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'This Is An Issue Of Health': Teachers Union Demands Austin ISD Offer Only Online Classes In August

Dawson Elementary School closes on Friday, March 13, following the first confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Dawson Elementary School and other AISD buildings closed March 13 after the first cases of the coronavirus were reported in Austin.

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The union for Austin Independent School District employees is asking the district and the state not to send employees back to school buildings in August. Union members say it is unsafe for employees and children to be in classes together.

During an online news conference Wednesday, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said the union is asking AISD to commit to online learning only for the first nine weeks of the semester, while monitoring COVID-19 cases in the city. He also asked that increased pay for employees like cafeteria workers and other support staff continue. 

“We are here to keep our children, teachers and school employees and all of their families safe,” Zarifis said. “This is not an issue of selfishness; this is an issue of health. What’s selfish is a commissioner that requires teachers and workers to return to unsafe environments.”

On Monday, the Texas Education Agency released guidelines for schools to reopen.

“Both as Commissioner and as a public school parent, my number one priority is the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement.

Under the agency's guidelines, parents can choose online or in-person education and can switch platforms throughout the year.

The guidelines include requiring all staff and students to wear masks. Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz has said the district also will require social distancing.

Eric Ramos, a teacher at Martin Middle School, said during Tuesday’s news conference that following these guidelines will be close to impossible.

“We’ve seen the guidelines TEA put out recently and while they’re good in theory, our schools are not equipped to follow a lot of these,” he said. “Physically, the buildings cannot space out students enough. We do not have the staffing. Also, I don’t know how much any of you have tried to get a sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grader to do something for almost eight hours a day, but good luck trying to get them to keep their masks on and stay away from people for eight hours a day.”

Other teachers said they would end up spending so much time trying to enforce the rules that it would take away from instruction.

Many teachers expressed concern that AISD and the state would consider in-person classes when Texas' and Travis County's COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise.

Karen Reyes, an early education special education teacher, said one of her friends died from COVID-19 last week, and she is scared to take on the risk that going back to school entails.

“I don’t want to go through this again – losing friends, co-workers, students. I also don’t want to get sick myself,” she said. “We have the opportunity to do this right, so why are we trying to do this fast?”

Austin ISD has not announced a definitive plan for how students will learn when school resumes Aug. 18. Superintendent Cruz has said there will options for both in-person and online learning.

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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