Austin ISD students will head back to the virtual classroom Sept. 8 for the start of the 2020-21 school year, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to require local districts to take precautions.

New AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told Community Impact Newspaper that the district has been flexible in its preparation for the year, rolling out plans that could change as classes start up. Through her first month at AISD, she said the preparedness of the district’s staff has allowed her to hit the ground running and jump right into planning.

In August, AISD trustees delayed the start of the school year to Sept. 8, with fully virtual learning for the first month of the year. The district will begin a phase-in approach to in-person teaching in October. Pushing the district’s start date back was a move Elizalde said her former district, Dallas ISD, also made to give teachers and staff more time to prepare for teaching virtually and operating a district during a pandemic.

“There's no perfect plan [for reopening during COVID-19], but there are ways to improve and a little bit more time did give us opportunities to do a few things,” she said.

Why AISD pushed back the school year

By pushing the start of the school back to Sept. 8, Elizalde said the district hoped COVID-19 rates would be headed in an improved direction. She also said the district could observe and could learn from their neighboring districts who were starting school earlier.

The daily number of coronavirus cases reported in Travis County has been declining since mid-July. As of Sept. 7, the seven-day average of daily new cases is 76. On July 8, the number of single-day cases peaked with 753 reported.

Many local school districts that began virtual classes in August are set to welcome some students back to campus. Eanes, Lake Travis, Leander, Lago Vista and Round Rock ISDs will all begin in-person learning in some capacity between Sept. 8 and Sept. 10.

Area superintendents who have already started school have shared that they believe districts assigned too much work too soon in the school year, Elizalde said. Teachers tried to emulate the school day at home to bring normalcy to students, however, Elizalde said it was actually creating more anxiety for students and parents.

“It is impossible for kids to stay in front of a computer that’s not a video game for seven hours,” she said. “It’s better to make the first week about connectivity, knowing the technology, how to turn things in and to get into some routines before we dive into some of the real academic work.”

One of the things that has been reinforced since other area schools have opened, she said, was that AISD will need to bring people back to campuses in phases to best prevent future closures.

According to guidance released by Austin Public Health Aug. 14, schools should limit on-campus learning to 50% of enrollment at Stage 3 coronavirus risk. At Stage 2, they could increase that capacity to 75% of students, but Austin-Travis County interim health authority Dr. Mark Escott has recommended all school districts initially only bring back 25% of students when they open campuses.

“Even if we are in Stage 2 [coronavirus risk level in Travis County] later this month, it would not mean that I'm going to bring everybody back in,” Elizalde said. “If we start and then have to stop, and then start again, the continual disruption is one of the most challenging characteristics of not having successful academic outcomes. Our students don't just pick up from where we left off.”

How in-person learning will be phased in

AISD will begin welcoming students back to campus on Oct. 6, and two weeks prior to that date parents will be asked to select if they would like their students to learn on campus or to continue with remote classes, according to the district.

However, not all students who choose in-person instruction may have a spot on campus initially. Elizalde said the district would expand campus capacities in phases based on health conditions at that time. If the number of in-person requests surpasses a school’s capacity, the district will have to make decisions on who will be allowed to return.

“We're going to have to create a prioritization, which isn't going to make people happy, but there are no other options except to prioritize if you're really talking about equity,” she said. “Students with special needs would have to have priority, then I think you have to look at students that have challenges economically.”

How teachers will be delivering instruction

During September, teachers will be providing instruction 100% virtually, and while the district is encouraging staff to teach online lessons from their classrooms, they will not be mandated to return to campus at that time.

Teachers who are at a higher health risk will be given support to work from home. Those who are not at as high a risk, however, will be asked to return to campus when in-person learning begins in October, Elizalde said.

“When we bring back students I would be expecting the majority of our teachers to be in our buildings. It's a challenge because we do serve children, and we did sign up to serve them,” she said. “Overwhelmingly teachers want to be with their kids and they want to do it in a safe way, so we're going to do everything we can to have that happen.”

When students come back to campus in October, teachers will still be leading lessons remotely, but some students will be in the classroom with the teacher during the lesson. Those students will continue to submit assignments and follow lessons through their devices.

“Whether you're physically in the classroom or whether you're at home, the lessons will be the same,” she said. “I don't want kids who are face-to-face to have advantages over kids that are in a virtual setting.”

Although teachers and the district currently have a gameplan, Elizalde said the district is prepared to pivot as needed this year.

“I don't want to be one of those individuals who thinks, this was the plan, it's failing, but too bad, we're sticking to it right,” she said. “I'd rather get criticized for changing it if it means I'm meeting the needs of our customers of our clients.”