Educators in the Austin school district are calling on leaders at both the state and local level to keep classes online for the first part of the fall semester, saying the risk of resuming any in-person activity is too great given the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We recognize there are no good options — they are all lousy options. But we have to pick the least lousy of those options,” said Ken Zarifis, president of the district employees union, Education Austin. “And we think a simple system of across-the-board online will be the easiest way to keep all people safe.”
Zarifis and other union members on Wednesday responded to Texas Education Agency guidelines, released a day earlier, that said in-person classes will be held daily but gave parents the option of sending their children to school or have them learn remotely.
Educators in Austin said this model poses a risk of virus exposure for teachers who will still be required to enter buildings.
“We don’t want someone dead. We don’t want someone sick. We can only teach people when they’re alive,” Zarifis said. “It seems simple to us that we wouldn’t put people in harm’s way.”
Zarifis called on TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, Gov. Greg Abbott and Austin school district Superintendent Paul Cruz to take action.
“Please, we are begging you — do not open our schools on August 18,” he said.
Cases of the coronavirus have been climbing in Austin and around Texas over the past few weeks, prompting state and local officials to reinstate restrictions on social gatherings and requiring masks in public places. This week, Travis County leaders said they were preparing the Austin Convention Center as an emergency overflow site for hospitals that are handling high numbers of coronavirus patients.
Under the circumstances, Zarifis said, the Austin school district needs to keep classes online for at least the first nine weeks of the semester, at which point leaders can reexamine the public health situation and decide if it is safe to return to classrooms.
If the district does not move classes entirely online, Education Austin is encouraging teachers to stay away and instead teach only online until it is safe.
“We’re not going to go into a building to risk our lives,” Zarifis said. “We’re going to teach from home, and as the commissioner has said, we will provide quality online instruction.”
“So let’s do that and instruct in the safest way,” he added.
The American-Statesman asked officials at the Austin school district about the teachers’ concerns for their own safety and the safety of their students. A spokeswoman said the district will continue to look to federal, state and local authorities for guidance and directives.
“We’ve heard from our families and understand that they want the ability to choose which educational model will work best for their unique situation,” spokeswoman Christina Nguyen said in an email. “As we prepare for the new school year we’re planning for both on-campus and at-home learning. In doing this, we’ll keep developing and implementing efforts to keep our staff and students safe.”
The Texas Education Agency is requiring all districts to offer an in-person option, Nguyen said, so the decision to move classes online would be up to state officials.
Many teachers Wednesday expressed doubts about the ability to enforce social distancing guidelines laid out by the agency.
Eleanor Harris, a teacher at Eastside High School, said it’s hard to have students keep social distance, let alone have them keep their hands to themselves, wash their hands and practice other safety protocols. In some cases, such as with special education, teachers have to put hands on kids for their own safety, which would be difficult to do while maintaining social distancing, she said.
“Their ability to maintain social distance, to maintain hand washing, it’s very difficult,” Harris said.
Carmela Valdez, a kindergarten teacher at Perez Elementary, also expressed doubts about the ability to keep kids and teachers safe.
“If you think it’s hard to keep a mask on a middle schooler, try putting it on a 5-year old,” Valdez said. “Working in early childhood education, I’ve taken home germs many, many times, not because anyone is trying to get me sick, it’s just sort of part of the job. And it’s really challenging for students to stay in their own space. I mean, they’re 5.”
The guidelines set forth by the state agency and school district are completely unrealistic, said Emily Sharin, a teaching assistant at Patton Elementary.
“I have three children of my own enrolled in AISD … and there’s nothing more that I’d like than to be able to send them to school,” Sharin said. “But I can tell you that from working on the inside and seeing how the district has been handling this, there’s absolutely no way that I would send the three of them back to school right now.”
“The guidelines that are set forth are completely unrealistic,” Sharin added. “And that’s what I would like families to know that I think that the district is selling us this false narrative that we will in fact be able to enforce these policies when that is absolutely not true.”
Other educators said they’ve lost friends to the coronavirus and don’t want to lose more. Some were worried about things like how lunch will be handled or how school supplies will be shared. Some said teachers have begun buying things for their classrooms out of their own pockets to keep students’ things separated.
Although screening may be available outside schools, there’s concern about spreading the virus on buses.
“I miss my kids, I want to go back, but I want to go back when it’s safe,” Valdez said.
Heather Merritt, a special education teacher, said she doesn’t believe it’s safe to return to in-person instruction, but said she implores parents to begin reinforcing social distancing practices at home now so it will be easier to do at school.
“If we are going to bring our kids back into the school buildings, I am begging the public to start training our kids now, start enforcing the rules, don’t make us be the ones that have to enforce all these things,” she said. “I just don’t see how we’re going to do that and teach.”
(c)2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.