Checking in on a Texas school district where the schools never closed

The heated debate over reopening the schools for in-person learning continues to rage in the media and among elected officials. The teacher’s unions are seen as the main sticking point and some municipalities remain at a loss as to how to get them back in the classrooms. Underlying all of this is the specter of the novel coronavirus since we are still not close to anything resembling herd immunity. But today I wanted everyone to take a peek at a place where none of this drama is playing out. In fact, it hasn’t been happening all, even at the beginning of the pandemic. That place is the Peaster Independent School District in Parker County, Texas.

When the state announced its own version of lockdowns and face mask mandates last spring, Peaster briefly experimented with remote learning. But a survey of parents and students showed that a majority didn’t like it. When it came time for classes to start in August, Peaster simply ignored most of the mandates. They continued their classes as usual. For both teachers and students alike, if you wanted to wear a mask you were free to do so. If not, you didn’t. It was as simple as that. They didn’t move the student’s desks any further apart. Nobody was learning “remotely” unless that’s what the families wanted to do. People came and went as they wished. So what happened? As the local CBS News outlet reports… pretty much nothing.

No one has been placed into a mandatory quarantine.

Homecoming happened on schedule. The pancake dinner, fall festival, sports and concerts all took place as planned.

The result, according to Superintendent Lance Johnson, has been a higher enrollment and average daily attendance numbers ahead of last year.

Johnson also said district data shows most students are on track to finish the school year on grade level, closing the learning gap that occurred when schools shut down last spring.

Once the kids went back to school in August, there were no cases of COVID in the schools for ten weeks. Some cases did pop up in the fall for a little while, but it amounted to three teachers and seven students. Nobody died.

CBS reports that as of Monday there were only eight students who were still learning remotely. Everyone else was still in school. The teachers never went on strike. Life just simply moved on.

Granted, the Peaster Independent School district is located in a very rural part of Texas with low population density, so they have a significant advantage over more densely populated urban areas. But as the school superintendent noted, many of the residents regularly travel to Weatherford and Fort Worth. It’s not as if they were totally living in a bubble.

When I look at this story in the context of the recent news that the CDC misinterpreted research data showing that schools were safe to operate normally, I have to wonder just how wrong we got all of this last year. The linked study was conducted in a region in Wisconsin that’s significantly more densely populated than Peaster County, Texas. And they had roughly the same per capita results. The research physicians who conducted that study cited other studies with similar results around the country.

Did we ever actually need to shut down the schools or even enforce social distancing rules in them? It’s really sounding as if, had we simply offered face masks and hand sanitizer to any families or teachers who wanted them and went about our business, we probably would have been fine. I can’t totally fault the districts and elected officials who initially panicked upon hearing the scary word “pandemic.” I was pretty nervous about it myself. But this data has been accumulating for a while now and schools just don’t seem to be breeding grounds for COVID.

And that leaves me with another unpleasant thought. If we got it wrong in the schools, how much else did we get wrong?