The district’s “Ready, Set, Go” back-to-school plan for the 2021-2022 school year says only workers who are vaccinated or medically exempt from the vaccine will receive “COVID-19 paid leave.”
“Pending HISD Board of Education approval, COVID-19 paid leave (up to 10 days for the 2021-2022 school year) will be available [to] exempt and non-exempt employees who are fully vaccinated, as well as those who are medically unable to be vaccinated,” the plan reads.
“Proof of vaccination or medical exemption must be submitted to qualify. Employees who are not vaccinated must use their personal leave to isolate due to COVID-19.”
Additionally, the district plans to give vaccinated and vaccine-exempt employees $500 apiece.
“Pending Texas Education Agency and HISD Board of Education Approval, a one-time $500 stipend will be provided to exempt and non-exempt employees who are fully vaccinated, as well as those who are medically unable to be vaccinated. Guidelines, process, and timeline related to submission are forthcoming.”
The benefit will not be extended to unvaccinated workers. The plan does not clarify a specific purpose for the stipend.
The plan allows staff to get tested or vaccinated during work without using up personal time.
Like nearby Fort Bend ISD, Houston ISD is also requiring masks on all campuses this year despite Governor Greg Abbott’s recent order prohibiting mask mandates.
Abbott’s order forbids government bodies from compelling vaccinations, but it does not prohibit vaccine incentives. In fact, Abbott himself has encouraged Texans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Recently, he credited the vaccine for his lack of symptoms after testing positive for COVID-19.
Nonetheless, the plan has rankled other Republicans, namely state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).
Bettencourt, whose district includes Houston ISD, called the stipends a misuse of funds and said he plans to request an opinion from the attorney general’s office on their legality or file a bill to stop future similar incentives.
“I’m not sure that’s good public policy,” Bettencourt said of the plan. “I mean, this money’s supposed to be going for education and not a major stipend because $500, that’s five times what even [Harris County Judge] Lina Hidalgo’s proposed for a shot.”
Bettencourt previously blasted Harris County’s plan to offer citizens $100 to get vaccinated. He called that plan unconstitutional but stopped shy of making the same accusation against HISD. Instead, he framed it as an issue of money management.
“It’s not the type of, as a taxpayer watchdog, the type of money I want spent. Because that money is coming out of education, and in HISD’s case, that money is sorely needed to educate kids,” Bettencourt said.
“And this is an important line not to cross without having a serious public discussion… How much do the taxpayers have to be paying for this when there’s a question they shouldn’t be paying for it at all?”
Bettencourt went on to praise the quick, free nationwide rollout of vaccines.
Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House has framed the overall COVID-19 response in the Ready, Set, Go plan as necessary to ensure in-person learning.
“We know in-person learning is critical for both student growth and success as well as addressing pandemic-related learning losses,” he wrote in his preface to the plan.
“Our goal this fall is to make sure those in-person experiences are as safe as possible.”
Despite some initial optimism for virtual learning at the state and local level, the Texas Education Agency analyzed test scores of students at the end of the 2020-2021 school year and found that students who learned in classrooms performed much better than students who learned by computer. Overall, test scores plunged this year.
Houston ISD students scored lower than the regional average on all five subjects of the state standardized test: Algebra, U.S. History, Biology, English I, and English II.
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