Dallas students are starting school three weeks later than previously expected. Thursday, Dallas ISD trustees voted unanimously to begin the school year on Sept. 8 instead of Aug. 17.
The move comes after Dallas County Health and Human Services issued an order that prevents private and public schools from holding in-person classes through Sept. 7. Next summer's vacation will also start three weeks later for students.
Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he’s heard from educators who are nervous to return, but that the district is doing everything it can to keep teachers and students safe.
“If we’re going to ask them to come to work, and come to school, that’s the least that we can do,” he said.
After the Texas Education Agency announced schools could postpone in-person classes for up to eight weeks, some officials decided to delay their districts' start. Many parents and teachers are worried that in-person classes could lead to coronavirus spread. Others, though, have condemned online classes as detrimental to children’s development.
Courtney Nicholson is a second-grade math and science teacher at a publicly funded charter school, Dallas’ UME Preparatory Academy. She said she has mixed feelings about going back to class.
“That’s definitely a concern,” Nicholson said of catching the coronavirus. “But then also, I know the importance of my job.”
Some older teachers are especially worried because they are at high risk of developing severe symptoms or dying from COVID-19.
Diane Birdwell, a Dallas high school social studies teacher and representative of the National Education Association-Dallas, is turning 60 in November. She's considered high risk because of her age, and she said many of her colleagues have comorbidities such as diabetes, lupus, asthma and cancer.
“Older teachers like me are very concerned about our health," she said. “I could still get sick and die if I catch it, so let’s minimize my risk, too."
Dallas ISD will have a blend of in-person and online classes for the fall semester. Hinojosa said virtual learning will fall into two camps: synchronous and asynchronous learning.
Synchronous classes will be broadcast at the same time as the teacher’s in-class instruction, Hinojosa said. Asynchronous learning is more self-paced, where kids can download prerecorded lessons to complete on their own.
Hinojosa said that some Dallas teachers are excited to get back to school, while others would prefer to teach online only.
Those who are uncomfortable with returning can submit a request to their principal to teach from home, Hinojosa said. It will be approved on a case by case basis, and lessons must be conducted in professional settings.
“Like no dogs barking, no disruptions,” Hinojosa said.
By opening later in the year, Dallas ISD can better gauge whether coronavirus cases in the area are diminishing or increasing, Hinojosa said. It will also give teachers more time to create lesson plans to accommodate virtual learning.
In addition, it buys time to make sure the district has adequate financial support, Hinojosa said.
“We could actually go all the way to November through remote instruction if things are really bad,” he said.
Dallas ISD's new calendar dropped two three-day weekends in October that were scheduled around the Texas State Fair. It also adds a new school holiday on Nov. 3, for Election Day. Voting occurs at some Dallas campuses, so, Hinojosa said, students and teachers will get to stay home.
In addition, grading periods have been extended from six to nine weeks.
Parents have until Aug. 25 to decide whether to enroll their children in online or in-person classes. Students who begin with virtual classes cannot switch to in-person courses until the end of the grading period, Hinojosa said. Students who attend in person can change to online courses at any point.
Birdwell said she wishes the district consulted teachers before creating its plans. Many educators felt left out of the decision-making process, she said.
The Dallas ISD Board of Trustees just approved these changes to the school year calendar. pic.twitter.com/7yHo5DpUCE— Dallas ISD (@dallasschools) July 24, 2020
Dallas ISD announced its calendar changes on Twitter, where it attracted several critics.
“There’s really no point, kids at my school don’t care,” one person said in a tweet. “They will be playing around and not wearing masks. This is futile, they should keep the start date unofficial.”
Another user also derided the reopening plan, but for different reasons.
“Hey! Can you please at least partial refund me my property taxes ??” they wrote.
In a poll released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 63% of parents said they supported opening schools later to help minimize risk of coronavirus infection. The journalism nonprofit also found that two-thirds of parents are worried their child will fall behind emotionally, socially and academically if schools don’t reopen.
School districts in Los Angeles and San Diego have opted to hold online classes only for the fall semester. Dallas ISD would have to have “very serious numbers” for it to follow suit, Hinojosa said, but it is a possibility.
Dallas ISD will require temperature self-checks and masks, and will install plexiglass strategically throughout schools, Hinojosa said. Each campus has a nurse, and Hinojosa said the district has also hired 57 mental health professionals.
Birdwell said she's unsure of how effective some of these new measures will be in a school setting. It's hard enough to ensure small groups of children remain socially distanced, she said, but it will be even more difficult to control an entire school.
As of now, Hinojosa said he’s unsure of how large class sizes will be, but in-person ones will be the same size as previous years or smaller.
Nicholson, who has two children in elementary school, said she would feel uncomfortable with them learning in large classes with 20 students or more.
Although she's worried about contracting the virus herself, Nicholson said children learn best in classroom environments.
“We as educators are kind of in a public servant position,” she said. “We’re looking at students who have already lost a great deal in the spring semester.”
In addition, Nicholson said she knows of several parents who have opted to homeschool their children because of safety concerns.
Certain substitute teachers may be chomping at the bit for work, Hinojosa said, because many have been unemployed since the spring semester. But getting someone to fill in during the pandemic could be difficult; subs were already hard to come by.
That’s why it’s so important to have teachers properly set up for online classrooms, Hinojosa said.
It’s imperative for the district to have a better plan in place than it did in the spring, he said. Even though Dallas ISD has more time to prepare, much could happen between now and Sept. 8, he added.
There are several kinks in Dallas ISD's reopening plan that should be worked out before returning, Birdwell said.
“I would be willing to sacrifice my life to save a child’s life in a mass shooting or in a tornado," she said, "but some of this is unnecessary to risk my life on. We need to mitigate the risk for everybody.”
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