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Education

Austin ISD Schools Buzz With Energy On The First Day Of Class, Though Everything Is Far From Normal

Children wear masks in a kindergarten classroom at Barton Hills Elementary School on the first day of school Tuesday.
Jordan Vonderhaar for KUT News
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Children wear masks in a kindergarten classroom at Barton Hills Elementary School on the first day of school Tuesday.

The first-day-of-school energy at Sanchez Elementary School this morning was electric. Teachers were squealing the names of students they hadn't seen in months or, in some cases, more than a year. In the cafeteria, children wiggled around in their seats, trying to spot friends in other rows.

Teachers lined the walls of the cafeteria, eager to lead their new students to their classrooms for the first time. There was excitement about the new school year, but also clues that this was a very different beginning. Everyone in the cafeteria was masked, and parents weren’t allowed past the front hallway to minimize the number of people in the buildings.

AISDfirstday_JV_081721
Jordan Vonderhaar for KUT News
A fifth-grader at Barton Hills Elementary School wears a mask on the first day of school Tuesday,

Orfalinda Camacho stood in the Sanchez parking lot while her daughter was in the office, trying to enroll her children in the district’s virtual program.

“I’m kind of scared for the kids’ protection, but I know right now we’re just waiting to get approved to get back to homeschooling," Camacho said. "I’d rather them be safe.”

Last week, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde announced she would require masks for everyone at Austin ISD schools, in defiance of the governor's order prohibiting that. Two days later, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Brown issued their own city and county mask mandates.

At least seven lawsuits have been filed, challenging Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on requiring masks.

The orders were issued as COVID hospitalizations soared in the area and ICU capacity hit record lows. That was one of the things on Elizalde’s mind when she made the decision last week.

AISD Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde reviews notes on the first day of school at the newly constructed Eastside Memorial High School in East Austin on Tuesday
Jordan Vonderhaar for KUT
AISD Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde reviews notes on the first day of school at the newly constructed Eastside Memorial High School in East Austin on Tuesday

“That weekend was one of just processing," she said Tuesday. "I worked to put myself in as many stakeholder shoes as I could possibly think of. I thought of myself as a parent, as a student, as a teacher, as a bus driver, as a principal."

Today, though, Elizalde was focused on what was happening at schools. She observed a Barton Hills kindergarten class reading a book, surprised a science teacher with news that he's a finalist for Texas teacher of the year, and watched fifth-graders do a science experiment.

All of the students and staff, at all the schools, were wearing masks. In the car between visits, Elizalde reflected on how fast things changed over the summer.

"I mean, in June we were rocking and rolling and we were high-fiving because we were going to have a wonderful return to school," she said. "Yes, we were going to have some protocols, but we really didn't think masking was going to be something that we were going to need to do. But that’s OK; we will persevere.”

Students wait in a hallway in between classes at Eastside Memorial High School.
Jordan Vonderhaar for KUT
Students wait in a hallway in between classes at Eastside Memorial High School.

Elizalde said the district is preparing for COVID cases to rise now that school is back in session. That doesn't always indicate the spread is happening in schools, she said, just that students are testing more now that they're back.

She said the district will continue to offer testing and has a plan if a student tests positive. First, the district will notify families that there is a positive case. Students who have been exposed will quarantine at home. The district is creating a system for learning at home, where students do video calls to check in with teachers, but don't sit on Zoom all day.

As Elizalde wrapped up her morning visiting schools, she gushed about how smoothly things were going: None of the students or teachers seemed confused; there was no chaos.

“What we saw is a group of professional educators and support staff and principals who know their children, know their community, love their community and are serving them in what they signed up to do," she said. "I’m feeling really, really positive about today.” 

Students who are enrolled in the virtual program begin next Tuesday.

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