The district’s board of trustees approved an application for a four-week waiver at its July board meeting, with Superintendent Douglas Killian given the opportunity to decide whether to submit the waiver. Killian said Aug. 20 he would submit the waiver, which he is expected to deliver to the Texas Education Agency on Aug. 27.
PfISD began the semester 100% virtually Aug. 13. 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.
Stephanie Guedea is a district staff member and a survivor of COVID-19, having been diagnosed with the coronavirus this summer. The coronavirus is an alarming disease, she said, and one that could prove devastating with in-person learning.
“This virus is very real, and I am very lucky that I did not have more severe symptoms than the loss of taste and smell and a headache,” she said.
Kimberly Carroll, a former PfISD teacher, thanked the board for its approval of the waiver last month but said the final decision should not have been left at the discretion of Killian. She said educators are already witnessing schools across the country having to shut down in-person learning due to premature reopening dates.
“I ask you to please not make the decision on the eleventh hour and do it sooner rather than later,” Carroll said.
Molly Pool serves as a speech pathologist at PfISD and said the district ought to remain in distanced, digital learning for the duration of the first nine-week grading period. She also added that as a teacher in special education, she felt that both she and her students who are enrolled in special education have been neglected in conversations surrounding the fall semester.
“I really hope and trust that everyone in leadership and the school board will do the right thing in keeping things virtual,” Pool said.
Killian said part of the TEA waiver is the requirement of some form of in-person learning offered four weeks into the school year.
Trustee Renae Mitchell addressed public comments surrounding a nine-week virtual learning period and asked Killian how some districts are remaining virtual for that time frame.
“I have no idea where that’s coming from,” Killian said in response.
Killian added district leadership will send out a survey Aug. 21 to gauge public feedback on the use of a waiver, adding that the survey will help ensure the application is not rejected by the TEA for proper public consulting.
As part of the transition plan to optional in-person learning, Austin Public Health has limited capacity to no more than 25% in campus buildings. Killian said the challenge for administrators now is determining how to stay within that 25% threshold, when accounting for students, teachers and staff.
From the teaching side, Killian said staff should anticipate working remotely “for the foreseeable future" and that the district is still working to avoid having one teacher be responsible for both in-person and virtual course teachings.
Trustee Mary Kimmins, addressing the tentative Sept. 11 in-person start date, said she would like to see that date shored up as quickly as possible so teachers can prepare for that formatting pivot. She asked if there was a way to alter that schedule such that teachers would not have to resume in-person classes on a Friday.
“It’s just knowing what’s going on as soon as possible because I would completely be in the same boat as the teachers we heard today,” Kimmins said.
District families were asked to submit their personal preferences for student learning options this fall, choosing between the continuation of virtual learning for the nine-week grading period or the resumption of in-person instruction once that is made available.
Out of total respondents, 13,000 students selected virtual learning, marking 65% of responses collected. Around 7,000 selected in-person coursework once available, accounting for 35% of respondents.
However, Killian said roughly 6,000 families did not select an option, and as such, the district has automatically defaulted them to virtual learning for the first nine weeks. Upon the nine-week mark, Killian said families will be able to request a learning format change if desired.