When the calendar turned to Sept. 8, Austin ISD families headed back to the virtual classroom for the start of the school year as local school districts continued to take precautions to ensure the safety of students and staff due to the coronavirus pandemic.

New AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told Community Impact Newspaper that the district has been nimble this summer in creating back-to-school plans and has pivoted as needed. This included delaying the start of the school year by three weeks to help with preparation.

“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.

During that time, Elizalde said teachers were directed to focus on building relationships with their new students and build relationships with their new students, help students get connected over the first few weeks of class and to ease into offering an online curriculum that will be used through the semester.

However, come Oct. 5, AISD teachers and students will have to transition again, as some students will return to their physical classrooms for the first time since early March.

In-person instruction at a glance

In September, AISD teachers provided instruction 100% virtually.

A typical day is a mix of classes in which students and the teacher are all online at once, along with periods in which students sign off of the virtual conference, working on their own with teachers available online.

Cristina Coro, Crockett High School art teacher, said that when some students return to campus

in October, instruction will not change much.

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

In elementary schools, the district plans to have students who choose the in-person option in the classroom with their teacher. Those students will continue to submit assignments and follow the lessons through their devices in school.

Coro said when students return, she will be teaching from her classroom while a small number of students sit at socially distanced desks. However, the chances a student is in a classroom with a teacher they actually have for instruction is slim, Crockett principal Kori Crawford said.

The classroom will act as a homeroom, while teachers continue to teach lessons through the virtual platform to their students. Students in the classroom will simultaneously be plugged into their devices, participating in their classes individually.

The goal, Crawford said, is to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by cutting down on how much students move around campus.

“I haven’t had any parent push back at all,” Crawford said. “I think they understand that it’s for the safety of our staff and students. Unfortunately, this is the best model we have.”

Parents face tough decisions

For 12 days, from Sept. 10-21 parents were asked in a survey to select if they would like their students to learn on campus or to continue from home.

AISD parent Anya Wiley said she and her husband immediately knew they would keep their two children home even after students are allowed back.

Their daughter, Aniya, 8, is a third-grader at Bryker Woods Elementary School. She has a respiratory issue called reactive airway disease and is at a greater health risk if she were to contract the virus. Their son, Jeremiah, 16, is a junior at Austin High School. Wiley said the risk of him being in the same building with possibly 1,000 other students is too great.

“I want them to go back to the classroom, by all means, but not now. It’s too risky,” Wiley said.

That decision has varied for parents across the district. Based on an AISD survey conducted over the summer, an estimated 32% of parents are interested in sending their children to school once an in-person option is made available.

Individual schools had different results, with some campuses like Crockett High School receiving about 30% interest for on-campus instruction, while close to 60% of Northeast High School parents chose in-person learning.

Not all students who opt into in-person learning may have a spot on campus initially. Elizalde said if the number of in-person requests surpasses a school’s capacity, the district will make decisions on who will be allowed on campus.

“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.”

AISD parent Gloria Vera-Bedolla is going through the balancing act of working from home while her daughter, Daniela, 6, takes virtual classes at Zavala Elementary School. She struggles with the idea of not being there for Daniela.

“It’s unfair to her that I’m busy,” Vera-Bedolla said.

She said the local infection rate in September was still too high for her to feel comfortable sending Daniela back into the classroom. She said her focus is making sure her daughter remains excited about school while also protecting Daniela’s health.

“At the end of the day I need to do what’s best for her. The thing is, I don’t know what the right thing is,” Vera-Bedolla said.

Is October too soon?

As classes remain virtual heading into Oct. 5, AISD is encouraging staff to teach online lessons from their classrooms.

Some, including Coro, have decided to teach from their homes this month. However, Coro said she will return to campus once students are present.

Those teachers who are not at a heightened health risk will be asked to return to campus Oct. 5, Elizalde said.

“When we bring back students, I would be expecting the majority of our teachers to be in our buildings,” 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.”

Under current Texas Education Agency regulations, districts could lose state funding if they do not offer parents the option for in-person classes after the first eight weeks of school. As a result, AISD will begin offering in-person classes in October and will phase more students into the classroom over time.

Despite this, Education Austin—the union that represents over 3,000 AISD staff members—has called for AISD to not offer any in-person instruction this semester. Union President Ken Zarifis said the best way to keep teachers and students safe is by keeping them home.

“Our teachers and staff are very nervous about coming back to a physical space, and rightly so,” Zarifis said. “We know that where there are more people gathering, there’s more likelihood of COVID-19 spreading.”

Carmela Valdez, a kindergarten teacher at Perez Elementary School in Southeast Austin, is one of those concerned teachers. Valdez received a waiver from the district to continue teaching virtually—she is immunocompromised and lives with her sister, 79-year old mother and two nephews.

Valdez said virtual teaching has been a challenge that leaves her more mentally weary than physically tired, but for herself and her fellow teachers, returning to classes in person sets up equally difficult scenarios.

"When I have a tiny person who comes to school crying and doesn't want to leave their parents as they walk through the door—am I not supposed to comfort that kid? Am I supposed to stay six feet away? If I don't, am I going to get sick?"

Other districts in Travis County began allowing students on campuses Sept. 8. Confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported in Eanes and Leander ISDs within the first week of classes. AISD has also had positive COVID-19 results among its staff while instruction was completely virtual.

Zarifis said Education Austin has been happy with how Elizalde has addressed the coronavirus pandemic so far, including delaying the start of school. Zarifis said he hopes the superintendent delays in-person learning further.

“What I’d like to see leadership at districts [across the state] do is say, ‘No, [the TEA is] not going to dictate to us what we do,’” he said.

If students do return as scheduled, Northeast principal Sterlin McGruder said his school will be prepared. Some of his teachers have already returned to campus, and he said they are beginning to feel comfortable with their routine.

Other staff members are still worried about returning. Northeast High’s attendance zone includes the 78753 ZIP code, which as of Sept. 21 had 1,949 cases of COVID-19 reported according to Austin Public Health data, second most in Travis County. That has created some unrest among the staff, McGruder said.

“There’s always a risk of coming back and catching COVID-19,” McGruder said. “What I am able to do is tell teachers and parents that these are some of the things that we have in place for safety.”

At Northeast and through the district, protocols include required masks and health screenings as well as a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone presumed to have contact with someone positive for COVID-19.

McGruder said his biggest concern is that people, historically, have been conditioned to come to class or going to work when they’re sick. With COVID-19, that mentality changed on a dime, but some still have not been able to adjust.

“This is not the time to go to work sick,” he said. “We don’t want to let our teammates down, and we care about our family, so I think that everybody will try to make the best decisions.”