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Houston students want to be heard in school reopening conversation

School superintendent discusses reopening
School superintendent discusses reopening plan amid coronavirus pandemic 12:15

The Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest in the state of Texas, plans to start the fall semester virtually on September 8. The district plans to phase in in-person schooling after six weeks, though that goal may change. Parents can also disregard in-person start dates and keep their children home all semester or all year. 

One student group worried about school safety wants to weigh in. The Houston Independent School District Student Congress (HISD StuCon), a 70-member group of students from across the district, believes HISD ought to make the entire fall semester virtual and concentrate on building out a substantial online education experience for students. 

"We took kids out of school in March when in Houston there were 30 cases. But now we're thinking about taking kids back to school in October when who knows how many cases there could be. So, what changed between now and then? And why is it safe now to send kids back to school and it wasn't safe before," StuCon speaker Jennifer Hamad wonders. 

Hamad, a rising senior at Houston Heights High School, told CBS News that the group wants to empower students to "become change-makers within their district." They've created a survey for HISD teachers, parents, and students to share their thoughts on reopening. 

In about two weeks, the survey, shared on student and student-led social media platforms, has garnered over 3,000 responses. The questionnaire consisted of mostly scaled questions asking participants to respond to scenarios on a 1-5 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree".

It discovered that most respondents want fall classes to remain virtual until it's safe to return, a moment they mark with the introduction of a Covid vaccine.

Participants were asked if they prefer school remain virtual until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, and 74% said they agreed, while 18% disagreed.

The majority felt a hybrid model combining in-person and virtual schooling would be no safer than a full time in-person semester — 58.6% agreed while 25.7% "strongly disagreed" or "disagreed."

Before the student's published their questionnaire, HISD created its own parent and teacher surveys this summer. 

"As we made preparations for a safe and strong start to the 2021 school year, it was critical to gather feedback from district families and teachers," Interim Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan said of the survey at a press conference earlier this month.

Hamad said that StuCon members faulted the district for not soliciting responses from students, and they believe that their voices ought to be "equally represented" to those of parents and teachers.

According to HISD data, 66,009 households and 7,371 teachers responded. Among its findings, 51% of parents agreed that schools should reopen with virtual learning only, while 47.3% felt that in-person instruction should be implemented with reduced class room sizes. 

Teachers responding to the HISD survey were also split. 35% said they were "more comfortable" with virtual instruction this fall while 16% said they were open to a "hybrid model" of in-person and virtual -- though 34% said they'd be open to the hybrid but needed more information regarding safety regulations. 14% of teacher respondents said they were ready to return to in-person instruction. 

StuCon is hoping that the district will also consider student voices before reopening. Hamad told CBS News that the threat of COVID-19 to young people is still unknown and that she and her peers are haunted by the idea of spreading the virus to a teacher or another student's family.  

"You commonly hear this phrase that virtual learning is not good for students' mental health. But I don't think in-person instruction will propagate any better mental health for students because you're in an anxiety-ridden environment," she said. 

Hamad also told CBS News that the district should be doing more to hold off on in-person instruction until there is a COVID-19 vaccine. 

"The classroom that we know and love and remember cannot possibly be replicated in the circumstances that we're in right now," Hamad said. "We don't want our children to be lab rats."

Hamad foresees the students most likely to attend in-person are the children of essential workers who do not have the means to take care of their children if they're not in the physical classroom. The Student Congress is working on plans to create a community drive for students to pick up donated laptops and tablets. The group also believes the district should utilize its buses to deliver food to those on meal plans, and that the city of Houston should provide mobile wifi to any student that needs it. 

HISD has already provided all high school students in need with a laptop and hotspot. 

Ultimately, the Student Congress plans to send their survey findings and proposals for an all-virtual semester to Texas Governor Greg Abbott and HISD Interim Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan.

Ted Wesigal, a life-long educator and StuCon adviser, criticized the district for not doing enough to "cultivate" student voices when it comes to reopening plans. 

"The number one customer of HISD is the students and yet they're the last to be consulted," said Wesigal.

HISD said that it welcomed the survey and feedback "as the district moves forward with its reopening plans, which remain fluid and may change to comply with updated guidance from state and health officials," and continues "to work diligently to ensure that students and their families receive the academic and non-academic supports they need."

Hamad concedes that those charged with HISD's reopening face steep challenges in trying to satisfy so many individuals. But she still thinks administrators can do better.

"We always teach students and kids to be good listeners, be open minded to other people, be receptive to others," she said, adding, "Our decision makers need to reflect that and they need to also be receptive, and open, and listen."

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