Nearly 8,400, or 11.2%, of Austin ISD students returned to campus for the first day of in-person class Oct. 5, while campus capacities were capped at 25%, and the remainder of AISD's 75,000 student continued to learn virtually from home.

Ken Zarifis, the president of Education Austin, the labor union for AISD employees, said Oct. 2 that more than 1,000 Austin ISD teachers were prepared to stay home when in-person learning began despite district plans that would require most teachers to return to the classroom. However, after a weekend of negotiations between the union and district, an estimated 98% of district teachers reported for work Oct. 5 with 175 calling out sick, according to the district.

At a board meeting Oct. 12, AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde thanked teachers for their continued support in helping students both learn from home and in the classroom. She said by returning to school, teachers are giving students—especially the most vulnerable and youngest learners—a greater opportunity to succeed in the future.

“We know that when schools closed [in March] our students lost, in many instances, academic gains that they had already worked towards during that school year,” Elizalde said. “They cannot afford to lose another year.”

AISD Chief Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley said Oct. 12 that vulnerable learners thrive in “whole spaces” where they see librarians, their counselors and teachers.

“We're finding that many who haven't had direct instruction since March are back in our buildings, and their families [are] extremely grateful,” she said. "With all of the teachers deciding to come back, that means that we've got staff and teachers that can support one another, can do some team teaching and can do some really creative things.”

On Oct. 5, 6,045 students at the elementary level, 1,419 in middle school and 927 in high school returned to campuses. By Oct. 12, the elementary number increased to 9,976 students.

Medical accommodations

Elizalde said AISD granted more work-from-home accommodations to staff who were immunocompromised or at a higher COVID-19 risk than both Houston ISD and Dallas ISD combined, even though the two districts individually have larger enrollments than AISD. As of Oct. 12, 736 AISD teachers had been granted work accommodations as well as 432 nonteacher employees with the district. That is compared to 81 teacher accommodations in HISD and 62 in DISD.

“The fact that we have granted more medical accommodations than some of the biggest districts of the state, I think is noteworthy,” trustee Arati Singh said Oct. 12. “The fact that we started the latest that we possibly could start in person, I think is noteworthy.”

Still, AISD teachers have requested the district expand eligibility to include staff who live with or care for others who are immunocompromised, and Education Austin continues to ask for a voluntary return-to-work option. Elizalde said logistically, the numbers would not have worked for on-campus instruction and they had to prioritize requests.

“I wish I could just say yes, but it would put us in a situation where ... we are already sending central staff to campuses to provide extra support now,” she said. “We would not be able to provide our services to students.”

Changes at the secondary level

Although AISD started in-person learning following a homeroom model—where students stay in one classroom all day to complete their virtual assignments—the district will have to change the format in November due to Texas Education Agency regulations, Elizalde said.

“We have been notified by TEA that this model will not be working in terms of receiving funding,” she said. “ As they frankly put it, how can you say it's in-person instruction when the students are not getting any time with their teachers? So we will need to be looking at modifying that.”

Elizalde said she understands there are concerns about rotating classes, and she will work with teachers to come up with a solution. Block scheduling as currently laid out could be an advantage, allowing fewer class rotations per day. Campuses could also consider making one-way hallways to control foot traffic and better enforce social distancing, she said. Campus capacities will also increase through the end of October and into November as more in-person requests are submitted by families.

“You are not going to get COVID[-19] by passing someone in a hallway. That's not the close contact that's required by definition,” Elizalde said, referencing the guidance from Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin-Travis County interim health authority. “If the teacher is staying in his or her own classroom, then as long as they keep masked and maintain that social distance, they're going to be in a fairly low-risk environment.”

According to the district, there were six new COVID-19 cases during the first week of in-person learning.