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Austin Public Health Official Says He Supports Austin ISD's Reopening Plan

A sign at St. Elmo Elementary encourages people to be safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A sign at St. Elmo Elementary encourages people to be safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The top doctor at Austin Public Health, Dr. Mark Escott, supports the Austin Independent School District’s plan to bring students back to school buildings Oct. 5, he told the school board on Monday.

AISD’s plan is to allow school buildings to open at no more than 25% capacity at first. The district will start to bring more students back in the weeks that follow if there isn’t a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Escott said schools needed to be shut down in the spring because there was so much unknown about the virus, but it’s a different situation now.  

“We didn’t have tests. We didn’t have [personal protective equipment]. We didn’t have a system to manage the data to make informed decisions,” he said. “We were flying blind. Now we’re not.”

Teachers have pushed back in the last week, saying they don’t want students to come back to campuses, especially in large numbers. Education Austin, the AISD teachers’ union, led a protest Saturday during which teachers expressed concerns about having students in the buildings.

But Escott assured the school board Monday that AISD is taking one of the more conservative approaches to reopening its schools.

“We don’t have a lot of data about spread within schools specifically because, for the most part, schools have been closed,” he said.

Escott said based on the information experts have now, it seems being in the classroom with masks and social distancing protocols in place is not what’s causing the disease to spread. Most infections, he said, are happening outside of schools in social gatherings or extracurricular activities, like sports. He encouraged families with students playing sports to proactively get tested to make sure they aren’t asymptomatic carriers.

“As we gain more information, we may need to pivot in either a more cautious way or in a more liberal way based upon that new information,” he said.

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde addressed the pushback from teachers and staff members who say their concerns are not being prioritized.

“All of our employees surely have concerns during this pandemic,” Elizalde said. “That said, Austin ISD starts with students in its decision-making process.”

In a survey sent to parents and caregivers, which closed Friday, 43% of the families with elementary school students who responded said they want their student to go back. The percentage was a bit lower for families with middle and high school students.

Stephanie Hawley, the district’s chief equity officer, said the survey shows that many families feel their child will have a better educational experience in the building, and are willing to take the risk to send them back.

“When families tell us what they need and what they want, equity requires that we listen and try to provide choices to people,” she said.

Elizalde said that going forward, she will convene a group of 40 teachers to help advise district officials on this plan as it evolves over the school year. Families that wish to continue virtual learning will have that option all school year.

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

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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