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A controversial recommendation: What schools will do in August

Local school districts have given a mixed reaction to Denton County Public Health’s Monday recommendation that schools delay in-person classes until at least Sept. 8.

The recommendation came after state officials made clear local health authorities cannot issue a mandate closing schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That power remains with school districts.

Of the districts in northern Denton County, Denton ISD alone seems intent on keeping students out of classrooms until Sept. 8.

Denton school board members discussed what further campus closures would mean for this school year during Tuesday’s board meeting. An email sent to parents Thursday evening confirmed all district students would learn online until Sept. 8.

Lake Dallas responded to county advice by issuing a news release Wednesday.

“To meet this recommendation, most Lake Dallas ISD students will begin the school year virtually, though schools will have learning groups at campuses for families who need in-person support,” district officials wrote. “These groups will be kept as small as possible to implement social distancing.”

Students in those groups will include those without internet access, students whose families lack child care and those with special needs.

Denton and Lake Dallas ISDs, the two local districts shown to most closely adhere to DCPH guidance, also have the latest first days of school planned.

Both districts plan to start the 2020-21 school year on Wednesday, Aug. 26, meaning students would be missing eight in-person days of class to fall in line with DCPH’s recommended start date of Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Aubrey and Argyle ISDs, both of which lean further from county recommendations, are set to start Aug. 17. Krum ISD starts back Aug. 12.

Aubrey ISD leaned further away from the advice of local health officials. District families previously had the option to opt into remote learning for the first nine-week grading period instead of attending in-person classes.

Superintendent David Belding announced a third option earlier this week: Families would be able to sign their children up to attend classes virtually until Sept. 8 to fall in line with guidance from Matt Richardson, director of DCPH, and Marty Buchanan, a department division manager.

During school board meetings earlier this week, Argyle and Krum ISDs decided they will continue ahead with a hybrid model that gives families a choice between remote or in-person learning.

Taylor Poston, a Krum ISD spokesperson, said a survey the district sent out in early July showed the families of roughly 72% of students wanted in-person classes.

She said the district sent out another form to parents Wednesday. As of Thursday afternoon, 84.5% of respondents favored in-person classes. However, she said, respondents accounted for only about 25% of the student body.

Sanger ISD hasn’t had a board meeting since the guidance was released and hasn’t released any information about amending plans for the start of school.

Argyle board members made the decision following a lengthy presentation and Q&A session with Richardson during Tuesday’s meeting, as well as a closed session that stretched to nearly two hours long. The vote to continue ahead as planned before the county’s guidance was unanimous. Most board members seemed to agree with Richardson, who holds a master’s and a doctorate in public health, about the state of the pandemic in Denton County.

Board members seemed to depart from him when it came to the virus’s threat level in Argyle, despite Richardson’s insistence that virus hot spots are not as trustworthy of a metric at this stage of the pandemic.

John Bitter, a board member and Argyle veterinarian, questioned Richardson about what he called “the core of the problem” with school closings — there are more factors involved than purely the pandemic.

“It’s a very nebulous thing, and it’s very hard for anybody to ... weigh because sometimes when I hear health officials talk, it’s like they’re only talking about the consequences on the health side,” Bitter said. “Our job is to weigh the other side, as well.”

“Indeed,” Richardson said.

He told board members and others listening he can’t provide a complete list of pros and cons. Schools boards are in an unenviable position, he said.

Bitter went on to say a school board moving against the guidance of health officials looks to the public as if the board isn’t listening to expert advice.

“But what’s so important that I think this board understands is everything you’re saying is spot on — really good health information,” Bitter said. “It’s not the only issue.”

“Agreed,” Richardson said with a nod.

“And so it can’t be the only person, the only point of view, that we listen to,” Bitter said.

“Yeah, I hope you have other people speak with you today,” Richardson said to a smattering of laughs and sighs.

Denton County Sheriff's Office returns donated masks to Rose Costumes

After Rose Costumes started making noise on social media about face masks and the COVID-19 situation at the Denton County Jail, the Denton County Sheriff’s Office returned unused, unopened boxes of donated masks to the store Thursday.

Social media posts calling into question the Denton County Jail’s conditions and distribution of masks to inmates over the weekend led Sheriff Tracy Murphree to dispute claims in a statement Monday. Photos purportedly showed female inmates wearing paper masks with holes, not the orange and gray fabric masks donated by Rose Costumes and volunteers, and living in a quarantine pod with mold, clogged toilets and garbage piled in a bin.

After a back-and-forth about the masks between the Rose Costumes Facebook page and the sheriff’s office, the masks reappeared at the costume shop.

“To have them dropped back off with a very brief letter, without giving an explanation of why they couldn’t be used [besides] ‘paper is easier’ by someone in the office ... it’s difficult to hear when we were asked to step up for our community,” said Annemarie Aldrich, owner of Rose Costumes. “To have them returned unopened was very upsetting.”

