EDITOR'S NOTE: This editorial was corrected on Aug. 23 to accommodate information provided by the Killeen Independent School District.
Just one week into the new school year, it’s apparent that the Killeen Independent School District is facing some significant challenges in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
But to hear some teachers and parents tell it, many of those challenges are of the district’s own making.
Several parents have shared observations that not only are many students not wearing face masks, but neither are the teachers.
In addition, the CDC guideline of maintaining 3 feet of space between students is nonexistent on many campuses, with desks close together in classrooms and students walking shoulder to shoulder in the halls.
And one teacher told that Herald that if teachers want hand sanitizer, they have to request it.
For a district that claims to be taking all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on its campuses, none of this makes any sense.
Even more problematic is the fact that KISD was about 160 teachers short of its desired staffing level at the beginning of the week — meaning that some classrooms are seriously overcrowded.
One high school teacher told the Herald that her classroom — which was supposed to have around 20 students — had 35 when school started last week.
Certainly, a teacher shortage is something that many districts must deal with at the outset of a school year, but with COVID cases surging through the county at an alarming rate, district administrators should have had a better plan in place before the fall semester began.
KISD’s teacher shortfall didn’t just materialize overnight. District officials had to know several weeks ago that full staffing wouldn’t be possible, and that classroom crowding was a distinct possibility — a scenario that poses a serious threat to both students and teachers.
Virus case numbers have been rising since early July, and medical studies have consistently shown that the prevalent delta variant of the virus is not only more aggressive and contagious, but it also impacts children at a higher rate than the original strain.
And since children under age 12 are ineligible for vaccination, they are especially at risk during the current outbreak.
Still, against this growing potential crisis, the school board opted to cancel its July 13 meeting, not convening again until July 27 — less than three weeks before the start of school. When the district should have been putting extra work into ensuring the safety of its students, faculty and staff, the school board basically took the month off.
To be fair, KISD is hampered by some government restrictions — especially Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that bans mask mandates by school districts. The district also can’t require vaccinations of its employees, or even require them to show proof of vaccination.
KISD Superintendent John Craft acknowledges the importance of vaccinations, and the board this week will vote on his proposal that teachers who have been fully vaccinated but test positive for COVID would receive additional COVID leave while quarantining. With some medical exceptions, those who have not been vaccinated would not qualify for the extra leave. It’s a strong incentive for unvaccinated teachers to get the shot, but whether the policy can withstand a court challenge is questionable.
Still, even vaccinated teachers can carry the virus, though they may be asymptomatic once infected. These teachers also pose a threat to students and fellow staffers — especially those who are unvaccinated.
All this points to the urgent need for a district-wide mask mandate.
If such a mandate is in place on KISD’s Fort Hood campuses — as required by a Department of Defense directive — it should be implemented at the district’s other schools as well.
Late Thursday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that school districts can implement mask mandates — at least while legal action plays out regarding the governor’s edict. And the Texas Education Agency said Thursday that the governor’s mask order is not being enforced due to ongoing litigation.
As of Friday, 58 school districts and 10 counties have instituted mask mandates in some form.
How KISD will respond to the Texas high court’s latest ruling on masks remains to be seen.
Some district teachers are prepared to take matters into their own hands. Several dozen educators and parents are planning to meet outside the KISD administration building prior to Tuesday’s board meeting to demand a stronger district mask policy.
Given the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling this week, the protesters will have a strong case. Still, Craft and the school board likely will be hesitant to go all-in on a mask mandate.
For one thing, the current situation is fluid, and a final court ruling could go in favor of the governor’s ban. If that were the case, KISD could find itself mandating masks, only to rescind the mandate in a few weeks.
On the other hand, deciding to “wait it out” on a final court ruling and keeping the current “masks optional” policy leaves KISD’s students and staff vulnerable at a time when the highly infectious virus is raging across the county.
Overall, a mask mandate — even a temporary one — would seem to be the most effective policy to curb the spread of COVID in the schools.
But short of that, there are several steps the district should take immediately.
KISD should ensure that masks are provided to all students and staff who want one, at each district campus. This is important because students may decide that they would feel safer wearing one, once they arrive at school. It’s also necessary because masks can break during the course of a school day. The district's public information assured the Herald on Sunday that masks are readily available to all who want them.
The district PIO also stated that hand sanitizer is available to students and staff at classrooms, front offices and commons areas. The district should take steps to ensure that includes all restrooms and cafeterias. Small, individual bottles also should be available upon request, if possible.
In classrooms, lunchrooms or other areas where proper distancing of students cannot be achieved, the district should install Plexiglas shields to protect students and staff.
Late Friday, the district announced it had updated its Public Health Guide, which includes re-implementation of the online coronavirus dashboard and notification of all parents and employees of a specific campus of a positive coronavirus test. Both policies had been discontinued in May. resulting in less transparency.
The district is to be commended for reinstating these necessary information tools. The hiring of a Chief Medical Officer, which will be voted on by the board, also may yield positive results.
But to date, the district has far too many holes in its pandemic defenses to let complacency set in.
In many ways, the current wave of COVID is more dangerous than the surge the community experienced last year — and the district must be more proactive about dealing with it.
Half-measures and inconsistent enforcement of district hygiene and social distancing protocols do little to make students and their parents feel safe amid the ongoing pandemic. And they also do little to make KISD’s educators feel valued and respected.
When district officials look back on this COVID-challenged school year, they should be able to truthfully state that they did everything possible to keep KISD’s students and employees safe.
Anything less than that is unacceptable.