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Education

Austin ISD adds two Fridays off this semester to provide 'stress relief' to staff amid omicron wave

Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Huffman leads students from their outdoor lunch to recess at Maplewood Elementary School in Austin last August.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Huffman leads students from their outdoor lunch to recess at Maplewood Elementary School in Austin last August.

Lee esta historia en español.

The Austin Independent School District is adding two three-day weekends to the spring semester to give teachers a break as the omicron COVID-19 wave has stretched campuses thin.

Students will now have two extra Fridays off: Feb. 11 and March 4. Teachers and campus-based staff will still be paid. The AISD Board of Trustees unanimously approved the change during a meeting Thursday night.

“We recognize it’s still not enough, but just because it’s not enough doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something,” AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said. “We know how hard all of our staff are working, but specifically our campus-based staff, and I am thankful to them.”

The omicron wave has led to staff shortages across the district, as many employees have been out because of COVID-19 illness or exposure. Staff members have stepped in to serve as substitutes, and the district raised the pay for subs earlier this month in an attempt to attract more.

Originally, the school district suggested giving schools a break by having two- or three-hour early releases on select Fridays throughout the remainder of the school year. The district sent out a survey on the proposed plan, and more than 20,000 parents, students and employees responded. Most indicated they wanted early-release days. About 20% of parents said they didn’t want early release at all, however, which the district took to mean it would be difficult for families to manage. The district also heard concerns that the early-release plan would take away some of teachers’ required paid planning time at the end of the day.

With this feedback in mind, the district proposed a different plan to offer “stress relief”: two full, paid days off.

“By giving them two completely paid days off, they still get to keep their planning time — while also getting the break they deserve,” the district said in a press release earlier this week.

Elizalde said she recognizes these days off will be a burden for some parents who will need to find child care those days. But she said the district needed to respond to calls for relief from AISD employees. She encouraged parents who cannot find child care to reach out to her or Chief Officer of Schools Anthony Mays for assistance.

“We might be able to see which parents we might be able to work with on an individual basis,” Elizalde said, suggesting Central Office staff, who would be be working those days, could possibly host some students whose parents didn't have another option.

Some on-campus hourly staff members were not included in the original proposal for the extra days off. During Thursday's meeting, some 30 parents and AISD employees called in to encourage the board to include custodians.

“We’re all going above and beyond, and we all need a break,” one caller said.

After hearing public comments, the board amended the proposal to ensure all campus-based staff — including custodians, cafeteria workers, teaching assistants and clerical staff — could also take the two Fridays off and still be compensated.

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