Houston Teachers Cope with COVID in the Classroom
By Angelo Gaunichaux
In late October, the Texas Education Agency reopened public schools to in-person learning despite the state experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases earlier that month. While deaths have been comparably mild for school-aged children and adolescents, the health and safety of those teaching them is much less certain.
“Every other day, we have a case detected,” Houston ISD math teacher Dominique Madison said. “It’s so often, that sometimes the district doesn’t call us if there’s a case on campus and teachers don’t know if there’s an active case in their classroom because some parents use HIPAA as a loophole to avoid reporting cases.”
Students are not protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPPA. According to a report from the School Superintendents Association, students are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which does require reporting positive COVID-19 cases to schools. Nevertheless, some students and parents have used HIPAA as an excuse to avoid reporting cases, putting teachers at risk of contracting the virus.
“It’s very common that teachers get infected,” Madison said. “We’ve had seven teachers out who were all sick at the same time but the students were still coming, so if we are going to keep having gatherings in schools we need to mandate vaccinations.”
On March 5, the Department of State Health Services notified providers that all school staff are eligible to be vaccinated but most teachers across the state have yet to receive a dose. TEA refused to directly answer questions about how they are working with local school districts to respond to the pandemic and help teachers get vaccinated.
“In accordance with recent federal directives, educators, school staff members, and childcare providers who did not previously meet COVID-19 vaccine eligibility as part of Groups 1A and/or 1B are now immediately eligible for vaccination,” a spokesperson for TEA said. “A statewide vaccination plan for this subset of individuals is being developed to ensure they are vaccinated as quickly and safely as possible.”
According to the CDC, Group 1A refers to healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities, 1B refers to people 75 years of age or older and frontline essential workers like firefighters, police officers, along with teachers and school staff.
TEA has offered an extensive and shifting collection of COVID-19 guidelines which schools can choose to ignore. Currently, TEA standards involve distancing by three-feet, hand washing, and wearing masks. However, many schools that are limited by space and resources have had to adapt their pandemic response to meet the needs of their community.
“TEA provided us with a lot of information and data but had very tough expectations and regulations that weren’t easy to apply to our campus,” Conroe ISD Assistant Principal Kesha Cauley said. “It was difficult but the district gave the schools flexibility to do what was best fit for our campus and be as safe as possible with hybrid courses.”
Just across town, Tomball Independent School District chose to strictly adhere to TEA guidelines and return to near full capacity following the reopening.
“My district followed TEA guidelines but now TEA is saying that the choice is up to the districts so that they aren’t responsible for an outbreak,” Tomball ISD ESL teacher Allison Brown said. “Ninety percent of our students are on campus and the district told students that they had to come back for in-person classes so every day I get an email that a new COVID case has been detected.”
Other districts, like Houston Independent School District, ignored TEA guidelines and opted to adopt CDC guidelines instead.
“My district follows CDC guidelines,” Madison said. “Weekly we get gloves and antibacterial wipes, every child is provided a mask on a daily basis, and teachers are given backups to supply the kids throughout the week.”
HISD and the CDC also require social distancing by six-feet and sterilizing areas where COVID-19 positive students and staff have been.
“My district also gives us plexiglass which helps us to work with the kids a little more closely,” Madison said. “TEA doesn’t even outline things like cleaning the classrooms so I really like the way my school approached things.”
Teachers haven’t only had to deal with health and safety concerns in the pandemic. Many have struggled to adapt to virtual learning and forge a productive connection with their students.
“When the pandemic first started, we didn’t know what was going on and all of the schools went virtual but we had no tools,” Brown said. “We were thrown into doing something that we had never done before and it was very trying to not get to finish the year with our students or say goodbye to them.”
Teachers in all subjects struggled to apply their teaching styles to virtual learning in a school year that was changing by the day.
“As a math teacher, I felt like I was being thrown to the wolves because I have a lot of ESL kids who are new to the country and the language barrier is a huge problem,” Madison said. “I have kids who came here from places where they couldn’t get an education, so I really feel like I’m letting them down when I can’t get through to them.”
Not being able to socialize with students in a classroom setting set back lesson plans, students grades, and teachers’ wellbeing.
“Teachers are usually ‘people’ people so having to teach virtually through a screen was hard for all of us,” Cauley said. “It was like everyone was a first-year teacher all over again and our veteran teachers had to learn a lot of new skills just to adjust.”
Though teachers are most at risk in the reopening of schools, some feel like the state’s approach ignores their health and that of their most vulnerable students.
“Many of the special education students we teach have illnesses and we are expecting them to come to school in the pandemic,” Madison said. “Sometimes I think those who are making these decisions need to realize that teachers are human beings too but we are not superheroes and we don’t have superpowers to heal ourselves if we get sick.”
Mental health resources have been scarce for educators and many of them are still deeply affected by the pandemic.
“I love teaching but I don’t think that the teachers and students had the mental health support we needed at first so it was a really hard time and a lot of us felt legitimately depressed, not sad.” Brown said.
“We weren’t doing what we love.”