One day after the Texas Education Agency released guidelines that require school districts to offer in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year, Education Austin has demanded that Austin ISD keep classes online for at least the first nine weeks this fall to avoid health concerns regarding to ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We are all aware of the COVID-19 pandemic and the risks our schools, our teachers, our families are facing,” said Ken Zarifis, the president of the Education Austin teacher’s union. “We have heard too much from the [TEA] commissioner and the governor that would lead us down the wrong path. We believe they do not have the best interest of employees, workers and families in mind when they make decisions that seem to be more guided by fiscal realities than human realities.”

Zarifis said the union is encouraging teachers not to return to campus to teach when school in AISD starts Aug. 18 and is demanding that the district offer only online instruction over at least the first nine weeks of the year. The union also asked the district to provide weekly assessments about the state of the pandemic locally and to engage with teachers and the community about reopening using “sound, medical decisions,” he said.

Last week, AISD release preliminary plans for the school year, which includes options for parents to choose either 100% in-person or 100% online instruction for students. That aspect of the plan aligns with TEA guidelines requiring districts to provide daily on-campus attendance for students while also offering parents a chance to enroll students in virtual teaching instead.

“Our stance is that if the TEA says we’re going to do quality instruction online, then in-person is inappropriate because it will risk the health of our students, employees and teachers,” he said. “We must stay home. We will encourage teachers to stay home, stay online and teach.”

Karen Reyes, an early childhood and special education teacher in Austin ISD, said during the press conference that teachers would love to be able to return to the classroom and to interact with students, but not until it is a safe environment for everyone.

“All of the conversations [the district’s] having about schools reopening are not happening in person, and that should tell us we’re not ready for that step yet,” she said.

Middle school teacher Eric Ramos said that he does not believe it is realistic to expect students will wear masks for an entire in-person school day, as outlined in the TEA guidelines. Similarly, in-person instruction creates staffing, facility and transportation concerns, he said.

“We’ve seen the guidelines TEA put out recently, and while they look good in theory, our school are not equipped to follow a lot of these,” he said. “These guidelines tell us that teachers are expendable and not a resource [the state] cares about.”

If individuals are required to work on campus, Zarifis said the union will be asking AISD to give hero pay to those front-line workers. Similarly, if schools are kept closed, he said AISD should fulfill its obligations to pay staff, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers, whose services may not be needed for the year.