Several rural school districts across Texas forced to cancel classes due to latest COVID-19 surge
The omicron-driven surge in COVID-19 cases is making it particularly challenging for some smaller Texas school districts to stay open. Teacher staffing shortages and student absences have forced several districts to temporarily close — some for up to a week.
According to the latest state data, more than 267,000 Texas public school students and over 61,000 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 during the current 2021-2022 school year. Case counts had been receding since their September peak, only to shoot upwards after students returned from the holiday break.
In East Texas, Nacogdoches ISD closed its campuses Wednesday. The district intends to reopen to students Jan. 19.
As of its Wednesday closure, Nacogdoches ISD reported 64 active COVID-19 cases among staff — more than 6 percent of the district’s payroll.
“At this time, there are too many campuses where we don’t have the staffing necessary to conduct academic instruction in classrooms,” the school district wrote on its website. “Also, absences in the district’s Transportation Department are affecting the ability to bus students to school in the mornings and back home in the afternoons. While this is not an ideal situation, a shutdown of district operations should slow the spread of the coronavirus in our schools.”
Paris ISD, a rural school district in Northeast Texas, also closed this week.
According to the district’s website, classes were cancelled for students on Friday due to “the high number of staff and student absences.”
Paris ISD Assistant Superintendent Althea Dixon said a lot of their absences came from quarantine within families.
“So, somebody in the family gets COVID, then everybody in the household has to quarantine because they've got three kids, and the three kids are going to go home and be quarantined with their parents,” said Dixon. “If a sister on one campus has COVID, then we have to notify the nurses on every other campus and quarantine those brothers and sisters there on the other campuses. It's just really embedded in our community.”
Like Nacogdoches ISD, Paris ISD intends to resume classes on Wednesday, Jan. 19, effectively extending the already long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
“We felt as though our teachers needed a breather, our nurses needed a breather, our principals needed a breather, and we're pulling support staff that's off campus, like our district level administrators, to help on campuses,” said Dixon. “And so, we thought, ‘okay, there's a long weekend coming, let's do a reset, and let's give some of our people time to maybe rest and get healthy, and then start back.’”
Central Texas’ Bremond ISD decided on a longer pause, halting classes for a full week.
“Well folks we have hit our breaking point,” the rural school district posted on Facebook. “We have almost 100 kids out and that number is rapidly growing.”
Bremond ISD students will return Tues., Jan. 18.
Some school districts were hit even earlier and delayed their reopening after the winter break, including Brooks County ISD, a rural district in South Texas.
According to a letter Monday by Superintendent Maria Rodriguez Casas, Brooks County ISD made “an administrative decision to postpone school in response to the spike of COVID-19 cases within our community.”
Michael Lee, the Executive Director for the Texas Association of Rural Schools, said the state’s rural school districts are all trying to deal with the COVID-19 surge in their own way. Temporary closures is just one strategy.
“Some schools are shutting down for a few days because they have a big surge or a teacher shortage, and they can’t find substitutes,” Lee said. “We’ve heard of a school or two that’s had to shut down bus routes. They can’t find bus drivers. Some schools are even shutting down their athletics for a period of time.”
Bill Tarleton is the Executive Director of Texas Rural Education Association, which represents 380 school districts in the state. He said the shortages they’re seeing go beyond teachers and bus drivers.
“If you have four cafeteria workers and two of them are sick or have to stay home, then it's more difficult to get somebody to do that,” he said. “So typically, in small schools, a lot of the other staff members will pitch in, like maybe the superintendent, maybe the principal, or maybe the cafeteria food service director. So, you just have to have a temporary fix for it.”
Both Tarleton and Lee also voiced concerns about the pandemic’s long term impact on all school personnel, including superintendents.
“In our association, we have 25 directors who are superintendents who serve on our board, and I think I know of three who are retiring,” said Lee.
Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency recently updated its COVID-19 guidance for schools, which are based on the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
TEA’s guidance now cuts the quarantine period for school staff in half after testing positive or showing symptoms. Per the CDC’s recommendation, the isolation time has been reduced from 10 to five days.
As the Governor’s ban on mask mandates in schools remains in place, the TEA’s updated guidance has faced criticism from some groups, including the Texas American Federation of Teachers and the Texas State Teachers Association.