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COVID-19 cases are declining in Texas schools after omicron surge

By Kalley Huang, Mandi Cai and Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

COVID-19 cases are declining in Texas schools after omicron surge” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Students in Texas public schools are experiencing another year upturned by COVID-19 as the delta and omicron variants spread.

Texas schools appear to be turning a corner with the virus after the highly contagious omicron variant caused a surge in student and staff COVID-19 cases in January. Statewide, cases and hospitalizations have declined. For now, schools are prohibited from requiring masks, though some continue to ignore the governor’s order banning mask mandates. Several districts temporarily closed or altered operations to compensate for staff shortages due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases. In some districts, students who are frustrated by limited COVID-19 protocols held petition drives and walkouts.

Every Friday, the Texas Education Agency and Texas Department of State Health Services release COVID-19 case counts for students and staff, as reported by the state’s school districts. Here is the latest situation for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 20:

State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts’ case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state, despite agency guidance requiring otherwise. The agency also retroactively updates its data from previous weeks as more districts report cases.

Some large districts, such as Houston and Dallas, have not consistently reported new cases to the state since TEA started tracking COVID-19 data on Aug. 2 for this school year. Many districts publish COVID-19 dashboards that show cases, and TEA recommends families check for the latest data there.

Entire districts, including Clarksville ISD in northeast Texas and Hutto ISD in central Texas, closed temporarily in January without reporting cases to the state. These districts don’t necessarily report their closures, either, since they are not required to do so. TEA informally tracks closures based on media and district reports, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

Here are the 10 districts reporting the most cases as of the week ending Feb. 20:

At the beginning of this school year, districts had fewer options to slow the spread of the virus and keep students and staff safe.

Last year, school districts were permitted to require masks. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited mask mandates in schools, prompting a federal investigation for possibly violating the rights of students with disabilities. A federal judge overruled the governor’s order, separately finding that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates is back in effect after a federal appellate court temporarily restored the order.

Before the school year began, the state did not fund online options. Instead, school districts either used federal relief dollars or dug deep into their budgets to provide remote programming for families.

But now, some families and districts may find relief, as Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 15, which expands and funds virtual learning through 2023. While advocates for the law say it is a step in the right direction, it excludes students who failed the STAAR test.

In the last school year, almost 40% of students did not pass their math assessment, and nearly a third didn’t pass reading. Those who failed were disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

Correction, Oct. 8, 2021: A chart in this story incorrectly stated the number of school districts reporting new COVID-19 cases the week ending Sept. 26. It was 578 districts, not 947, which was the total number of districts that have reported cases since Aug. 2.

Correction, Jan. 7, 2022: This story incorrectly stated that around 5.4 million students were enrolled in Texas schools as of January 2021. The enrollment total is as of September 2021.

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