AUSTIN, Texas - With less than a month until the start of school, Travis County leaders weigh the risks of re-opening.
Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott presented county commissioners with recommendations from a study by The Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Inequities in education
The report prioritizes students who show a need for in-person instruction. Dr. Escott said Kindergarten to 5th grade and children with special needs should be allowed to go back to school first.
“They stress many times throughout the document, the concern about the inequities in the education system at the same time the disparities associated with health access and outcomes in communities of color,“ said Escott.
The inequities could cause a devastating health and educational impact on communities of color. Commissioner Jeff Travillion stressed the need to develop a plan to assist title one schools who have 60% or more kids on free or reduced lunch.
“These are going to be the part of our community that will be potentially most impacted, certainly the part of the community that is most vulnerable,” said Travillion.
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The report not only highlighted inequities in access to healthcare but in school districts with fewer resources than others. Some schools have poor building conditions without a proper ventilation system. Some schools have overcrowding while others are experiencing staff shortages.
Many districts are working to enhance their remote learning infrastructure, making sure each student has access to the internet and laptops.
“This pandemic we are facing has really demonstrated to us that we have to do more,” Escott said. “When we consider schools and reopening, individual school districts do not look like one another.”
The Texas Education Agency has executed a contract to provide millions of dollars in personal protective equipment. Dr. Escott noted it’s a good start; recommendations include N95 masks for teachers and staff.
“While we are comforted by the data of the risk to students, The risk of faculty and staff is much much higher,” said Escott. “We can’t exclude the teachers, and the staff, the custodians, the other support staff, the administrators when we are making the decisions about schools. They are the ones at risk.”
Districts should have a partnership with public health officials to help collect data and contact trace and stages of risk to close schools if necessary. The report suggests districts develop a decision-making coalition. Austin Public Health is working with superintendents in Travis County and school boards.
Funding to maintain mitigation efforts is needed, as Dr. Escott estimates a district the size of Austin ISD should receive $47 to $48 million dollars from the federal government to safely open schools and keep them open.
“Obviously we have not seen this kind of federal support for schools and certainly not nearly the federal support that we’ve seen for businesses,” said Escott. “Schools need more if we want to do this properly.”
Data on the impact COVID-19 has on children is insufficient. There is not enough data to show how the life-threatening virus on children transmission, the role schools have in contributing to the spread into the community and the effectiveness of different mitigation strategies.
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