When Fort Worth middle school English teacher Ale Checka heard Thursday that Texas plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction in the fall, she felt panicked.
Parents had already been flooding her phone and email with questions about what the Fort Worth Independent School District was planning, and she didn't have many answers. She had watched Gov. Greg Abbott authorize most Texas businesses to reopen even as the state's coronavirus cases continue to reach daily record highs.
And her worries compounded upon hearing that state will not make wearing masks mandatory for all students and staff: She knew the lack of a requirement would make it harder for her to get supplies and make her middle schoolers use them.
"I take very, very, very seriously my responsibility as an educator, but I'm not at a point where I want to risk my life for child care that's for an economic engine," Checka said.
As parents clamor for information about what they can expect, state and school leaders are making decisions based on moving targets, often unsure what the infection or hospitalization rates will look like from day to day. They're rolling information out to parents and teachers piecemeal, provoking frustration and anxiety as people try to make crucial decisions about work and school during a life-changing pandemic.
State leaders said Thursday that schools would be safe to reopen this fall, and that families with health concerns would have options to learn remotely. State education officials plan to put out more specific guidance next week, complicating school leaders' attempts to meet fast-approaching budget deadlines.
Most school districts were unprepared to quickly pivot to remote instruction in March, once the coronavirus began to shutter schools. They lost contact completely with thousands of students across the state, including many who were low-income and vulnerable. Looking ahead to the next year, school leaders are weighing their ability to educate students with their ability to keep their communities safe.
Texas schools are funded based on the number of students attending each day, so children staying home could have severe financial implications for districts. State officials have not yet announced how they will fund schools in the fall for students who choose to learn from home.
Meanwhile, superintendents already know many parents won't send their children back in the fall, especially if cases are rising. Their surveys show parents are struggling to juggle homeschooling their children with work, but scared to take the health risks of sending them to school. In the absence of specifics from the state, some are already tentatively planning to let parents choose between returning in person or continuing online. And some are switching to year-round calendars, as encouraged by the state, allowing them to take frequent breaks if cases suddenly spike.
Fort Worth ISD's survey showed parents and students were worried about the availability of equipment like masks, and are clamoring for required symptom checks in the fall. In San Antonio's Northside ISD, 73% of parents who responded to a survey said they would keep their kids at home if cases were increasing locally, but many parents said they would feel more comfortable if the district took safety measures.
If cases are still going up come fall, Robin Wilkins will not be sending her 6-year-old daughter in person to first grade in Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD. "I'm mentally preparing for doing a certain amount of homeschooling in the fall," she said.
Wilkins doesn't trust state officials' statement that schools will be safe in August, and she regularly studies national health guidelines and local health statistics to inform her decisions. But she is hoping district leaders will make masks mandatory for everyone, including students.
Texas will not require school districts to mandate staff and students wear masks, consistent with Abbott's approach to coronavirus across the state. Though he said wearing masks is crucial for Texans, he has backed away from requiring it statewide, only recently saying he would allow local officials to force businesses to require masks.
That's a decision that worries many teachers. "When they're saying you don't mandate masks and you don't have to wear [personal protective equipment] with kids who are not always aware of that kind of stuff or don't care, it's a concern. And people are going to catch it," said Richard Beaulé, a Killeen ISD music teacher, in Central Texas, and Texas State Teachers Association officer.
The majority of students in Texas are Hispanic and low-income, groups more susceptible to the coronavirus due to factors like lack of access to health care. Some research shows children are less likely than adults to get infected or show symptoms of COVID-19, but they can still spread it to older, more susceptible adults.
In Texas child care centers, which have been allowed to stay open in some form throughout the pandemic, more than 100 young children have reported contracting the virus, according to a state tally this week.
Like many parents and teachers, Checka hopes to get more clarity soon so she can start planning for the fall. "At the end of the day, I want to know how I'm going to be doing lesson plans," she said. "I never want to experience what I did in March, which was like, just make it up right now."
Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.