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Coronavirus in Texas

Two Texas public school districts halt classes over possible coronavirus risks

The closures of Montgomery and Alvarado schools are short term, but hundreds of public school districts may face similar decisions. A big challenge for officials is figuring out how to feed low-income students in the event of prolonged shutdowns.

School children at Cantu Elementary School in Alton enjoy their free breakfast on April 24, 2013.

Coronavirus in Texas

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At least two Texas public school districts have temporarily canceled classes over concerns about potential exposure to the new coronavirus, and across the state, hundreds of other school districts are weighing when or whether they might follow suit.

Montgomery Independent School District, in the Houston region, will close Thursday and Friday, two days ahead of a planned spring break, in the wake of an announcement that a man in his 40s in Montgomery County contracted the virus from unknown sources. With about 8,800 students in 11 schools, district officials plan to deep clean and disinfect their buildings.

In the Dallas area, Alvarado ISD officials closed schools Wednesday, after an elementary school community member who works at a doctor's office was exposed to the virus and was told to self-quarantine. In a letter addressed to parents, officials promised to gather more information and make a "more educated decision about the rest of the week" for the 3,600 students in six schools.

Across the state, with 32 confirmed cases in eight counties as of Wednesday morning, hundreds of other school districts are making plans and gathering information to confront similar decisions. While providing guidance, the Texas Education Agency is leaving the decisions on canceling classes up to individual districts, with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath calling it a "locally controlled decision making process."

Children make up a small percentage of people who have tested positive for the disease, but schools are full of adult employees, including some who are older and immunocompromised, who could be at risk of getting sick.

The disease, called COVID-19, has shuttered schools across the country, leaving school administrators to find ways to teach students from afar. But the stakes of public school closure go beyond basic learning for the millions of low-income students who depend on their schools for medical attention, daily meals and other services — and would otherwise have to go without.

"When schools are thinking about closing, they really need to think about making sure that their students' nutritional needs are being met during the school closure," said Crystal FitzSimons, a director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research & Action Center. "In addition to having a huge public health crisis, that they're not going to come back to school malnourished or undernourished because they didn't have enough food in the home."

With state approval, school districts can serve federally funded free or reduced-price meals to students during unanticipated school closures, as they do in the summer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Texas Department of Agriculture is drafting waivers to submit to the federal government for approval, which would give closed school districts even more flexibility in feeding students.

In the meantime, school administrators are brainstorming their own local solutions.

El Paso ISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera spent Wednesday morning with his team reading coronavirus response plans from districts in Washington and California, to determine how to feed low-income students in the case of long-term school closures. He's considering paying hourly employees, such as custodians and bus drivers who would otherwise not be working, to bring donated food to a central location so students don't have to go hungry.

"We might not be able to put them to work every day," he said. "But since we don't want any hourly workers to lose any pay, we're working on how we can put them to work."

Many El Paso ISD employees have students in other local districts, so it's important to coordinate with institutions across the region before determining whether to close, Cabrera said.

The fear of students going hungry would also challenge smaller, more isolated regions. Andrew Peters, superintendent of Caldwell ISD near College Station, said if he were forced to cancel school for a week or longer, district officials would seek authority to keep offering federally funded meals and deliver bags of food to students along school bus routes.

About 57% of Caldwell ISD students are economically disadvantaged and receive free or reduced-price meals. "Unfortunately, our school nurses probably provide the best health care that most of our kids get," Peters said. "If they can't come to school, I worry about that other stuff."

If school districts are forced to shut down for long periods of time, many may not be prepared to keep educating students as the April administration of the state standardized test looms.

"Could I teach my full curriculum? No. But I could do test prepping for STAAR," Peters said of the state standardized test. Caldwell ISD has enough Chromebooks to distribute to students, but it can't solve the problem that many in the rural county don't have access to the internet.

Inadequate broadband is an issue for both urban and rural families. Northside ISD in San Antonio is considering an expensive solution to that problem: purchasing and distributing hotspots, devices that would allow students to access the internet. "Devices aren't so much the issue," said Superintendent Brian Woods. "A lot of families have devices, and we certainly have plenty. It's internet access."

And even a wealthier district like Northside ISD isn't entirely prepared to teach hundreds of students full time virtually, especially not in ways that would connect teachers to students through video.

"More than a couple of weeks would start to become pretty challenging," Woods said.

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