Muri: ECISD facing COVID challenges

As COVID-19 continues to rip through Ector County ISD and the rest of the community, Superintendent Scott Muri urged everyone to remain vigilant and take necessary precautions to avoid contracting the disease, such as getting the vaccine, if eligible, washing hands, wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Muri said in his media call Wednesday that ECISD is averaging 60 to 80 positive cases a day among students and staff.

“… We want to reiterate once again the importance of all of our staff members and students wearing face masks at school. We want to remind everyone to maintain as much distance as you can with your peers, as much distance as you can even when you’re out in public. We want to remind everyone to wash your hands, keep those hands clean as our hands touch our face many times a day. One area of prevention is simply keeping our hands clean … We want to make sure that everyone is leveraging that opportunity …,” Muri said.

He added that students 12 and over are eligible for the vaccine, as well as staff and community members.

“… Both of our hospitals in our area, as well as our health department and our other businesses throughout the community are providing opportunities for people to get vaccinated and it is free of charge, available at multiple locations around our community,” he said.

Muri also thanked the Scharbauer Foundation, which has donated an incentive for all of the district’s 4,200 employees.

For each vaccination a staff member receives, they will get a gift certificate of $100.

The foundation also included Midland ISD and a news release in August said the funds will be distributed to teachers, staff and substitute teachers of these institutions and IDEA Permian Basin schools, who receive the vaccine in order to stay healthy and continue educating Midland and Odessa students.

“ … We are deeply indebted to the Scharbauer Foundation for providing that type of incentive and encouraging members of our own staff to become vaccinated, and once again, as our numbers continue to hover at a pretty high level,” Muri said. “We just want to encourage all members of our community, as well as all of our students and staff members to remain as safe as you possibly can as we navigate through this really difficult time in our community right now.”

He acknowledged that since the start of school multiple staff members have contracted COVID-19. Muri added that this creates a “significant hardship” on all campuses at all levels.

“… In fact, a few minutes ago I left one of our middle schools and literally a teacher had just discovered that they needed to leave school because of a COVID-19 possibility. I watched … the principal and another group of teachers begin to divide those students up among themselves to ensure that those students were served. It is a hardship. COVID-19 has created a significant hardship on ECISD right now. We have many staff members that are out, as well as many students.”

“All we can do as a school system is to make sure that we are keeping our students and staff members as safe as we possibly can. The vaccination incentive program that we’re able to provide, thanks to the Scharbauer Foundation, will certainly help and encourage more of our staff members to become vaccinated.”

The ECISD Board of Trustees passed a resolution in August that would allow the district to put a mask mandate in place for all students and staff members. But the district does not feel it has the authority to do that.

“We’re waiting on a decision from the court system in the state of Texas to authorize that decision. So as of this moment, no. We do not feel that we have the legal authority to do that, so we are anxiously awaiting a decision that will give us that authority and we know that taking that step will certainly help some of the challenges that we’re facing right now,” Muri said.

He said the district is monitoring its COVID numbers, but its goal is keeping the district open and not going virtual.

“We much prefer for every single school to stay open. We are watching the numbers at each individual school, and at this point, if we had to close something it potentially would be a portion of a school, or potentially a whole school. We don’t anticipate at this time full district closure. It would be more an isolated instance.

Our numbers at schools are getting higher, really beyond a level at which we’re comfortable,” Muri said.

He added that ECISD has no plans to cancel sporting events, practices or other extracurricular activities.

“We’ve limited participation at our indoor events. We’ve spread seating around (at) indoor events. While we have allowed visitors and guests to come into sporting events that are held indoors, we’ve really tried to spread people out in those venues.
Some of our sporting events are outdoors. We are not currently limiting attendance at our outdoor events, but all of these have been conversations. We want to make sure that we allow our students to be students and do what they need to do from a teaching and learning perspective. At the same time, we have to make sure that we keep them as safe as we possibly can. Right now, we walk a fine line between safety and academics and learning and we’ll continue to do that, but always err on the side of safety …,” Muri added.

During the last special legislative session, a bill was passed allowing virtual learning to be fully funded by the state for the next year. The state will fund virtual learning, but the district’s accountability rating has to be a C or higher. Muri said ECISD has a C rating.

