School reopening debate divides nation, state

TEA guarantee of in-person learning elicits strong opposition

Education+Austin+president+Ken+Zarifis%2C+shown+here+speaking+during+the+AISD+budget+stabilization+task+force+meeting+on+Nov.+7%2C+2018%2C+demanded+on+Wednesday+that+TEA+and+Austin+ISD+offer+wholly+online+classes+at+least+for+the+first+nine+weeks+of+the+2020-2021+school+year.+%E2%80%9CWe+have+heard+too+much+from+the+commissioner+%5Band%5D+from+the+governor+that+would+lead+us+down+the+wrong+path%2C%E2%80%9D+Zarifis+said.+%E2%80%9CWe+believe+that+they+do+not+have+the+interests+of+workers%2C+of+students+and+their+families+in+mind+as+they+make+the+decisions+that+seem+to+be+more+guided+by+fiscal+realities+than+human+realities.%E2%80%9D+Photo+by+Bella+Russo.

Bella Russo.

Education Austin president Ken Zarifis, shown here speaking during the AISD budget stabilization task force meeting on Nov. 7, 2018, demanded on Wednesday that TEA and Austin ISD offer wholly online classes at least for the first nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year. “We have heard too much from the commissioner [and] from the governor that would lead us down the wrong path,” Zarifis said. “We believe that they do not have the interests of workers, of students and their families in mind as they make the decisions that seem to be more guided by fiscal realities than human realities.” Photo by Bella Russo.

By Samantha Powers, McCallum High School

Over the past few weeks, President Trump and Education Secretary Devos have been pressuring schools across the country to reopen for in-person learning. The Trump administration even threatened to revoke federal funding from public schools that do not reopen in the fall. In a tweet posted on July 10, Trump attacked the effectiveness of virtual learning and threatened to revoke funding from schools that do not return in person.

On July 8, the highest ranking Trump administration health and education officials pushed for schools to ‘fully open’ in the fall.

“Now that we have witnessed it on a large-scale basis, and firsthand, virtual learning has proven to be terrible compared to in school, or on campus, learning,” Trump said. “Not even close! Schools must be open in the fall. If not open, why would the federal government give funding? It won’t!”

Schools across the country are grappling with pressure from the federal government as well as the pressure of protecting the lives of students, staff and their families. The Texas Education Agency recently released guidelines for the 2020-2021 school year. The guidelines indicate that in-person instruction will be available to anyone who wants it, with an option to virtually attend from home. Austin ISD followed suit with options to learn 100% in-person or 100% online, which AISD Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz announced in a Facebook live with Mayor Steve Adler. Cruz indicated that social distancing guidelines will be followed at school, with smaller class sizes and the use of heavy sanitation practices and masks.

CNN’s Dana Bash speaks to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on July 12 about the reopening of schools in the fall as COVID-19 cases surge across the United States. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics supported the Trump administration’s push to reopen schools quickly, but recently changed its stance in a joint statement with teacher unions and superintendents.

“Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adopt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible,” the statement reads. “For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.  A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”

As much as I want to go to school for my last year of high school, I also want to know that my safety, as well as others and our families, are in good hands.”

— senior Ari Miller-Fortman

In Travis County, new coronavirus cases per day stayed under 100 up until June 8, according to Austin Public Health. After that point, new cases per day continued to rise from 118 on June 8 to 753 on July 8. Travis County has now seen 15,445 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. In light of the recent spike of new COVID-19 cases in Travis County, the decision by AISD to return to school is receiving significant backlash from students and staff.

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McCallum senior Ari Miller-Fortman objects to a return to school in the fall. She blames Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of the state for the recent spike in cases and cautions against returning to in-person instruction in the fall.

Schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”

— American Academy of Pediatrics

“I feel that with the reopening [of the state] and now the reopening of schools, cases will spike again in the fall,” Miller-Fortman said. “McCallum is an especially small school, so how are we supposed to fit a thousand students into classrooms of 6-8 people each? As much as I want to go to school for my last year of high school, I also want to know that my safety, as well as others and our families, are in good hands.”

Senior Ellie Sullivan also worries about another case spike in the fall if students return to school in person. She also takes an issue with the planning process AISD has taken thus far.

“Even if students follow all instructions and every single regulation is met, they will still be putting others at risk,” Sullivan said. “The virus isn’t gone therefore the threat isn’t gone. My biggest concerns are with [how] they plan lunches, using the restroom, and classroom situations will be handled. There hasn’t been enough planning.”

McCallum English department chair Diana Adamson fears for her own safety becoming in danger if she were to return to school. Adamson supports the idea of a waiting period for cases to go down before in-person school starts up again.

English department chair Diana Adamson said she’s is afraid of contracting COVID-19 and that anyone on campus is in danger of contracting it during the current spike in cases. “I would be willing to return to school if there were a 14-day trend with zero cases of COVID and that we have a hybrid plan where we have a few students in the schools at a time and have a really strong robust distance learning program that would allow for us to gradually reenter regular classes.” Photo by Janssen Transier. (Janssen Transier)

“In returning to school, the biggest concerns are obviously contracting COVID,” Adamson said. “This is a danger for all involved who would be in the school building. Everyone from students to custodians. I would be willing to return to school if there were a 14-day trend with 0 cases of COVID and that we have a hybrid plan where we have a few students in the schools at a time and have a really strong robust distance learning program that would allow for us to gradually reenter regular classes.”

A group of Texas teachers is organizing a rally for a safe return to school outside the Texas capitol. The march will take place on July 18 and rally-goers will protest Gov. Abbott’s and the Texas Education Agency’s school reopening plan.