Aldrich said they donated about 2,000 masks. Murphree’s statement Monday said they still had about 700 cloth masks from Rose Costumes’ Project Mask Makers initiative for inmates in inventory in case it becomes difficult to obtain disposable masks in the future.

In an open letter Aldrich posted on Facebook, she said volunteers made the masks. They prioritized making masks for inmates and jail staff, pushing off requests from other organizations. JoAnn Fabric and Craft Stores donated black fabric, Explorium offered up sewing machines, the now-closed SCRAP Denton donated elastic, and the store’s own costumes were cut up to make sure there was enough orange fabric, she said.

“This won’t deter us, but it is upsetting to have this sort of response from our sheriff, and I think there are questions the community has about what’s going on with the jail,” Aldrich said. “I’ve had inmates contact me and staff contact me, and they don’t want to go on record. They’re afraid of retribution, and that makes me sad and afraid for them. But it’s not good, what they’re saying.”

Aldrich said one of her staffers reached out to the sheriff’s office to see if they needed any masks for staff and inmates in April. The masks for inmates had to be orange or gray with elastics to hook behind the ears and no wiring or nose piece, she said.

As of Friday morning, Aldrich said she still hasn’t been able to reach the sheriff. Murphree and a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office had not responded to calls for comment by late Friday.

There’s also concern from Dallas law firm Scott H. Palmer PC. James Robert, an attorney with the firm, said they have an ongoing investigation into quarantine policies and conditions at the jail, where 44 inmates and 19 jail staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 since April.

A report Thursday from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards shows there are seven inmates and seven jailers with active positive test results, while 205 inmates are quarantined but haven’t tested positive for active infections. The numbers for active cases among inmates and jailers are both up from the four and five active cases, respectively, that were reported Wednesday.

Inspection records from the commission dating back to 2014 show the Denton County Jail has passed inspection each year but noted the jail needed to address certain things.

The 2014 inspection says the jail had to ensure all employees were tested for tuberculosis as required by minimum jail standards, and it had to be properly documented lest the jail be issued a notice of noncompliance.

The review showed the jail: had to address turning in miscarriage reports — which are optional — before the fifth day of each month in 2016; had to turn on the water main for hot water in 2017; had a gnat problem through the food service area and the special needs unit in 2018; had to fix a smoke detection system in 2019; and would need to take an aggressive approach to address rust around showers and lavatories in inmate living and common areas, and start properly documenting tuberculosis tests administered to staff in the 2020 review.

Denton County Jail Inspections from 2014 to 2020

The cloth masks returned to Rose Costumes will now go through a quarantine period and then sanitation before being redistributed. Aldrich said she believes they may be the 700 Murphree mentioned in his statement.

“Overall, the consensus on how we’re all feeling is gravely disappointed a lot of work went to making these masks,” said Daniel Garcia, a staffer at Rose Costumes.

Kayly Nesser, another staffer, said she was the one who coordinated the mask specifications with the sheriff’s office.

“I truly hope that Annemarie will get a more personal response because she’s been trying so hard to contact the sheriff,” Nesser said. “I really hope they have a chance to speak personally and talk this out. I would be overjoyed if there’s a change of heart and [they] want to use these masks. And if we donate them, we’d be happy to make more. That’s the whole reason that we launched Project Mask Makers.

“I hope we can all come together as a community to take care of the most vulnerable among us.”

Caravan protests for safe reopening of schools

A caravan of cars spread the message of safer schools Saturday evening, with activists seeking stricter criteria and planning for when in-person learning can resume.

Indivisible Denton County, which focuses on social justice issues, organized Saturday’s rally of around 10 vehicles. The local political group has organized previous demonstrations, such as a July Fourth caravan that protested along Interstate 35E in support of Black Lives Matter and other equality efforts.

Saturday’s demonstration began at the Denton Police Department and headed down Loop 288 and other roads before returning downtown. The protest came in the midst of debate surrounding the reopening of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the organization advocates for clearer planning and more flexibility before schools return to normal.

Indivisible treasurer and event organizer Danja Franklin said the group relied on input from teachers in determining what they would advocate for.

“We want safety and clear safety plans for students and teachers,” Franklin said. “I don’t think anything that’s been presented yet makes a lot of sense.”

Franklin said the date targeted in Denton County Public Health’s recent recommendation — that schools begin face-to-face learning no earlier than Sept. 8 — is too far away to predict its effectiveness.

“It’s hard to put a time limit on something like this,” Franklin said. “They should be measuring it based on the curve and the trajectory.”

Queen Janata Montgomery, another Indivisible member and organizer, said she doesn’t believe the government has an adequate plan in place for controlling the virus in schools.

