Dallas ISD schools welcomed more students back to class Monday while COVID-19 cases across the county are trending up. According to Dallas County, last week there was an average of 350 new daily cases versus 292 the week before.
Other districts around North Texas and the state have already opened their doors, either fully or in measured waves. Public schools are required to report positive COVID-19 results among staff and students each week. The Texas Department of State Health Services provides updates on a weekly basis.
Across the state for the week ending Sept. 13, there were a total of 965 new student cases of COVID-19. The next week, that number jumped 58% to 1,521. For the week of Sept. 27, the total number of student cases dropped 2% from the week prior.
The state is also tracking the number of new teacher cases each week. For the week ending Sept. 27, there were 819 new cases across the state, compared with 799 the week prior, a 2.5% increase.
Online Versus In-Person Learning
Parents and students have been handed a precarious set of options, none ideal. Issues that complicate choosing online or in-person learning include, but are certainly not limited to, parents’ need to work, childcare and challenges learning in an online environment. There are sports, band and club activities also. Students miss friends but might have a high-risk relative at home. What about SAT scores and class rank, which are tied directly to scholarship money and college acceptance? There’s no easy choice.
In general, when given the option, families are just about split on in-class versus online instruction. Forty-seven percent of Dallas ISD parents chose remote learning and 53% chose on-campus.
However, according to a KTVT-Ch.11 report, only 18% of Highland Park ISD chose online learning. Based on Dallas County data, the school district had only one case of COVID-19 the week ending Sept. 5. According to the district's dashboard on Oct. 3, the cases have risen to 58 student and staff cases; 69% of those are from Highland Park High School.
Other local districts like Mansfield, Plano and Frisco, all of which are offering both in-person or online classes, have done a decent job of controlling a large outbreak. Plano started back on Sept. 9 and has reported 58 student cases out of 50,116 students (0.11%) and 42 staff cases out of 4,069 teachers (1.03%). Mansfield went back to class in mid-September. Of their 2,263 teachers, there have been 45 cases of COVID-19 (1.9%), and of the more than 35,000 students, there have been 53 cases (0.15%).
A Nervous Reopening
Diana Cervantes is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and the director of the epidemiology program. She says a return to in-person instruction will likely lead to additional cases of COVID-19 in the community.
“There is no such thing as an in-person instruction option with multiple children in a class that can be classified as no risk. But, if they have taken the appropriate precautions and layered these precautions (masks, barriers, physical distancing, smaller cohort of children, hand washing, routine environmental cleaning) in addition to lessons learned from other districts, then hopefully the extent of transmission will be limited,” Cervantes says.
The latest county data doesn’t look good. Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS) released a summary on Sept. 29 tracking probable staff and student cases, focusing on children 5 to 17 years of age residing in Dallas County.
For just Dallas ISD students, for the week ending Sept. 5, there were 55 confirmed and probable cases. The next week, Sept. 12, that number dropped to 48 cases. But, the week ending Sept. 19 showed 91 probable Dallas ISD student cases.
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Across Dallas County as a whole, the probable cases for the school-aged population have increased over the past three weeks from 146 to 210 to 244 cases.
No Easy Choice
It's hard to assign a broad statement how much students need in-person learning because there's no data to back it up. Yet. However, Education Week looked at the messy transition tied to remote learning, specifically disparities high-poverty schools face, including the ability to track down all their students, which is a big problem in Dallas ISD already, and the ability for teachers to bridge early learning gaps.
“There are many kids that need the structure and consistency that in-person school provides,” says Amy Courtney, who has taught for 10 years. “Students also need close monitoring that physical proximity provides.”
It's safe to assume that some students need to be back in school, for personal or academic reasons. Students who can successfully learn at home should, leaving precious social-distancing space for students who need to be there and teachers. Perhaps that is the path to making the best out of this bad situation.