“We are giving names and faces to the word teacher,” the Facebook event description reads. “We are people with needs and concerns. We are desperate to return to school, but it must be safe for our children, our families, our educators and all school personnel in Texas.”

An AISD employee union, Education Austin, also came out in opposition to the TEA plan to reopen schools with in-person instruction.

Education Austin released a petition to hold a 9-week waiting period in hopes that cases will go down before AISD returns to in-person learning. The union also hosted a zoom press conference on July 8 in which members of Education Austin had the opportunity to speak. President Ken Zarifis weighed in with their demands.

What Education Austin is demanding is that we do not open schools in AISD, the Austin Independent School District, for 9 weeks. … We want to see not just a week of decrease, but trends of decrease before we even consider coming back.”

— Ken Zarifis, Education Austin president

“What Education Austin is demanding is that we do not open schools in AISD for 9 weeks,” Zarifis said. “Every week from here to that 9-week break of the school year, we have weekly updates on the current trends of COVID. We want to see not just a week of decrease, but trends of decrease before we even consider coming back.”

Zarifis also criticized Gov. Greg Abbot and Commissioner of Education Mike Morath for their approach to handling the pandemic.

“We have heard too much from the commissioner [and] from the governor that would lead us down the wrong path,” Zarifis said. “We believe that they do not have the interests of workers, of students and their families in mind as they make the decisions that seem to be more guided by fiscal realities than human realities.”

On July 8, Education Austin held a press conference where the AISD teachers union expressed and explained its rejection of the Texas Education Agency’s plan to guarantee in-person education for Texas students to start the school year.

While a delay for the reopening of school is just a thought in the minds of this AISD employee union, many school districts across the country brought this vision to life. In California, Los Angeles and San Diego counties are two of many that plan to delay a return to school in the fall due to a spike in COVID-19 cases that would endanger students and staff. These school districts are the largest in the country so far to delay their plans for an in-person return to school.

According to a plan released on July 10, Atlanta public schools will be doing at least the first 9 weeks of school virtually, and they will only return once the spread of the coronavirus has gone down. Coincidentally, this 9-week waiting period is exactly what Education Austin is demanding of Austin ISD.

AISD Board President Geronimo Rodriguez and outgoing superintendent Paul Cruz sought to reassure stakeholders that safety was the district’s No. 1 priority while asserting that the district plans to offer both in-person and virtual options for all of their students and families. Video originally published to the Austin ISD YouTube channel.

Closer to home, Round Rock ISD Superintendent Dr. Steve Flores announced that the first 3 weeks of school will take place virtually. Flores hopes that this waiting period will allow for the health risk to go down and the schools to become more prepared to welcome students to their campuses.

Houston ISD is continuing with its plan to return to school in-person, but many teachers are feeling hesitation as to whether they will return to school at all. Many teachers have spoken out about concerns for their health and safety, and a survey by the Association of Texas Professional Educators indicated that out of 4,200 or so teachers surveyed, 60% are concerned for their health and safety at the prospect of a return to school right away. According to a poll by USA Today, as many as 1 in 5 U.S. educators say they are unlikely to return to school because of COVID-19.

The number of new COVID-19 cases per day in the United States from March to the present day. Source: DOMO.

Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott backed up these teachers’ fears today when he told KXAN News that a return to school before a vaccine is available and schools have time to prepare to host students and staff on campus would endanger the lives of students and staff alike.

“Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of students could be infected over the course of this disease,” Escott told KXAN, “which in that .03% to 1.02%, for Travis County, would equate to between 40 and 1,370 deaths in that age group… Obviously when we move on to faculty and staff, that risk is much higher. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 10 times higher in terms of rates of death.”

The TEA guidelines for the upcoming school year make it clear that the state will not mandate any sort of delay for Texas schools, and it’s up to individual school districts to take charge of this matter. In a similar way, Gov. Abbott told Texas state lawmakers that the state will not mandate masks or testing for COVID-19 in schools. With this hands-off approach to health and safety, many wonder if their own health will be at the hands of the school district.

McCallum teacher and Education Austin campus rep Robert Bucher oversees his class during social and emotional learning STIR sessions on Jan. 24. “If they wanted us to go back to school in the fall as if nothing was wrong,” he said, “then maybe we should have implemented strict mask and social distancing guidelines in March.” Photo by Dave Winter.

Robert Bucher is a McCallum teacher and the McCallum representative for Education Austin. Bucher has a lot of questions about the justification of returning to school and endangering the lives of teachers and students alike.

“What is an ‘acceptable’ death rate for teachers who return to the classroom (because some will most certainly be hospitalized and perish from classroom initiated COVID-19 transmission)?” Bucher said. “Is the possibility of long term health damage to our youth an ‘acceptable’ risk for returning to the classroom? … I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that they need to be discussed in a democratic forum by citizens and elected officials who have our best interests in mind, and not the interests of corporate entities or political sycophants… If they wanted us to go back to school in the fall as if nothing was wrong, then maybe we should have implemented strict mask and social distancing guidelines in March.”

Even if students follow all instructions and every single regulation is met, they will still be putting others at risk,” Sullivan said. “The virus isn’t gone therefore the threat isn’t gone.”

— senior Ellie Sullivan

AISD currently plans to offer a 100% in-person learning option and a 100% virtual learning option. AISD officials stated in a video posted to the Austin ISD YouTube channel on July 11 that a survey will be released on August 3 or 4 which will allow students and their families to choose between the two options. Until then, organizations like Education Austin will continue to protest the current format for reopening Austin schools in the fall and all eyes will be on the COVID-19 case count and the decisions of local, state and federal leaders alike.

–with reporting from Ellen Fox

This story was originally published on The Shield Online on July 14, 2020.