Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde will be submitting a waiver to the Texas Education Agency that will allow the district to follow its planned phased-in of in-person teaching through the month of October.
The announcement comes hours after AISD teachers, parents and union representatives held a news conference asking the superintendent to submit the waiver. However, while Education Austin—the district's employees union—is also requesting the district push back in-person learning until the end of the fall semester, Elizalde said students who choose the in-person option will still return to campuses Oct. 5, as will district teachers.
"The waiver is necessary for our district to implement a phased-in approach as recommended by Austin Public Health so as to allow only students who choose to return (up to 25% of the campus capacity in two-week increments)," Elizalde wrote in a post to the district's website. "The waiver in no way allows for a continuation of a 100% virtual setting."
According to the district, AISD will open campuses at 25% capacity for those students who sign up to return on Oct. 5. Campuses are expected to expand to 50% capacity on Oct. 19.
"Please keep in mind that on October 5, the decision for students to return to face-to-face instruction will remain with parents. We will continue to provide instruction virtually for students who remain at home," the post read.
Elizalde told Community Impact Newspaper earlier this month that she expects teachers to return to campuses to teach when they reopen.
"I have been communicating with Austin-Travis County Interim Medical Director and Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott. He has affirmed the decision to open at 25 percent as an appropriate first step to opening for in-person learning," she said in the post. "I’ve also communicated with our neighboring districts who have already been open for in-person instruction and they have not experienced increased reporting in COVID-19 positive cases."
Original post: Sept. 16, 6:12 p.m.
With virtual learning in full swing since Sept. 8, Austin ISD is scheduled to begin welcoming students back to campuses Oct. 5. District teachers, however, are asking the district to consider pushing that date back at least an additional four weeks to allow for safer campus conditions for staff and students.
AISD trustees back in August approved a Texas Education Agency waiver, which teachers union Education Austin says could allow the district to extend virtual learning into November without offering in-person instruction as the coronavirus pandemic continues. However, at a board meeting Sept. 14, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said she does not plan on submitting that waiver.
Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said at a news conference Sept. 16 that the teacher’s union is disappointed in Elizalde’s decision. He said the TEA waiver would increase flexibility for the district as it approaches Oct. 5 and would give the district a way to continue educating in the safest way: virtually.
Education Austin—the union that represents over 3,000 AISD staff members—has been calling for AISD to not offer any in-person instruction through the end of the fall semester. Zarifis said the best way to keep teachers and students safe during the pandemic is by keeping them home.
“Our teachers and school employees are very nervous about coming back to a physical space, and rightfully so” he told Community Impact Newspaper last week. “We know that where there are more people gathering, there's more likelihood of COVID-19 spreading.”
Zarifis also asked the district to put out a concrete plan to safely return that is communicated to and followed by all campuses and staff. During the past month, he said educators received differing communications from the district and from their own principals, leading to confusion about expectations and procedures.
“Without [a plan], we feel that we're heading into a nightmare and that people are going to get sick and potentially die. We just can't allow that to happen,” Zarifis said at the news conference.
A look at in-person learning
Ahead of Oct. 5, AISD parents will be asked to select if they would like their students to learn on campus or continue learning from home. Under the district’s current plan, those who select in-person learning will be able to return to campus. However, lessons will still be taught exclusively though the virtual platform, and students will continue to participate online, even from the classroom.
In elementary schools, teachers will have some students in their rooms but will be teaching lessons online.
At the secondary school level, classrooms will act as a homeroom. Teachers will continue to conduct lessons through the virtual platform while a group of students who may not be enrolled in the class will simultaneously be plugged into their devices, participating in the lessons for their classes individually.
Elizalde said Sept. 14 that secondary students at most campuses would also be given a block schedule, which would assign students opting for in-person instruction two to three designated on-campus days each week, while other days would be spent learning from home.
“Is there a benefit in having students be in the building if they're essentially doing the same virtual, remote work they would be doing from home?” AISD teacher Cuitlahuac Guerro-Mojarro asked Sept. 16.
When AISD delayed the start of school until Sept. 8, Guerro-Mojarro said he believes the district would learn from other districts who were starting prior. The results are clear, he said, showing an increase in COVID-19 cases in both students and teachers at those districts.
On Sept. 15, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said that children ages 10-19 now present the highest positivity rates for COVID-19 in the county. Just under 14% of individuals tested over the past week in that age range have tested positive, accounting for an overall increase in Travis County's positive cases since Sept. 3.
High school-age children present the highest positivity rate, Escott said, with 14% of the last week's 235 tests coming back positive, nearly triple the general population's 4.8% positivity rate. College-age individuals tested at around 9.4%. Middle and elementary school-age children tested at 5.6% and 1.5%, respectively.
“Opening up at 25% capacity is not going to be normal,” Guerro-Mojarro said. “The instruction is not going to be normal, and then the question lies, is it worth the risk? Because the only thing that is assured is that cases will go up.”