Fort Bend ISD’s multi-faceted plan to re-open schools, which includes delaying in-person instruction until Oct. 9, drew mixed reviews from parents who shared their concerns via emails to trustees, on social media and during public comments made at a virtual school board meeting held Wednesday (Sept. 2). The public response to not-yet-announced plans came after unreleased information surfaced Monday on Facebook alerting parents to issues such as potential large scale classroom and teacher re-assignments, potential last-minute re-zoning, issues related to teacher shortages and a proposed four-week delay before schools would open for optional face-to-face learning.

Superintendent Charles Dupre told trustees the “noisy” reaction was caused by members of a district-led focus group invited to preview the proposed plans, who later took to social media to “campaign” against certain aspects, setting off alarms within the district’s large online parent community.

“That action caused a great deal of alarm and concern in the community,” Dupre said, “And, I regret that and I’m sorry that happened because we really want to be able to use (focus group input) in a healthy way to inform our decisions.”

Dupre also told trustees extra time was needed to establish new campus health and safety protocols and recommended delaying re-opening schools until October. The proposed delay drew criticism during public comments from parent Kristin Edwards who questioned why safety protocols hadn’t been created during the six-month period since schools closed last March.

“I think the extension request to allow adequate time for transition, I don’t buy that. This should’ve been planned over the last six months,” Edwards said. Online learning had turned out to be challenging for Edward’s two elementary-age children and had also delivered a punch to the family budget as the dual-income couple were now paying a babysitter $1,500 a month to help with virtual learning sessions and homework,

“This is $1,500 a month on top of the property taxes we pay to fund our children’s public education,” she said, adding that online learning is often not considered effective for younger children like Edward’s son, a first-grader who has difficulty sitting in front of a computer for hours every day.

“I think the district has lost sight that we, the parents, pay taxes to fund our school systems and that administration should be more responsive to the needs of parents,” she said.

Per TEA guidelines, Fort Bend ISD and other districts were allowed to postpone re-opening campuses for the first four weeks with an optional four-week extension that stipulates districts must begin a phased-in approach to re-opening schools during the final extension period.

Student Angel Albus, a junior attending virtual classes at Ridge Point High School, questioned why Fort Bend ISD officials were still in the planning phase more than six months after schools closed last March and urged trustees to reject the proposed delay.

“We have no idea how detrimental the impacts of these interruptions to face-to-face learning will be, only time will tell. But, with proper safety measures in place, I am confident that Fort Bend ISD can go back to in-person learning, just like Katy ISD and other surroundings districts that have re-opened or soon will as well.

“FBISD has had approximately six months to prepare. The time is now,” Albus said.

Parent David Lineman, who came representing a group of more than 300 families eager for students to return to in-person learning, praised administrators’ commitment to re-opening schools but remained critical of trustees..

“On the downside, one of the main issues coming into this meeting was that parents do not feel they are not being heard. I thought tonight was a major disappointment. I would give you guys a ‘D’ at best,” he said. “What we saw was actually a great plan but it seems like it was rubber-stamped already. I don’t know why you couldn’t present this and then have a few days to give parents a chance to offer feedback.”

Fort Bend ISD students started their virtual classes on Aug. 17 with plans to remain online for the first four weeks of schools as allowed by TEA rules. Fort Bend ISD currently provides face-to-face instruction to 899 special education students and offers support to more than 1,000 students in online classes via the district’s campus based learning centers.

Glenda McCall, president of Fort Bend Federation of Teachers, told trustees that teachers were coming to her because they didn’t feel safe to return to the classroom and voiced concerns that safety protocols were not being enforced on some campuses, including those hosting special needs classrooms where teachers also complained they were being bullied for insisting on wearing PPE. Other teachers shared concerns school officials were providing minimal or insufficient PPE.

“Safety protocols must be enforced or they are useless,” McCall said, adding that asking staff to sign a waiver of liability when district officials can’t guarantee their safety was inappropriate.

Parents and many teachers were also concerned the online attendance process was arduous and time consuming, often requiring teachers to be available to monitor online student attendance 12 to 15 hours a day.

“And, all of this extra work deserves a pay increase,” McCall said, asking why other nearby districts had provided teachers with a raise this year while Fort Bend ISD had opted for a more conservative budget proposal that didn’t include salary increases or even the customary annual step increase for teachers, describing the pace and working conditions for teachers as “unsustainable” that had already led to teacher resignations.

