Saturday, October 03, 2020

850 Austin district teachers pledge not to return to school buildings on Monday

Not only should the will and preference of 850 AISD teachers matter for re-opening policy, but we need look no further than the catastrophe that is unfolding before our very eyes at the White House to give us all pause about any form of school re-opening plan. And it all took place in what should have been the safest place in America to be...

-Angela Valenzuela

850 Austin district teachers pledge not to return to school buildings on Monday

October 1, 2020

About 850 Austin district teachers have pledged not to return to their campuses Monday when school buildings reopen for learning.

Concerned about the threat of the coronavirus to both their students and themselves, the educators said they remain committed to teaching their students, but will do so only in a virtual setting.

Of the 925 teachers who requested medical waivers and accommodations to work remotely, 66% had been approved so far, one was denied and the rest are still pending or have been marked inactive, according to district information released Thursday.

In total, 44% of the 1,485 staff members have received accommodations, according to information provided earlier this week.

District leaders said they are approving accommodations for those who medically are at high risk from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and have submitted medical documentation. However, such accommodations have not been extended to educators who have high-risk family members, leaving some teachers to refuse to return in person and others to quit.

"I will not return on Monday nor do I plan to under any circumstances,” said Patrick Stinson, who teaches chemistry and integrated physics and chemistry at Northeast Early College High School. The district two weeks ago denied his request for accommodations, which he sought because his wife has a chronic heart condition. Stinson said he might lose his teaching position with his stance, but he said he is unwilling to expose his wife to risk by being in the classroom setting, where teachers already are exposed to a variety of germs, as school-age children often are carriers.

“Lots of us can’t afford to make this choice and have to do the wrong thing in order to eat,” he said.

Kiker Elementary librarian Sonya Butler notified campus families she’s leaving her position.

“I do not qualify for the accommodations or family leave and due to family situations and health, I am not returning to face to face learning,” she wrote in a letter to the school community. “I am truly heartbroken to leave a job I love so much and people I care about so deeply. However my family must come first and there, since I cannot work remotely, I must resign.”

Safe to return?

The Texas Education Agency requires districts to reopen campuses to students who wish to learn in person, or the schools risk losing state education funding. The agency has allowed districts to delay their start dates, as Austin did, and gradually add students back to campuses within eight weeks of launching. Most Central Texas school districts already have reopened schools. The Austin school district reopens Monday at 25% capacity to its first set of children, including those with special needs, prekindergarten, kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades and to children of staff. Plans call for more students to be added each week thereafter until all who wish to return may do so.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, told Austin school board members Monday night that he believed it is safe to reopen campuses next week. He said he already has sent his own children back to in-person learning and his wife, who is an educator, also has returned to her campus.

Local and national health experts have cautioned not to reopen schools until the area’s positivity rate — the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 among those tested — is less than 5%. Travis County’s positivity rate for three weeks has been under that threshold, though some pockets of Austin, including where high numbers of low-income, Black or Latino families live, have had double or triple those rates.

Escott told board members he’s seen no evidence of coronavirus spread within the classroom setting. He reiterated that the local schools’ cases are almost exclusively attributable to sports and other extracurricular activities, students who have been in congregant settings.

While some classrooms or grade levels could exceed 50%, the majority of district families say they won’t return to the classrooms. Of the 54,300 families who responded to the survey, 57% said they are sticking to virtual learning for their elementary students, while 73% of middle schoolers and 76% of high schoolers plan to remain remote. Among low-income families, 53% of elementary students and 65% of middle school students said they will remain remote, while 68% of high schoolers are choosing virtual instruction.

Calls for change

Education Austin, the district’s largest union, remains in negotiations with district leaders on reopening plans, union President Ken Zarifis said. The pledge among the teachers who won’t return in person is not a strike, he said, because they will continue delivering instruction.

The group held a virtual news conference Thursday and reiterated educators’ concerns, calling again for changes to the reopening plan. The group cites a code of ethics that says educators will not knowingly or recklessly endanger the health of a student. Campus site-specific plans have been fluid, some changing weekly, which some educators say has contributed to the feeling that returning is unsafe.

A caravan of about 150 educators last weekend went to the district’s headquarters and taped to the building signs and messages: “COVID is airborne,” “Put our teachers and students first,” “How is face to face ‘best practices’ during a pandemic?”

District plans continue to call for all staff members without a medical waiver to return to school buildings Monday, but Zarifis said he’s hopeful the district will reexamine its stance and provide more staff members the opportunity to keep working remotely. He said newly hired Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde spoke with a few dozen teachers on Wednesday and with him on Thursday about the reopening plans.

“We are encouraged by the superintendent’s engagement around the issues we feel are important, and the safety and teachers of our students, and how we come back to school,” he said.

Elizalde has acknowledged the concerns among employees, but she has said, “Austin ISD starts with students in its decision-making process.”

Austin district administrators will be present at campuses Monday to help teachers and school staff, she said.

“We feel confident that teachers care about their students and will notify us before Monday if they don’t plan on returning. We have contingency plans in place to make adjustments as necessary,” Elizalde said. “This is why we are opening with a maximum of 25% of our students.”

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