“They don’t have a handle on things, really,” Montgomery said. “A lot of people are concerned and we are demanding they not be opened.”

Jeff Woo / Jeff Woo/DRC 

Local activist Queen Janata Montgomery speaks about the Black Lives Matter movement Saturday evening at the Courthouse on the Square. Demonstrators rallied together to advocate for clearer planning before schools open up for face-to-face classes.

Following the caravan, Indivisible hosted an additional demonstration on the downtown Square, raising discussion points and chanting “Black lives matter, teacher lives matter.” Montgomery said the organization is all-encompassing and supports not just the Black Lives Matter movement, but other groups such as the LGBT community.

“It’s not focused on any one group,” Montgomery said. “It features Black Lives Matter and other issues.”

What we know about kids and COVID-19

What do we know about children and COVID-19?

Frankly, not much.

Conflicting studies the world over indicate varying levels of infection among minors, especially young children, and no conversation about children this time of year is likely to exclude the start of a new school year.

Medical professionals, much like the layfolk among us, have recently debated the various costs and benefits of opening school campuses for in-person classes.

One common argument is that children are significantly harmed by extended virtual classes. Slower academic development, as well as fewer social interactions, prove to be a real detriment to children learning remotely. Children with challenging home lives might be in greater physical danger, as well.

An oft-cited analysis published by the American Academy of Pediatrics makes just these points.

In it, the academy “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having student physically present in school.”

The authors go on to say policymakers must consider the evolving body of evidence regarding virus transmission caused by children. They also urge schools to remain open unless forced closed by a local public health mandate.

“Finally, policymakers should acknowledge that COVID-19 policies are intended to mitigate, not eliminate, risk,” they write.

Denton County children and teens represent one of the fastest-growing age groups of locals confirmed to have the novel coronavirus. The number of people 19 and younger to test positive for the virus has increased more than 210% since July 1. Only county residents over the age of 80 outpace that growth, but they still account for the smallest age demographic of infected locals.

People ages 12-19 account for roughly two-thirds of positive virus tests among the youngest age group. Those 11 and younger make up just 32.9% of the group. Despite that, the infections are happening, and while rare, children can have a rough time battling COVID-19.

Melissa Winans, chief nursing officer with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton, said most children who come in with the disease can be sent back home before too long. Some of the children with more serious cases are stabilized before being transferred to a children’s hospital, such as Cook Children’s Medical Center, for long-term care.

Most of the children who are transferred have some sort of underlying health condition, Winans said via phone Friday afternoon.

“Most of the pediatric patients that have come into our emergency department ... are able to be sent home,” Winans said.

The hospital doesn’t handle inpatient pediatrics, she said. Regardless, any emergency room can help stabilize a child before sending them off to specialists.

“What we don’t want is people skipping care because they’re afraid of COVID,” she said.

She said the gut reaction whenever somebody comes in with a respiratory issue these days is to assume they have COVID-19. Overall, there are a lot of things medical professionals don’t know about the disease and the virus that causes it.

“I think that’s the challenge with this virus — being that it’s a novel virus,” she said. “We just don’t know enough. We are learning as we go.”

In Denton County, no one younger than 40 has been confirmed to have died from COVID-19, as of Friday evening.

A study published July 23 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention references international studies that show a low rate of virus transmission among children “when community transmission is low.”

“Further, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities,” the authors continued. “These students are less likely to have access to private instruction and care and far more likely to rely on key school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to meet basic developmental needs.”

An Argyle ISD parent advocating for the opening of schools during a Monday school board meeting read several sections from the CDC report.

Matt Richardson, director of Denton County Public Health, took the lectern later and explained why the report isn’t the best guidance for Denton County. In particular, the CDC guidance in the report was targeted at communities with low virus transmission.

“When you look at our active case rate and our positivity rates, Denton County, as a whole, is not a community of low transmission,” Richardson said. “In fact, our transmission countywide is increasing.”

Richardson, along with DCPH Division Manger Marty Buchanan, released a recommendation Monday urging local school districts to postpone in-person classes until at least Sept. 8, among other guidelines.

Scientific articles published over the past few weeks often don’t show strong evidence of children transmitting the virus responsible for COVID-19. It’s hard to carry that understanding into conclusion that children do not or cannot transmit the virus. Because school campuses closed months ago in many parts of the world, children’s interactions outside the home have been limited. Additionally, children are less mobile than adults, at least in many parts of the United States.

An article published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics one week after the CDC guidance showed that young children had just as much if not more genetic material of the virus in their nasal cavities when compared to older children and adults: “Thus, young children can potentially be important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 spread in the general population ... where children with high viral loads are more likely to transmit.”

That does not necessarily mean children would have a higher ability to transmit the virus to others, researchers pointed out.