“It has been about two weeks and many teachers are quitting or contemplating quitting. They are coming to me in tears. It is just too much. Teachers want to return to the classroom but they want to be assured that they and their students will be safe,” she said. “They are not machines. They should be treated with respect and should be allowed to teach.”

Later in the meeting during discussions over the proposed TEA waiver needed to delay re-opening schools, trustee Jim Rice questioned the efficiency of the district’s summer-long planning process

“Having listened to many of the speakers, I’m in agreement that we’ve known this day was going to come since we first shut down in March and we should’ve been better prepared to return to school sooner than this,” Rice said and urged administrators to plan ahead for a “second wave” of infections that has drawn concerns from many health experts, including the district’s COVID-19 health and advisory committee chair, Dr. Joe Anzaldua.

“I do hope the district is planning ahead what our steps will be for the ‘second wave”’ before October or November,” Rice said. “But, if this is the new normal, I think we need to be prepared for it. I feel we’re playing catch up and we shouldn’t be doing that.”

Trustee Addie Heyliger also questioned the logic of furthers delays.

Dupre paused and took a drink of water before answering, seemingly shaken by trustees questions.

“I’ve got to be honest as I’m sure you can hear I’m disappointed by comments that have been made just now, because It basically deflates all of staff’s efforts since last March to get us where we are today and to imply that we’re behind or in any way that we’ve not done a good job,” he said, going on to respond to those who questioned if Fort Bend ISD was lagging behind other districts where students already had the option to return to in-person instruction. classrooms to in-person learning.

“It’s easy to look at what other districts have done, and because they’re doing something differently or are ahead of us, it may appear they’ve done something better when the reality is the quality of the student experience in many cases is inferior to what our students are experiencing in Fort Bend and the long range outcome for the students in our district with be, in my view, far superior to students in other districts,” Dupre said.

Fort Bend ISD teachers are scheduled to return to their campuses on September 23 to prepare their classrooms. Students will begin transitioning back to in-person learning via a phased-in approach beginning Sept 28.

Once schools re-open, parents and students can opt to remain with virtual classes or register to return to the classroom. Registration for the upcoming online and on-campus enrollment begins September 9 and closes Sept 13 as parents will be asked to commit to either of the two options for the next semester grading period.

In a video posted to the district website Thursday (Sept 3), Dupre again outlined details of the district’s plans to re-open schools.

“To be fully transparent, I need to share some important information about our upcoming transition, because this is not a simple task and it will impact all students and staff in some way,” Dupre said.

“During the implementation of face-to-face, we will do everything we can to help students have the best face to face and online learning experience possible, but things will not be returning to ‘normal’ due to social distancing and other health and safety practices that will be required. I also want parents and staff to understand that we are moving from one education system - 100% virtual - to two education systems - face to face and online. This transition will require the development of new schedules and classroom assignments. Therefore, it is likely your student will experience a teacher change and a new schedule, regardless of the model you choose,” Dupre told parents and students. “We understand the importance of the teacher/student relationship, and we do not take these changes lightly. But we must reset the system to run two concurrent learning models. The new schedules will be designed to avoid future disruption if we have to quickly shift from face to face to online learning due to a positive case or outbreak in a classroom or at a school.”

Dupre also addressed concerns that social distancing guidelines may mean some students will be re-zoned to a different campus.

“We shared this possibility to be fully transparent because social distancing could, in some rare cases, cause us to move some classes to a nearby building. We do not expect to enact this solution unless it is absolutely necessary and, even then, only after we have exhausted other solutions. If this is the case, we will communicate with these families in advance, as we know this could impact their decision on whether to proceed with face to face instruction,” Dupre said.

“This is not an easy situation for any of us… there is no simple solution, but we are doing our best to navigate through all of the uncertainty while supporting the needs of our students, staff and families. As I’ve said before if there was an easy solution that is what we would be doing.” He said. “We know and recognize that our parents and staff members have many questions about what face to face learning will be like in Fort Bend ISD, and I hope that you will visit the Fort Bend ISD website to learn more about the plans in place.”

For more information about Fort Bend ISD’s plans to re-open schools, visit www.fortbendisd.com/relaunch

knix@hcnonline.com