FORT WORTH, Texas — During an emergency meeting this afternoon, the Fort Worth school board voted 8 to 1 to push back the opening of the school year to Sept. 8. The first four weeks of classes will be online only.
After the initial four weeks, Texas school districts will either have to start offering in-person classes or submit a reopening plan to the Texas Education Agency. Schools that don’t comply with the TEA’s latest shift in policy could lose funding.
In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the starting date of school and the opening of campuses has been a political volleyball. Acting on an order from Gov. Abbott, Fort Worth and other school districts created a reopening plan for August 17. Students were given the option to attend in person or stay home to learn virtually – as Fort Worth ISD students did for the final months of the last school year.
A few weeks ago, County Judge Glen Whitley and Tarrant County public health authorities signed an order that required public and non-religious private schools to offer only virtual classes until at least Sept. 28. In that iteration of the reopening plan, school would have still started on Aug. 17, but the first six weeks, an entire grading period for most schools in Texas, would have been online.
The latest change of plans comes after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued non-binding guidance on school openings, in which he said local health officials do not have the authority to shut down schools due to rising COVID-19 cases. After Paxton issued his opinion, both the TEA and Judge Whitely changed their positions.
The TEA announced it would not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed due to local health mandates. School districts in at least 16 local authorities have since scrambled to change their plans for opening.
Fort Worth School Board Trustee Ashley Paz said the district would have been ready for online learning on Aug. 17, but pushing back the opening date gives everyone more time to prepare.
“Those additional weeks gives [district officials] more time to evaluate which students need hotspots, Chromebooks, and to do additional training for staff,” she said. “It gives campus administrators more time to do their planning and reach out to their communities.”
At today’s meeting, the board deliberated for five hours and heard public comments. Paz said opening campuses is in everyone’s best interest, and the board ultimately decided to err on the side of public health and safety.
“At the end of the day, the decision boiled down to what was in the best interest of the students, staff, teachers, and the Fort Worth community at large,” she said.
“With the local infection rates looking the way they do – and the trajectory they are on – it’s clearly not in the best interest of anyone to open up our campuses,” she continued. “We need to give this time to settle down. We don’t really know what it’s going to do. No one has a crystal ball.”
The TEA will only accept reopening plans after the initial four-week online learning period. Then, school districts can petition for an additional four weeks, but only if they submit a plan that details how they’ll return to in-person classes. In Fort Worth, schools could be virtual for up to eight weeks. Paz said she feels that decision ties the hands of school districts, which would rather start planning now.
“Having a plan that is based on what phases of infection our local community is in would be the most logical thing to do, instead of basing those decision on arbitrary calendar dates,” she said.
In the meantime, she said, the district has discussed holding more town hall meetings to solicit feedback from the community. The board also discussed hosting Facebook live sessions to help parents cope with the ever-changing vicissitudes of education during a pandemic.
“Our goal is to get back to in-person learning as soon as possible, but we’re not going to sacrifice the health and well-being of our students and faculty,” she said.