start dates — potentially pushing in-class instruction back to early November.

Against that backdrop, it’s unknown whether KISD parents will still be forced to choose their children’s instruction format in the next eight days.

Either way, the choice stands to be extremely consequential.

Many students fell behind in their classwork after the district switched to virtual instruction when the pandemic forced campuses to close their doors in mid-March. In an online district survey offered to parents between June 17 and 22, 60% of the 16,000 respondents said they were worried that their child would fall behind because of virtual/online learning in a way that would impact the rest of their academic career.

However, a similar number of parents — 58% of respondents — were not comfortable sending their children back to school.

And recent statistics from the Bell County Public Health District justify their concern.

As of Thursday, the county had recorded 1,252 cases of the coronavirus since the first of the month. The total is greater than the total number of cases reported in March, April, May and June combined — and July is barely half over.

Just as importantly, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests has reached 8.11%, up from 2.8% just a month ago.

With less than one month to go before the planned start of school, these rising numbers should be cause for alarm for parents and educators alike. But putting 20,000 students — or more — into classroom settings across 51 campuses across the community is guaranteed to cause those numbers to rise even faster. Even with strict hygiene, face mask and distancing protocols, the odds of an outbreak on any given campus are unacceptably high.

Up until Friday, however, school district officials’ hands were tied. The Texas Education Agency was requiring districts to provide daily in-class instruction or possibly lose state education funding.

Like KISD, the Temple and Copperas Cove school districts are planning to start the school year with both in-person and virtual learning platforms. Belton ISD is still weighing the options, with two public input sessions scheduled this week.

By offering parents the choice of classroom or virtual learning, these districts are playing it smart. In providing both options, these districts are letting parents make choices based on their child’s learning habits, as well as their own workplace demands and child care needs.

But the districts are also absolving themselves of liability, at least to some degree, if a child were to become infected once school starts. By putting the choice in parents’ hands, the district shoulders less blame if and when an on-campus outbreak occurs.

Craft was quick to point out Wednesday that the district is prepared to switch instructional modes as the situation dictates — and no doubt, that may be necessary as the year progresses.

It’s fortunate that the state acknowledged the urgency of the situation on Friday. It’s crucial that the agency allow districts to offer only virtual instruction in areas where the coronavirus case numbers are surging.

Now, KISD and other local districts have the option of starting the fall semester with virtual instruction if the virus continues to spread at the current rate.

Had our local districts been forced to roll the dice and open schools to students, faculty and staff despite the warnings of our public health officials, the results could have been disastrous — for our students, our teachers and our entire community..

School administrators’ decisions regarding the health and safety of our students should not be dictated by the threat of withheld funding. Our governor and state education agency never should have required our local school officials to make that choice.

Killeen ISD and other local districts are doing the best they can to plan for any eventuality that might arise. But that planning alone may not be enough. They should also consider the potential eight-week extension the state offered districts on Friday.

Parents need reasonable assurances that their children will be safe at school. Teachers, administrators and support staff need those same assurances — assurances that local districts haven’t been able to provide to date. As long as the coronavirus continues to surge in our area, there simply are no guarantees.

Over the next week, parents in KISD will let the district know how their children will be educated.

It’s now up to district administrators to decide exactly when that will happen.

When Killeen schools reopen, thousands of students will take their seats in classrooms across the community, for the first time in more than five months.

No doubt, we all hope and pray the year gets off to a safe and successful start, whenever that may be.

Our students’ future — and that of our community at-large — is riding on the outcome.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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