HOUSTON — One of Texas's largest education unions continues to have major concerns as students begin to return to on-campus classes across the state.
"We don’t want to have to report about one of our coworkers dying on the job because we returned when we weren’t ready to return,” Texas State Teachers Association president Ovidia Molina said.
The TSTA said it recently surveyed more than 600 members from 135 districts, including many in the Houston area, and found hundreds of deficiencies that violate COVID-19 guidelines.
"We are not just griping because we don’t want to go back," Molina said. "Everybody wants to go back to school, that’s what we do, that’s who we are. But we want to do it in a safe manner.”
The union’s survey included 246 violations related to not following mask mandates and hundreds more for inadequate social distancing, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Concerns about poor building ventilation are also on the list.
Here’s a breakdown of the number of violations reported in several categories, according to TSTA findings:
- Non-compliance with mask mandate: 246
- Inadequate classroom social distancing: 385
- Inadequate ventilation or ventilation equipment: 401
- Inadequate protective supplies (masks, etc.): 357
- Inadequate access to cleaning/sanitation supplies: 243
- Insufficient accommodations for high-risk school employees or family members: 435
- Lack of school quarantine space or process: 247
- Inadequate or inequitable availability of distance-learning resources for students: 238
- Inadequate district sick leave policies: 337
- Inadequate mitigation policies for lunch or transportation: 255
- Lack of health/safety policy enforcement: 268
- Insufficient staffing for new measures and protocols: 370
"I think families should be wary,” Molina said.
Districts have used social media and other methods to emphasize their cleaning and other safety protocols. They've also stockpiled PPE for student and staff usage.
"Districts are doing their best to adhere to not only state but also federal guidelines,” Texas Association of School Boards spokesman Dax Gonzalez said.
The TASB helps districts around the state navigate TEA recommendations and other issues.
"And, unfortunately, districts are really caught in the middle of balancing all this guidance they’re getting with making sure communities are safe," Gonzalez said. "But also balancing what the communities want. And we’ve seen in some areas where parents are protesting to get their kids back in school.”
Molina said many educators will show up to work despite their own concerns. They simply want to make sure everyone is safe
"We want to ensure our children don’t get sick. Their families don’t get sick. Our coworkers don’t get sick,” Molina said.
Molina said some teachers have retired or quit in order to avoid having to go back to school.
It’s been widely reported, the stories of teachers quitting out of concern for not only their own health but also the well-being of family members who may be high-risk. It doesn’t stop there. Other key school employees, such as bus drivers, have even been walking away from their job.
Molina said some school districts are enforcing sick-leave policies that discourage teachers from staying home when they’re showing symptoms, and the lack of staffing in most districts presents problems with carrying out certain safety measures.
“Consider these problems together, and we can see that some districts are not committed to keeping potentially sick employees from coming to work, where they could infect other employees and students,” Molina said.
Mass coronavirus spread has been a serious concern – and even a legal matter – for teachers who are concerned lives are being put at stake with in-person learning and training. The Texas Education Agency has outlined health guidelines for school districts but some argue it’s not enough.
“The state can issue all the safety guidelines and protocols it wants, but if they are not enforced, they aren’t worth much,” Molina said. “In some cases, inadequate funding may be an issue, particularly relating to the deficiencies in physical facilities.”
For months teachers protested in the state capitol, demanding virtual learning be extended until COVID-19 positivity rates drop significantly or an effective vaccine is created.
The union representing Cypress-Fairbanks teachers brought its school district to court in hopes of prolonging in-person training before the school year started.
It’s been a tough issue to settle as state goals and a push to reopen schools from many parents conflicts with the interests of most teachers, health experts and some local officials.