Beyond the classroom: does Texas even have a plan for all school employees?

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As schools begin to open around the state of Texas, there has been a raging debate about the safety of students and teachers. Lost in this discussion are the hundreds of the other school employees, including custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other professionals. What about their safety? The safety of their families? It’s a question that has essentially been ignored by state lawmakers.

For many Texas communities, public schools are the largest employer. Many of these jobs are staffed by Black or Hispanic Texans, statistically, the most impacted by COVID-19 in the state.

In many schools, workers are already getting infected with the coronavirus.

In Killeen ISD, several custodians tested positive for COVID-19 after they reported back to work on June 1. Since then the ISD has gone the way of many districts in Texas by adopting a hybrid model for the first few weeks of school, with parents choosing to send students for in-person learning or staying at home with a custom online platform.

The first day of school for Killeen ISD is August 17. For students that return to campus, social distancing will be encouraged. Except for buses, where that is virtually impossible. More than one million children in Texas are dependent on a bus system to take them to school. Getting kids to school safely is just one of many challenges for schools and their employees.

Last week a photograph on Twitter from Georgia went viral, showing a packed school hallway with just a handful of students wearing face masks. Since that photo went national, North Paulding High School reported nine cases of COVID-19 among students and staff. The school has since shut down in-person learning for several days.

Another concern as schools begin to reopen around Texas, is the decreased rate of COVID-19 testing. Over two weeks the rate of Texans being tested for COVID-19 has dropped nearly 42 percent. The positivity rate, however, for the coronavirus has risen to an alarmingly high 20.3 percent.

Speaking to ABC News, former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julian Castro said he did not feel comfortable sending his own children back to school in Texas. “I don’t think it’s safe for the kids, and I don’t trust that it’s safe for the teachers and the staff either.”

For many employees at Texas schools, their jobs are hourly or part-time, which is already an economic burden. The average Texas custodian makes just over $26,000. Thousands of families in Texas are facing a devastating economic landscape, with the threat of eviction or loss of health insurance a reality for many. Not working, even in a school district that isn’t taking necessary precautions against COVID-19, isn’t an option.

Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed the Texas Education Agency (TEA) mandate that local school boards can vote in favor of an up to a 4-week transition period during which they can offer a solely remote instructional setting. After four weeks, the school district can extend remote learning for another four weeks through a vote by the board and a waiver from the TEA. Anything after eight weeks will have to review on a case-by-case basis from the TEA.

Though many districts have postponed in-person classes until after Labor Day, teachers and staff have started arriving in preparation for classroom learning. Rockwall High School in North Texas will be returning with a hybrid model of online and in-person classrooms on August 26. Like many schools, it is navigating the difficult reality of providing enough protective equipment and trying to encourage social distancing.

For students that do return to campus, they will be without at least one well-known face. School Resource Officer Tracy Gaines passed away from COVID-19 in July. According to students, Gaines was a beloved figure at the school, who always greeted students with a warm smile. Though Gaines did not contract COVID-19 on campus, his death is a reminder of how public schools impact the community at large.

Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

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