County Committee Weighs In on Start of School

  • TEA, State will track new COVID-19 cases at public schools

Although some districts within Dallas County are opting to offer on-campus instruction after Labor Day (or even sooner), a committee of experts assembled by Dallas County officials says it may not be safe to do so just yet.

The Public Health and Education 2020-2021 School Year Ad Hoc Committee, which is made up of Dr. Preston Wiles, Dr. Wendy Chung, Libby Doggett, Ph. D., Dr. Amanda Evans, Dr. Charles Ginsburg, Dr. Victoria Shinn, and Pamela Reese-Taylor, RN, released this week their recommendations for schools navigating the choppy waters of reopening during a pandemic.

“The issues are multiple, complex and include the safety of: the children, the teachers and staff, the direct and extended families and the population in general,” the committee wrote in the preamble to their guidance. “In addition to the importance of the traditional educational processes is the recognition that it is critical for children of all ages to interact and socialize with their peers as part of their growth and development and mental well-being.”

The committee said it weighed those factors, as well as others that took into account variables like geography.

“An important consideration to achieve the latter is the recognition that children who attend a particular school generally reside in the same geographic area; however, the teachers and staff often do not and these factors must be considered in any planning for the safe return to normal classroom activities,” they said.

The committee met twice weekly for several weeks to review the health and safety issues surrounding the start of the school year, and took into account issues regarding early childhood education, special education and special needs, grade school, middle school, and high school.

“We have examined the various activities and factors that may contribute to the spread of infection and increased risk across the wide spectrum of daily learning, extracurricular, and sports activities in which students participate,” the committee said. “We have also examined the various environments in which children learn, play, eat, engage in fine arts activities, and participate in sports as these environments pertain to the relative risk of spreading of the infection and increasing the prevalence of coronavirus.”

“The overarching principle guiding our work and recommendations is: first, do no harm as we attempt to layout practices to safely reopen schools. The concept (or goal) to “do no harm” as an ethical principle undergirds the committee’s stance to not privilege any particular population, point of view, or popular opinion in setting forth our recommendations,” the committee added. “Instead, we are relying on all the available data, the principles of epidemiology and science, and time-tested approaches to making tough decisions in medicine and public health.”

The committee said that because of the “current high level of spread of infection” in the county, it was recommending that schools offer virtual learning only.

“We will provide standards, guidelines and recommended
numbers in guidance for school districts to open safely when infection rates in the community are lower,” they said.

The committee also recommended delaying athletic practices, playing musical instruments, and singing.

“By delaying these high-risk transmission activities that occur outside the classroom, there will be a more expedited return of in-classroom learning for all students,” the committee said.

Also important? Testing. While the committee said they understood that there were challenges to being tested for COVID-19 when it came to young children, but that for families, teachers, and staff, there were “robust efforts to ensure the availability of reliable, free or low-cost, rapid turnover” testing.

“The availability of rapid results testing is a critical tool to insure educational continuity during the period of the epidemic,” they said. “It is particularly important that COVID-19 testing be available prior to the onset of the fall-winter respiratory season.”

You can read all of the committee’s recommendations here. https://www.dallascounty.org/covid-19/guidance-education.php

In related news, the state will begin regularly reporting information on COVID-19 cases in public schools, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents Thursday.

Districts will be required to report confirmed cases within 24 hours. The TEA and the Department of State Health Services will track and report the cases.

“Data on the number of cases in schools is of paramount interest to parents, students, teachers, staff, public health experts, policymakers, and the larger community,” the TEA said in a statement. “This information will be submitted to DSHS any time there is a positive case in a campus community. TEA is collaborating with superintendents on the reporting process and will finalize it in the coming days. As a result, it’s important to note that this data collection effort will be updated based on the input received from Texas school districts.

“Having this knowledge and being able to publicly share the accumulated case totals from schools in a single place covering the entire state of Texas will help us to further support the health and safety of all Texans.”

The reports from the state will come as early as next week.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, deputy editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at bethany.erickson@peoplenewspapers.com.

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