Top Travis County health official says schools should open at no more than 25% capacity in September

A screen shot of Mark Escott
Dr. Mark Escott gave a coronavirus status update to Travis County Commissioners Court Aug. 18. (Courtesy Travis County)

Dr. Mark Escott gave a coronavirus status update to Travis County Commissioners Court Aug. 18. (Courtesy Travis County)

Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin-Travis County interim health authority, has recommended county schools begin in-person classes in September with no more than 25% of students on campus—regardless of Travis County’s COVID-19 risk level.

Austin Public Health released new guidelines for school reopening Aug. 14 along with updated orders from Austin and Travis County extending coronavirus-related public health mandates through December. Local schools currently have the option to again offer in-person learning beginning Sept. 8, per the county ordinance. Because the local COVID-19 risk may fluctuate once students are on campus, APH recommends a tiered approach that allows a certain percentage of students to return based on the county’s staged risk. For instance, with Travis County currently at Stage 4 risk, no more than 25% of students are recommended to return to campus. When the county dips into Stage 3 risk, that recommendation would rise to 50%.

However, Escott told Travis County commissioners at an Aug. 18 meeting he recommends extra caution when campuses initially reopen to students.

“Regardless of where we are in staging on Sept. 8, we are recommending that schools only open at 25% for at least the first two weeks so that the schools, the teachers, the students can get used to a new system, work out any kinks in the process, and make changes and adaptations before introducing additional students,” Escott said.

The Texas Education Agency announced in July that local school districts had the option to provide virtual learning for up to the first eight weeks of the school year. Escott said he and local superintendents he had consulted were concerned the TEA would require districts to welcome back all students who wanted to return in person after the initial eight-week grace period.

“I think we need some more flexibility from the state to allow the local officials, the school boards, the superintendents and local public health [officials] to engineer solutions that are suitable for their jurisdiction,” Escott said. “I think that the most important thing right now is that students have an avenue for education for the entirety of the fall semester. Anything that’s going to put that at risk, such as trying to put too many teachers and students in one place, is going to really threaten that continuity.”

As many local districts begin the school year virtually and prepare for an in-person return, Escott beseeched students, parents and school staff to exercise as much caution as possible.

“I know it’s the end of summer and people want to have celebrations before school starts, but we really need them to continue to stay home,” Escott said. “We need to push this down so that when school starts, there is a minimal risk of transmission happening within schools."

Ten school districts are located or partially located in Travis County. Their current reopening plans are as listed below. Not all students will return to campus upon in-person reopening.

Austin ISD

Virtual start date: Sept. 8

Potential return to campus: Oct. 5

Del Valle ISD

Virtual start date: Aug. 17

Return to campus: Oct. 12

Dripping Springs ISD (partially in Travis County)

Virtual start date: Aug. 18

Return to campus: Sept. 14

Eanes ISD

Virtual start date: Aug. 19

Return to campus: Sept. 8

Lago Vista ISD

Virtual start date: Aug. 13

Return to campus: on Sept. 9

Lake Travis ISD

Virtual start date: Aug. 19.

Return to campus: Sept. 8

Leander ISD (partially in Travis County)

Virtual start date: Aug. 13*

Return to campus: Sept. 8

*LISD high schools began virtual schooling Aug. 17.

Manor ISD

Virtual start date: Aug. 17

Return to campus: Sept. 14.

Pflugerville ISD

Virtual start date: Aug. 13

Return to campus: PfISD plans to take guidance from Escott following its first three weeks of virtual learning on Sept. 4.

Round Rock ISD (partially in Travis County)

Virtual start date: Aug. 20

Return to campus: Sept. 10
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


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