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Texas students must wear face masks at school, state agency says

The Texas Education Agency released guidance that addresses what districts must do if there is a positive case among a person who is on campus.

Updated at 10:24 p.m. to add information from Dallas ISD. The above video is from a prior story about TEA plans.

Students over 10 years old will be required to wear face masks and parents will be able to switch their children to online learning as the year progresses, according to new guidelines released by the Texas Education Agency on Tuesday.

Many districts in North Texas have been awaiting guidance from the agency as school is set to begin in less than 40 days for thousands of students.

The state education agency says face masks will be required in school buildings, with the exceptions listed in Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order, as long as the order remains in place. Districts can also add their own face mask requirement "for adults or students for whom it is developmentally appropriate," the TEA said.

“This pandemic has gotten much worse lately, so I think they’re starting to recognize that," Michael Hinojosa, Dallas ISD's superintendent said. 

The TEA says temporary closures are almost certain to happen. Hinojosa says they're prepared. 

“We’ll clean, we’ll test, we’ll trace and get ready to go back in and that’s why we need to have at-home learning available,” Hinojosa said. 

The planning guidance also addresses on-campus and virtual instruction, practices to prevent the virus from entering the school and mitigating the speed inside the school.

Fort Worth ISD says 42 percent of families have picked online learning. Hinojosa says Dallas ISD is at 50 percent and growing.

“You can’t legislate them and will them to be in the school building if they’re not going to be there. That’s why we need options in place," he said. “If they allow us to open school virtually 100 percent, we could start school on time, then we’ll phase it in, but we don’t have the authority to do that at this time.” 

One week before on-campus activities and instruction, schools must provide a plan summary to parents and the public.

The report suggests schools have hand washing or hand sanitizing stations at entrances to the buildings, and it recommends setting aside time for students and teachers to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. 

Steven Poole leads the United Educators Association representing 44 districts including Fort Worth and said teachers still haven't begun training for online learning in most districts. 

“Finally, the state stepped up to the plate and issued some guidance to districts, but it’s not enough," Poole said. “The main thing I’m hearing from teachers right now is still the social distancing in the classroom. How is that possible with elementary kids?"

Teachers and staff must screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms prior to coming to the campus each day, the TEA says. They must report to the school system if they have any symptoms, are tested positive for COVID-19 or have had close contact with a person who is positive for COVID-19.

Schools must separate any student who shows COVID-19 symptoms while at school until the student can be picked up by a parent or guardian.

If there is a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19, school districts are required to notify the local health department and close off the areas that are heavily used by that person with the positive case, whether its a student, teacher of staff, until the non-porous surfaces in those areas can be disinfected, the TEA said.

Schools must also notify all teachers, staff and families of all students in a school if there is a case identified in a person who participates in any activities on-campus, the TEA said.

In order to return to campus, a teacher or student must go three days without a fever, see a reduction in symptoms and be at least 10 days since symptoms started.

If someone declines a test, they can get a doctor's note.

If teachers or staff come in contact with a positive case, they must stay home for 14 days. For students, it's dependent on school district screening procedures or the parent's decision. 

Face masks

Abbott's executive order requires face masks for people over 10 years old while in a commercial space or public buildings or when in an outdoor setting that does not allow for 6 feet of physical distancing. 

The requirement for face masks at schools aligns with that order, including the exceptions outlined.

The TEA said it may be impractical to require face masks while participating in non-UIL athletic or other extracurricular activities. Schools can allow students to remove their face masks while exercising as long as they are 6-feet social distancing from others who are not wearing a face mask.

"When it is impractical for students to wear masks or face shields during those activities, schools must require students, teachers, staff, and visitors to wear masks or face shields when entering and exiting facilities and practice areas and when not actively engaging in those activities," the TEA said.

The guidance suggests keeping teachers and students spaced as far apart as possible and encourages opening windows to increase airflow in rooms. 

Anyone on campus should be encouraged to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, the TEA says. And, after sneezing or coughing, people should be encouraged to wash their hands immediately. 

The guidance also says campuses should be cleaned more frequently, and high-touch surfaces, including desks, door handles and school supplies, should be regularly disinfected. 

Instruction

Districts like Fort Worth, Frisco and Irving have allowed parents to commit their students to either fully online or in-person learning for the school year.

Districts can phase-in the return to in-person instruction for up to the first three weeks of the school year to ensure all appropriate health and safety procedures are in place, the TEA said in a statement.

The agency also encourages districts to have staggered starts to the school day so that students are in less close proximity to each other.

Schools should consider placing student desks 6-feet apart when possible. The guidelines also recommend giving students space to eat lunch at least 6 feet apart. 

"In classrooms where students are regularly within six feet of one another, schools should plan for more frequent hand washing and/or hand sanitizing and should consider whether increased airflow from the outdoors is possible," the TEA said. 

"When feasible and appropriate (for example, in physical education classes as weather permits), it is preferable for students to gather outside, rather than inside, because of likely reduced risk of virus spread outdoors," the TEA said.

The TEA says students must attend 90% of the days that a course is offered. Parents can switch their children to online instruction, but school systems are allowed to limit these transitions to happen only at the end of a grading period, the TEA said.

The TEA says it will reimburse school districts for extra COVID-19-related expenses and will provide tens of millions of PPE equipment at no cost. The TEA will also give free online TEKS-aligned learning tools for remote instruction.

Teacher training on the agency guidelines will be provided at no cost to the school system.

There will also be statewide efforts from the TEA to bridge the digital divide for students at home.

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