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After months of guidance and regulations concerning how back to school should be handled, Marble Falls Independent School District officials finalized a plan to start instruction on Aug. 19 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both suggestions and mandates have been placed upon districts across Texas by various agencies and government officials, including the Texas Education Agency (TEA), Gov. Greg Abbott and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). MFISD Superintendent Chris Allen said the district took a “cautious” approach to in-person instruction, including the requirement of masks for all school-aged children.
“These groups, even during the time that we’ve been working with them on the pandemic, have changed guidance,” he said at the July 31 special board meeting. “When we’re in the situation where we have conflicting information, we lean in the direction of caution.”
TEA requires all students aged 10 and over wear masks in school, but MFISD decided to extend the policy to all students due to the potential ramifications of a positive test in a classroom with no masks.
“There’s no point in opening school if you’re going to have to close it,” Allen said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is manage the close contact in such a way that we’re not constantly having to close down schools or grade levels because of a single incident.
“The first question we will be asked is ‘who was wearing a mask?’” he added. “If kids aren’t wearing masks, we’re going to be quarantined whereas if we’re wearing masks, we might avoid quarantine.”
Allen added that an “overwhelming majority” of MFISD employees “were not comfortable coming to work unless everybody in the building was wearing a mask.”
MFISD employee and parent Susan Schultz spoke in opposition to the requirement stating masks could harm early development of young students.
“You only get the opportunity to instill sound learning principles and social skills once,” she said. “Students need to be able to hear sounds clearly.”
She added that the visual of mouth movement and shapes is important to learning speech and pronunciation.
“Needless to say, I am against this policy,” Schultz said.
Ṡtudents will receive a periodic “mask break” although district officials have not pinned down the details about the breaks.
“We having a discussion with our teachers about what that looks like,” said Yarda Leflet, MFISD executive director of instructional services. “It could be going outside for a minute and taking off the mask, but it doesn’t necessary have to be outside. We all need a mask break at some point in time.”
The district’s plan to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is based on “pillars” of masks, sanitation and hygeine and social distancing. These focuses work optimally with approximately 80 percent inperson instruction, Allen said.
“If we had a campus that has 85 to 90 percent enrollment, it’s not that we wouldn’t use the plan, but there are pillars of the plan that start to become difficult to implement,” Allen said. “Social distancing and six feet is based on 80 percent. We might have to get exceptionally creative on what instruction looks like.”
Teachers are being asked to remove “optional furniture” from their classrooms to achieve the space required for adequate distancing of students.
Hygiene and sanitation
Upon arrival at school, teachers will give detailed instruction on proper hand washing and sanitation. Students of all grade levels will conduct supervised hand washing twice a day.
“The teachers will establish student responsibilities for cleaning up their stuff,” Leflet said. “Classroom surfaces will be cleaned between classes, and we’re going to limit the use of shared supplies.”
Trustee Gary Boshears asked how academic instruction will be impacted by using class time to teach basic hygeine.
“With all this, are we putting too much on our teachers and staff that we’re not actually going to get a lot of educating kids done?” he asked.
Leflet called the hygeine instruction a “trade off.”
“I think once we do the initial instruction, it becomes just reminders,” she said. “I feel like we’ll miss a lot of instruction on the end if we don’t take care of this at the start. But you are right, it will be a lot of instructional time at the start.”
Due to the early instruction schedules, remote instruction is slated to begin on Aug. 21 – two days after in-person instruction begins.
“There’s a whole lot that goes on the first day or two that is about classroom procedures that doesn’t necessarily apply to remote learners,” Allen said.
MFISD officials are asking parents to screen their children for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 prior to sending them to school or putting them on the bus.
If any student shows symptoms, they will be sent to the school nurse to be assessed.
If nurses detect a temperature of 100 degrees or higher, the student will be sent home for a period no shorter than 36 hours. The district changed this requirement from 72 hours.
“The guidance has changed throughout the summer,” Leflet said. “You’re technically not returning until someone says you can. The district will follow up to make sure the fever is gone and the student shows no symptoms.”
If someone who has been on campus tests positive for COVID-19, the district will work with the Burnet County Health Authority Dr. Juliette Madrigal to determine how many people need to be quarantined for 14 days.
“The students will be put on remote learning,” Leflet said. “As long as they have no symptoms after 14 days, they get to come back.”
Leflet emphasized that a negative COVID-19 test result will not allow students to avoid the 14-day quarantine.
Allen said the plan requires a significant amount of cooperation from parents and the community.
“The single best thing a parent can do for a teacher right now is understand this plan and get on board with support even if there’s bits and pieces of it you don’t like,” he said.
“If [students] are hearing one thing at home and they’re hearing something else at school, routines don’t get established.”
The board unanimously approved the plan with the additional provision that the supintendent, with consulation from Board President Kevin Naumann, can alter the plan as appropriate.
“I’m hoping nine weeks from now, we can back off of a lot of this,” Allen said. “We’re starting with a fairly cautious approach, but we’re having school. That’s the exchange we’re making.”
The district will have a transition day on Aug. 28 to assess how the implementation of the plan is working and what changes may need to be made.