Pflugerville ISD outlines plan for phased return to in-person learning

Beginning Sept. 14, the phased approach would allow up to 25% student capacity on school campuses for students who opted into in-person learning or require technology access. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Beginning Sept. 14, the phased approach would allow up to 25% student capacity on school campuses for students who opted into in-person learning or require technology access. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Beginning Sept. 14, the phased approach would allow up to 25% student capacity on school campuses for students who opted into in-person learning or require technology access. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

As Pflugerville ISD wrapped up the first two weeks of the fall semester, district leaders have outlined a phased approach to its return to on-campus instruction.

Brandy Baker, PfISD's chief academic and innovation officer, presented a proposed timeline to the board of trustees Aug. 27, denoting key dates from Aug. 13 to Oct. 13.

PfISD will operate off a COVID Oriented Protective Posture system. There are six COPP levels included, with Level 5 outlining full virtual instruction and Level 0 reserved for standard operations, akin to precoronavirus measures.

The plan

Phase 1

This is PfISD's first four weeks of the academic calendar, from Aug. 13-Sept. 10. The district's initial plan for three weeks of 100% virtual learning was extended to four weeks following an allowance by the Texas Education Agency. Austin Public Health also issued an order that prevented in-person instruction though Sept. 8.

During Phase 1, PfISD will remain 100% online for 20 academic calendar days before transitioning to Phase 2, which was initially expected to begin Sept. 11. However, the board approved a calendar adjustment that would take a March 12 professional learning and planning day and reschedule it to Sept. 11.

Students who opted for an in-person curriculum are now expected to resume on-campus instruction Sept. 14.

Phase 2

This phase would begin Sept. 14 as a four-week transition to on-campus learning, as presented by district leadership Aug. 27. The second phase would run through Oct. 8.

During the second transition phase, some in-person teaching will be provided each day, with specific accommodations required for those who lack internet access or necessary technology devices.

From Sept. 14-25, Baker proposed limiting student capacity to 25%. District leaders would then reassess the current public safety and health conditions Sept. 28-Oct. 2 before making a decision to increase, decease or maintain capacity levels.

Should the district alter student capacity from that initial 25% threshold, parents and staff must be notified, and PfISD will maintain the new capacity limit until the end of Phase 2.

Austin Public Health has categorized Travis County as Stage 3 on APH's coronavirus risk-based guidelines. Stage 3 continually denotes the need for social distancing and face covering requirements, as well as recommending limitations on social gatherings and crowd sizes.

Per PfISD, APH recommends on-campus instruction be limited to no more than 25% capacity, despite current staging levels technically permitting 50% capacity in schools. PfISD leaders said in-person learning would begin at or below 25%.

During Phase 2, virtual learning will continue for all pre-K-12 families who opted for a virtual learning curriculum.

Determining capacity

PfISD has defined its capacity as 25% building functional capacity. Under this capacity, temporary spaces such as portables are not accounted for, instead focusing on core classroom capacity of the buildings.

Percentage restriction capacity also applies to students only and does not restrict the number of staff in the building. As confirmed by district officials, it is possible for 100% of staff to remain in a campus setting, even with a 25% capacity restriction on students.

Some PfISD campuses—including Kelly Lane Middle School and Brookhollow Elementary School—had more than 25% of district families opt into in-person learning. In those cases, PfISD will utilize a weighted point system to prioritize students based on their academic needs.

Examples of increased student prioritization include those enrolled in pre-K through fifth grade, students enrolled in special education, students with disabilities and students from lower-income backgrounds.

On-campus assignments

Regarding on-campus assignments, PfISD officials said it will strive to limit classroom sizes to 10-14 students, as well as minimizing teacher assignment changes. District leaders added they will work to reduce the number of teachers covering both in-person and online classes "to the greatest extent possible."

Public feedback

PfISD's Aug. 27 board meeting began with nearly two hours of public comment from approximately 60 speakers. Commenters ranged from parents and students to current and former district staff and teachers.

Parent Amanda Lewis said Travis County has more than established a flattened curve and advocated for students returning to campus. She added while children are not dying from the coronavirus, adverse side effects of quarantine and virtual learning can pose dangers to their mental and emotional health.

Brandon Marks spoke in favor of a phased approach and requested the district approach a two- to three-day limit to in-person instruction with the remainder of the week virtual. He said a split, phased option would allow teachers more time to prepare a higher-quality education for students.

PfISD teacher Franchesca Mejia said the district should not pursue the 25% capacity limit and instead provide on-campus instruction to the least amount of students possible—namely, those without internet access. She condemned last-minute decisions and changes being made, adding they have caused more confusion than relief for district staff and parents alike.

“Do your best to keep as many students in distance learning as possible," Mejia said.

Resident Wendy Young said she is concerned by PfISD's insistence to reopen schools when Pflugerville and Travis County are still working to lower seven-day averages for infection rates and hospitalizations. Young said the difficulties of the pandemic will only be compounded by the reopening of schools.

Board reactions

Following the presentation, several trustees requested additional clarity on capacity limitations and safety protocols.

Trustee Mary Kimmins asked how singleton teachers—teachers who are the only staff members covering a subject for an entire campus—will navigate potential accommodation requests for remote learning. She requested classes taught by singleton teachers have the option of being virtual only, if needed.

Trustee Larry Bradley said each phase of the plan needs a cease-and-desist clause in case external circumstances necessitate a pause on in-person learning. Bradley also said the district committed to staying virtual last spring if Travis County did not drop below Stage 3.

"[Returning to campus] is not worth the exposure," Bradley said. "Our younger kids ... basically quarantined for the last six to seven months, so they haven't been exposed. We have no data, sound data, on what the exposure rate is going to be."

Trustee Rob Reyes said he felt the district's return plan gives "the greatest flexibility" to react to changes taking place. Reyes added he has faith in district leadership to reduce class sizes as much as possible.

Board President Vernagene Mott said resuming on-campus instruction is a step-by-step process that requires patience, flexibility and communication moving forward.

Trustee Renae Mitchell noted there is a lot of fear and anxiety by parents, teachers and staff on both sides of the issue and said the district needs to work to alleviate those fears with concrete communication and safety measures.
By Kelsey Thompson
Kelsey Thompson is the reporter for Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto, where her work focuses on education, city government and community development. Originally from Upstate New York, Kelsey relocated to Austin after graduating from Syracuse University in May 2019.


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