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A Dying Teacher, Worrying Over Students to His Last Breaths

Mr. Ortiz’s death in December had a galvanizing effect on educators in Houston. The following week, teachers at about 50 schools in Harris County participated in a nationwide sickout to demand a safer learning environment during the pandemic.

“He could have been me,” said Traci Latson, 50, a teacher at Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, who described in-person instruction in Houston as “Russian roulette.” Mr. Ortiz’s death prompted her to get her will and financial affairs in order, she said.

“Every day that I step on campus,” Ms. Latson said, “I’m not quite sure if it’s my last day.”

Under Texas law, teachers and their unions lack collective bargaining power, unlike in many Northern states, where some teachers and their unions have resisted returning to classrooms because of concerns about their safety. In Chicago, tensions over reopening plans have escalated to the point where the district told parents not to send their children to school on Wednesday because teachers refused to come to work in person and may strike.

Public health experts have largely come to agree that schools, particularly elementary schools, are unlikely to seed transmission of the virus when community spread is low — provided those schools use mitigation strategies. That thinking was bolstered again Tuesday by a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which looked at 17 schools in rural Wisconsin where mask wearing was common; it found that of 191 infections among staff members and students during the fall, seven resulted from in-school transmission.

In Houston, which like all Texas school districts was required by the state to offer an in-person teaching option last fall, the school system has a mask mandate and requires six feet of social distancing “whenever possible.” A district spokesperson said it also set up daily temperature checks at school entrances, plexiglass dividers in classrooms and nasal swab testing on campus — though several teachers disputed the ubiquity of those practices.

One teacher provided pictures of what she considered the inadequate dividers in her classroom — there are two, one for her desk, and a second that can be moved between student desks — while others said there was no routine testing in their particular schools, despite district policy, and that they knew of students who had coronavirus cases in their families, and even deaths, but came to school with symptoms anyway.

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