By Brooke Park / Texas Tribune
For Texas high school students, keeping up with class work was hard enough before the pandemic.
But then the pandemic hit, and with it came debates over everything having to do with Texas schools. Masks or no masks? Will online classes be available?
Schools reopened last fall but are struggling to remain open in the midst of a coronavirus surge caused by the omicron variant. The semester has barely started, and so far, there have been 192,145 student COVID-19 cases and 61,142 staff cases, according to the Texas Education Agency. That appears to be the highest case level since the pandemic began in 2020, although the data collected by the state is often incomplete.
At the same time, there’s been a scaling back of coronavirus precautions, prompting many students to take action with petition drives and class walkouts.
For Jada Clerk, a freshman at William B. Travis High School in Fort Bend Independent School District, which includes Sugar Land and parts of Houston and Pearland, navigating crowded hallways among unmasked classmates is stressful.
“Sometimes I don’t even want to breathe,” said Clerk, who has asthma. “You can really feel people’s breath on you. That’s how close we were [in the hallway].”
Fort Bend ISD does not have a mask mandate in place and ended its virtual learning program for students at medical risk at the end of the fall semester. Travis High School recorded 16 students with COVID-19 out of around 3,000, according to the district’s online dashboard.
At Clerk’s school, she and more than 200 other students have signed a petition asking Fort Bend ISD to shut down schools during the infection surge caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant. She is one of many students across the state and nation who are working together to push their districts to strengthen COVID-19 policies in schools.
Clerk wants to see her school take more action to protect students and faculty from the virus. Fort Bend ISD continued in-person classes even as record-breaking countywide positivity rates, which show the percentage of tests with positive results, pushed the area into the most severe COVID-19 threat level. However, the district does monitor COVID-19 levels at each school and will enact different precautions if case counts rise.
When Texas schools reopened after the winter break, the surge of omicron cases resulted in the highest number of COVID-19 cases in school districts since the pandemic began. But even these numbers are likely an undercount as some cases go unreported to the state and a fraction of districts report each week.
At other districts, like Round Rock ISD, north of Austin, students have staged walkouts as a way to bring attention to their requests for more pandemic precautions, like a stricter mask-wearing requirement. That has inspired other students to organize similar efforts, including in Garland.
Last week, the district northwest of Dallas recorded nearly 1,200 active student cases out of a student body of around 54,000. More than 200 staff members are out sick out of about 7,200, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
For Fernando Alaniz, an 11th grade student at North Garland High School, coughs and sneezes also marked his return to classes, where he estimates most students do not wear masks.
Garland ISD’s website says staff will self-screen students for COVID-19 symptoms and rapid tests will be available for symptomatic students on campus. However, teachers rarely direct students to the nurse’s office as they sneeze and cough in class, often unmasked, Alaniz said. All he can do, he said, is try to scoot his desk away from his sick neighbors.
Three of his teachers are out sick, which Alaniz said makes learning difficult. Half of his eight teachers do not wear masks, he said.
The limited COVID-19 precautions, along with growing staff and student absences, have prompted him to protest for stronger health policies in schools. He wants to see another remote learning option, an enforced mask mandate and widespread COVID-19 testing, among other requests. As of Sunday evening, 770 people have signed a petition in support.
Garland ISD has not yet responded to the petition, he said. He is considering organizing walkouts similar to what Round Rock ISD saw last week if his efforts to talk to administrators fail.
Students leading the movement for increased COVID-19 protocols at Round Rock ISD have found more success after nearly 60 students walked out of two high schools two weeks ago to push for increased COVID-19 protocols. More than 1,800 students also signed a petition in support of the demands.
Students there want better enforcement of the district’s mask requirement and a reintroduction of contact tracing at all schools, among other demands. If they can’t get that, they want schools to offer online courses. District officials met with organizers Friday and agreed to provide more testing sites and high-quality masks, but Eliana Smith, one of the student protest organizers, said district officials disagreed with students' contention that it's not enforcing the mask requirement and declined to resume contact tracing at schools where it had been halted.
Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, Round Rock ISD’s chief of public affairs and communications, said some of the students’ demands are difficult to meet due to staffing and capacity issues. School districts across the state are grappling with staffing shortages as omicron sends large swaths of workers into quarantine.
LaCoste-Caputo pointed to the students’ demand for contact tracing as an example. The district previously enacted a contact tracing program — in which schools contacted those who had come into contact with an infected person — but discontinued it for a majority of schools. She said the district could not find enough people to do the work.
Asmita Lehther, a senior at Round Rock High School, is one of the students leading the protests. She said schools, as they are now, are unsustainable environments for both students and teachers.
Tiernee Pitts, another student leading the Round Rock ISD protests, said it feels like she and other students are forced to come to school even when she goes through a whole school day with substitute teachers. That’s why she and other students want an online course alternative or better COVID-19 precautions.
However, the Texas Education Agency now caps a school district’s virtual enrollment at 10%.
Still, Round Rock ISD students want to see some alternatives.
“We could be doing more, and we’re choosing not to [in order] to stay open, at any cost, and by any means necessary,” said Pitts, a senior at Cedar Ridge High School. “It just feels like we’re just being open while everything around us is falling down.”
Several school districts near Round Rock ISD have closed temporarily because so many staff members are sick. Last week, teacher and staff absences forced schools in Pflugerville ISD to close for a day.
Lehther, the Round Rock senior, said half of her English class was absent last week.
Without a virtual class option, students are forced to play catch-up when they return, Smith said.
Many students agree they would rather be in school to learn, but only if it is safe.
“We actually want to get out of this cyclic progression of having new variants and then a surge in cases and then hospitals get filled up, and we’re still at school,” Lehther said. “We need to do something to kind of end that.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Round Rock ISD for requiring masks to be worn in school because it violates Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban against mask mandates. But Pitts said the mask mandate is unenforced at her school, and many students do not wear them.
The Round Rock student protest organizers blame what they see as inadequate COVID-19 policies from the governor, the state education agency and the Texas Legislature. However, they believe the district must work to remove politics from science and health for the sake of its students.
“I do think that though there is a majority of the blame on Abbott, [but] the school district still does have the choice to make the right decision, and to listen to us and meet with us and make compromises or meet some of our demands,” said Smith, a senior at Cedar Ridge High School.
As students head into the third year of the pandemic, Smith recalls the experiences of virtual learning and the return to school.
“Over like last year, there was definitely a lot of isolation and feeling just completely alone,” Smith said. “Then this year, we’re back in person, but we’re being forced to fight for the ability to stay in person through safe COVID precautions.”