More than a dozen Texas public school districts across the state, including many in the Houston and Dallas areas, announced Thursday they would extend their spring breaks due to concerns about the new strain of coronavirus.
Houston ISD, the state's largest district, which enrolls more than 200,000 students, has canceled school Friday, in advance of next week's spring break. Houston Community College notified the district of potential exposure to the virus at two campus locations, where district students also take classes. Houston ISD classes are expected to resume March 31.
Some of the districts extending their spring breaks are working on contingency plans to transition hundreds of thousands of students and teachers to online learning in the event of even longer closures.
Fort Bend Independent School District will suspend classes for at least two weeks starting Monday and require essential staff to get training in online instruction in case extended school closures become necessary due to future outbreaks of the disease, which is called COVID-19.
More than 10 school districts in the Houston area, including Cypress Fairbanks ISD, Conroe ISD, Klein ISD and Humble ISD, also announced they are suspending classes. Several in the Dallas area, including Allen ISD and Plano ISD, are doing the same. Corpus Christi ISD also announced it's extending spring break to deep clean. El Paso ISD also announced it will extend spring break by an additional week.
Katy ISD postponed classes, campus events, field trips, student trips and competitions starting Friday through March 22. If the closure is extended, "instruction will resume via online virtual learning," according to the district's website. "Teachers will be prepared for online instruction over the next week should that become necessary," the site said.
As of Thursday, there were 36 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas, including 11 patients who were traveling abroad and then federally quarantined at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The Houston area has been hit hardest with about 17 identified cases – 12 of which were associated with people traveling on a cruise ship in Egypt.
The wave of temporary closures is not without precedent; in the spring of 2009, 853 campuses enrolling more than 500,000 students closed for two to 14 days in response to the H1N1 flu, responding to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to a notice from the agency, school districts with prolonged school closures due to coronavirus concerns may apply for waivers from the state, allowing them to avoid financial penalties, as long as they can prove they are teaching students remotely.
Since school districts are funded based on average daily student attendance, they could otherwise lose state funding if students are absent for long periods of time in large numbers.
As the number of school districts canceling classes ramps up, not every one has the capacity to immediately pivot to offering classes online. Experts say that for most school districts, switching to online learning is easier said than done. It requires training for students and teachers to learn how to use the digital system, especially if it's brand new.
In addition to training teachers, districts also have to contend with the fact that not all their students have access to the internet or have computers at home.
"Now is not the time to introduce something new," said Jennifer Bergland, government relations director for the Texas Computer Education Association. "You wouldn't all of a sudden say, 'OK, we're going to launch this, unless it was something that went for a very long time."
When H1N1 spread across the world about a decade ago, Bergland was the chief technology officer in Bryan ISD, near College Station, and was responsible for creating a contingency plan for online learning. Then, just as now, districts are on a "continuum of digital readiness," she said.
Districts that plan ahead are most likely to see a seamless transition. Dallas ISD officials sent out a letter Thursday, in advance of next week's spring break, with a contingency plan in case the vacation is extended for a lengthy amount of time, in which students in all grades would begin "at-home learning." All middle and high school students would be temporarily provided with laptops or tablets, while preschool and elementary school students will get resource bags with textbooks, papers and pencils.
A website, in English and Spanish, offers online courses and other resources. Teachers are expected to upload assignments and activities daily, and students will be responsible for logging in and completing the assignments.
The eagerness to go digital could last long beyond the current health crisis. In 2009, Bergland said, principals who were forced to switch to digital learning realized that they could pursue similar opportunities during the regular school year. "I know that school districts are much more prepared than they were in 2009," she said.