Round Rock ISD students hold walkout demanding more COVID-19 policies
Round Rock ISD students held a walkout Thursday morning in protest of the district's approach to COVID-19 safety precautions.
Students at high schools in the district left classrooms and gathered outside in near-freezing temperatures. They held signs urging the district to respond to their desire for increased measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
RRISD high schoolers started a petition last week that garnered more than 1,700 student signatures, and more than 400 signatures from parents and faculty, agreeing to protest unless their demands were met. The petition outlined demands for a virtual learning option for all students, contact tracing, stronger enforcement of a mask mandate, KN95 and N95 masks for students, and rapid tests available on campuses.
They also asked that testing sites be opened at all of the high schools and that students be provided outdoor spaces to eat.
Eliana Smith, a senior at Cedar Ridge High School, was one of the organizers of the petition. She said, since coming back from winter break, on any given day there have been about six to 10 students absent in her classes, "which is not at all normal."
"There's also a sense that anytime you're on campus, you could catch COVID," Smith said. "I definitely do not want to catch COVID. I don't want to spread it to my community, or my grandparents, or to worsen the situation in Williamson County."
Tiernee Pitts, another senior and petition organizer at Cedar Ridge High School, said although she feels in-person learning is better for students, the quality of it is suffering right now because many teachers have been out with COVID-19.
"We're not getting anything accomplished right now," she said. "It just feels like we're kind of being babysat. And all of our assignments are still in Schoology, which is the platform that we used when we were doing virtual learning. We're just in person, still working on the computer."
RRISD spokesperson Jenny LaCoste-Caputo shared a statement saying that students who walked out would receive an unexcused absence but no other consequences.
"Regarding their concerns — we share them," the statement said. "Every district in the area is facing similar challenges as Omicron surges. We continue to have a mask requirement in place, provide free testing at a district site (and are working on expanding testing opportunities), have upgraded air filtration throughout the district, and are not allowing visitors on campus."
The statement also said that campuses will close if there are not enough staff members to keep them open safely. But for now, individual classes temporarily switch to remote instruction if there is a cluster of linked cases in one class.
"However, we have to balance closure decisions with the importance of keeping schools open for a variety of reasons, including the important resources campuses provide daily that many families depend on," the statement said.
LaCoste-Caputo said that a permanent virtual learning option is not feasible because the district could not find and hire enough teachers interested in teaching virtually. And, she said, Senate Bill 15, the state law which gives funding for virtual learning, has a limit on the number of students who can use the remote option.
The students plan to bring their demands to the district's school board meeting Thursday night at 5:30 p.m.
"I think overall, the goal really is to stay open," Pitts said. "But right now we're staying open at all cost and by any means necessary when we could just take the time to maybe shut down a little bit, let the teachers recover and then come back with better protocols in place."