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Is it Safe to Go Back to the Classroom?

Local teachers union leader discusses reopening schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Zeph Capo is the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and Texas American Federation of Teachers. 

When Governor Greg Abbott reopened the Texas economy before the COVID-19 cases and deaths started falling, he was forced to backtrack within weeks. As the virus continues its deadly rise, Texans are now facing the question of how schools should handle the upcoming fall semester.

“Right now, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone in my family go back to any type of institutional setting where large crowds gather,” says openly gay 48-year-old Zeph Capo, a former science teacher and Houston Community College trustee who is now the president of both the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) and the Texas AFT, the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers.  

“I do think the plan that was finally released by Houston Independent School District (HISD) is one of the better plans I’ve seen in the region,” Capo says. “I think the district did a really good job of listening to stakeholders and ultimately making the decision to do their best to keep everyone safe.”

After the Texas Education Agency allowed for as much as eight weeks of online learning for the start of the school year, HISD announced it would be “online only” for six weeks (with a delayed start date of August 24) and then allow parents to decide if they want to keep their children online or send them back to the classroom. 

Local officials lauded the program, and many school districts are coming up with similar plans amid the state and federal mandates to reopen schools. But not all Texas teachers were optimistic when they attended a mid-July rally in Austin. There are still too many questions about computer and Internet access and about transportation. HISD has said bus seats will go to disabled and homeless students first. And since 80 percent of HISD bus drivers are seniors in the COVID-19 high-risk group, there could be a shortage of drivers.

Capo thinks HISD will have enough staff for now, but he has other concerns. 

“We hope the extended runway before implementing in-person learning will give time for someone in this state to step up their leadership and do what must be done to get this virus under control,” says Capo. “If so, then hopefully we won’t have to worry about making our bus drivers and other staff sick. I really understand the concern for all staff, and especially staff with factors that put them into a higher risk category. We just don’t know enough about this virus, and it has proven many smart people wrong because they came to conclusions about it too quickly.”

There are also concerns about online learning for lower-income students who have less access to computers and connectivity. 

“Many of our special-education students depend on regular established routines and familiar faces or voices that instill feelings of safety and security for them,” Capo notes. “Not having that contact is extremely difficult on them, so we are renewing our push to fully equip our teacher assistants with the necessary tools to do their jobs, both virtually and when they return to in-person learning.

“We have plenty of work to do in advocating for the right way to transition back to a classroom-based setting. We don’t believe allowing individual parental choice is the right way to go. It is the job of the public education system to make the best decision for all students. For us, that means the first kids who should be able to return in-person should be the kids we either weren’t able to connect with virtually or those that may require the additional assistance necessary for success—our special-education students, for example. We must make strategic and equitable decisions that benefit all of our students. Every day, the staff at Texas AFT and HFT get up looking for some way to help make this situation better for our members and the students they teach. We host multiple opportunities for training on the latest tools and practices to improve online learning outcomes for kids.”

For right now, reopening schools is a work in progress. No one really knows what this virus will do and when Houston will be able to flatten the curve, let alone decrease cases. Too many of our government leaders are not listening to the science.

“The President and the Governor have done both too much and not enough, all at the same time,” Capo says. “They need to let the healthcare experts lead on public policy around this issue and try to keep the politics out of it. Our state and federal governments have a responsibility to lead this country through this crisis, but also to recognize that a one-size solution won’t fit everyone. Regardless of your party, during a crisis all of us want to see our leaders stand up and do the right thing. It’s time to put country before self, and do what must be done to get this virus under control. Close all non-essential gatherings, wear a mask diligently, limit interactions to your nuclear family, and have patience with one another.” 

For more information on Houston Federation of Teachers, visit hft2415.org. For more information on the Texas American Federation of Teachers, visit texasaft.org.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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