By Mitch Borden
For the first time since last spring, students rushed to make it to classes before the final bell rang at public schools scattered across Odessa on Wednesday. But this time around, hallways were bare since the pandemic has cut the number of students that want to take classes in-person.
However, days before the start of school, eight faculty members tested positive for COVID-19. And local health officials expect more educators will test positive for the coronavirus as the Ector County Independent School District continues to reopen—it’s almost unavoidable as more students return to class.
On Wednesday, district officials said three teachers had tested positive for the virus. Although, they later revealed that information was incorrect and actually eight employees at several schools had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since Aug. 5, a week before the start of classes.
An Ector County ISD spokesperson said the district would not reveal the positions of faculty who have tested positive at this time or whether any students had been exposed to the coronavirus.
Despite the recent cases, school administrators, like Superintendent Scott Muri, are confident that the precautions in place at this time create a safe learning environment for students and district staff.
“We’re being as proactive as we can to keep COVID out of [schools],” Murri said.
Although he admits it will be impossible to completely stop the virus from making it on to campuses, Murri said the mitigation plans the district has in place should cut down the risk of transmission significantly.
While the majority of kids logged online for their lessons from home on Wednesday — teachers welcomed back a small group of students for in-person instruction as Ector County ISD began phase one of their reopening plans. The district estimates that half of all students will be attending classes virtually for the first semester.
Another precaution Ector County ISD is taking to cut down on the potential spread of the coronavirus is requiring teachers to wear facemasks along with face shields while interacting with students. This is a new policy and the district is in the process of getting enough face shields for the thousands of teachers and staff at their 43 campuses.
“As students enter the building, hand sanitizer greets them as the door,” said Muri during a media tour touting the district’s safety measures. While speaking to a handful of reporters at Permian High School, Muri also answered questions about the three teachers who tested positive for coronavirus.
Muri said he’s not worried, but would reverse or slow the district’s reopening plans if needed.
Parents weren’t directly informed about the teachers who tested positive for COVID-19 before students returned to class, according to a district spokesperson. But school officials said that beginning Wednesday, now that school is back in session, Ector County ISD will contact parents if a student or a school employee at their child’s campus is diagnosed with the disease.
The district is currently working with the local health department and Odessa’s hospitals to assess what precautions need to be taken as the school year continues. Even though there are a lot of challenges facing educators right now, Muri told reporters Wednesday that his staff is excited to be back at school.
“At the end of the day, I’m hearing a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “As I walked in Permian High School, I spoke to two teachers on the first floor and I was like ‘Hey, how’s your first day going?’ [and they responded] ‘We are so excited to be back and to see kids.”
Editors Note: A previous version of this story stated three teachers had tested positive for the coronavirus since August 5th. This information was provided by the district, but officials later retracted their original statement and updated that number to eight Ector County ISD employees.