“That passed last week. We are unpacking that law and figuring out what that might mean right now. Our challenge at this point in the game is going to be finding staff members to create that virtual environment for students because the law also said teachers cannot do both; they cannot teach virtual and face-to-face at the same time, so we’re going have to find a different group of teachers that would be willing to take on that virtual assignment. That work is now underway in ECISD,” Muri said.

“(We) don’t have a timeline. I think a lot of it is going to be dependent upon the number … of teachers that would be interested in that opportunity and then the number of students and families that would be interested … Right now, we’re just beginning to put that together,” he added.

There is a little bit more leeway with going remote, but Muri said the caveat is that they would have to make up the time at the end of the year.

“… Any days or hours that we miss have to be made up. If we closed the district for a week or two because of COVID, we’re going to add five or 10 days of school to the end of the school year in order to make up that time,” Muri said.

“That is a big difference between last year and this year. Again, we’re monitoring closely. Our goal is not to have to do that. We really need all members of our community to join with us to keep our kids and our staff members as safe as we possibly can throughout this spike in COVID-19,” he added.

Muri said the district has not set up an online environment, partly because the legislation was just passed last week.

“We’re in the process of seeing what that would look like. We would have to hire the staff (and) put all the systems and pieces in place. It’s going to be a period of time before we’re able to stand that up as a system, so if we happen to close between now and the time that virtual learning would be stood up we would have to make up the time that we missed and that would create a significant hardship on our own staff, as well as our families.”

Muri said a variety of factors is contributing to this spike of COVID-19.

“In listening to our medical community and what they’re advising, we had some processes and procedures in place last year that we are not able to put in place this year and we know those make a difference. Last year, our teachers and staff members wore masks and face shields all day long. We know that made a difference. Last year, our students from the age of 10 and up wore a mask every day. We know that made a difference last year. We also, especially at the middle school and high school level, didn’t have as many students on our campuses, so we were able to distance our students and staff members much more effectively last year. Our buses we were limited to 22 students on a bus last year. This year, our buses are full of students, so there are a variety of factors and certainly the Delta variant is much more susceptible to transmission from kid to kid and teacher to teacher, etc. so that transmission rate has increased as well,” Muri said.

On a separate item, there will be town hall meetings at 6 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16 on a possible bond issue. The Sept. 15 meeting will be at the Odessa High School Performing Arts Center and the Sept. 16 meeting is at the library at Permian High School.

Muri also is requesting funds for broadband from the city of Odessa and Ector County.

“Back in March of 2020 when COVID hit and we transitioned to a 100 percent virtual environment, we recognized that many of our families did not have access to high-quality broadband in their home. About 39 percent either did not have broadband or very low quality. The further along we went, the more we realized it’s not just ECISD families, but it’s an entire community that has this opportunity to have better access to high quality broadband.”

“… We formed a committee. It’s called the Connector Task Force. It’s made up of city and county officials, business leaders in our community, members of our medical community; a variety of individuals, as well as the education community, UTPB and OC … We all came together and began to tackle the problem of broadband within our community, so our conversation with both the city council and the county commission is we’re ready to put forth as a committee some solutions and in order for these solutions to take place within our community. … We’re going to be seeking some investment from our city officials, as well as our county officials and others within our community to bring broadband to all areas of Ector County,” Muri said.

Since March 2020, he added, the industry itself, the Federal Communications Commission, ECISD and the local community have taken steps to bring broadband opportunities to families.

“The percentage we had in March of 2020 has been reduced because of the work of many people throughout the state and the nation and we’re grateful for that, but it still isn’t every family and we want to make sure that it’s every family. We have some data that we’ve been collecting that really goes down into every home all over the county and will let us know the access of every single family unit within our community. We’ll be sharing these data with the city council,” and the county commissioners in the upcoming weeks, he said.

The majority of our families do have access to high-speed broadband, Muri said, but some families that have access may not be able to afford it.

“So we’re talking about a financial opportunity, but most families at least live in an area in which they have access to high-speed,” Muri said.

However, there are some families in west, north, the southern tip and the Pleasant Farms area of Ector County that do not have high-speed broadband.

“We’re targeting those areas of significant need. When we present this information to the city and the county, we’ll have some maps that will really lay out and show home by home where the deficits are in our community,” Muri said.