School districts split on when to return students to the classroom amid pandemic concerns

(Photo courtesy Adobe Stock)
(Photo courtesy Adobe Stock)

(Photo courtesy Adobe Stock)

After spring semesters finished with empty classrooms and graduation ceremonies were held in car parades, some local school districts returned to learning in mid-August and began the 2020-21 school year completely virtually.

Pflugerville ISD returned to online classes Aug. 13, with neighboring Round Rock ISD following suit a week later.

Austin ISD, meanwhile, voted to delay the onset of its school year until early September.

Regardless of when school districts officially begin the academic school year, the Texas Education Agency has allowed for up to two months of online-only education to begin the year. In a July 17 statement, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath outlined that school districts may offer online-only classes for the first four weeks of the school year with the option to apply for a waiver to adopt an additional four-week transitional window.


According to the state agency, students who lack internet access at home or access to internet-enabled devices and therefore cannot participate in remote learning will still be entitled to on-campus instruction every day during the transition period.



Trustees in AISD, PfISD and RRISD all have voted to grant their respective superintendents the authority to apply for that waiver.

When AISD trustees voted Aug. 7 to delay the start of the school year, Director of Elementary Schools Monica Gonzalez said the action will allow time for local health conditions to improve.

Across the nation, data suggests coronavirus cases in children have sharply increased ahead of the return of the 2020-21 academic school year. States such as Florida and Georgia have already reopened public classrooms to children for in-person instruction.

From July 9-Aug. 6, 179,990 new COVID-19 cases were reported in children nationwide—an increase of 90% over four weeks—according to a report compiled by The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.



AUSTIN ISD



After AISD trustees in early August voted to delay the beginning of the school year to Sept. 8, students may not fully return to classrooms until early November.

According to the new calendar, the final day of the school year will be June 3, 2021; the school day would be lengthened by 10-11 minutes; and holidays as outlined in the previous calendar will be unchanged.


The school district approved the TEA waiver that allows the district up to eight weeks of virtual-only education. AISD will use the extra weeks to distribute technology to students who have not yet received devices for learning, Gonzalez said Aug. 7.

Outgoing AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said the district intends to use the transition period to slowly readmit students to in-person instruction.

Per state law, students without access to technology may request on-campus amenities, Gonzalez said.

First day of school: Sept. 8

Possible early November return to campus

Devices distributed: 43,000 chromebooks; 24,000 iPads

Hot spots distributed: 10,000

For additional information, visit www.austinisd.org.



PFLUGERVILLE ISD



The 2020-21 PfISD school year began virtually-only on Aug. 13.

Superintendent Douglas Killian said at an Aug. 20 board of trustees meeting that he would submit PfISD’s application for the transitional period waiver to the TEA.

If the waiver is approved, PfISD’s in-person start date would be pushed back from Sept. 8 until Sept. 11. Killian said the waiver authorizes four full weeks of virtual learning from the official start of the school year, which would expire Sept. 10.

According to PfISD’s “Return to Learn” plans, the district’s high school students will receive at least 90 minutes of synchronous instruction per class per week to begin the school year. Synchronous instruction is teaching done live and face-to-face online, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The minimum amount of synchronous learning each student receives per week varies by grade level, according to district documents. For example, kindergarten students will get approximately four hours of face-to-face instruction every week, while middle school students will get a minimum of 10 hours of synchronous instruction.

PfISD’s website states on-campus learning is available to all students who are unable to utilize remote learning tools.

First day of school: Aug. 13

Tentative return to on-campus learning may begin Sept. 11

Technology devices distributed as of Aug. 20: 15,000

For additional information, visit www.pfisd.net/fall2020.



ROUND ROCK ISD



Students at RRISD returned to class in a fully virtual environment Aug. 20. Trustees on Aug. 13 approved a plan in which students could return to select campuses as early as Sept. 10.

A recent survey collected by the district, however, found that most families will elect to continue virtual learning if given the opportunity.

As of Aug. 6, the district had received 52,106 responses to its Parent Choice Survey. From this, approximately 69% of students are expected to continue to learn from home, and 31% are expected to return to campus in September.

RRISD has published materials outlining safety measures for staff and students returning to campus, including mask mandates and visitor restrictions.

According to the district’s plans, students will have movement within the buildings restricted “to the maximum extent possible” to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during periods of local high disease activity.

First day of school: Aug. 20

Tentative return to some on-campus learning begins Sept. 10

Requests for devices as of Aug. 12: 10,217

Requests for hot spots as of Aug. 12: 3,011

For additional information, visit www.roundrockisd.org/reimaginingeducation.

Additional reporting by Taylor Jackson Buchanan, Nicholas Cicale and Kelsey Thompson



By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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