The first day of classes for Central Texas school districts is about a month away, but many parents and teachers still don’t know what it will look like.
Districts say virtual learning will be an option, but there are few details about how it will work.
Last week, President Donald Trump said school buildings should be open this fall, and the Texas Education Agency released guidance saying districts have to offer in-person classes as well as give families an online option.
The requirement to open school buildings is alarming to local teachers, many of whom question why schools are allowed to reopen while COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Texas continue to rise and other kinds of group gatherings have been banned.
Michelle White teaches fourth grade at Zilker Elementary in Austin Independent School District. She said AISD has not been able to give details on what school will look like, just that there will be online and in-person components. She said this makes her nervous, because before COVID-19, elementary schools were already full of germs.
“It feels like I'm walking to my death to sacrifice myself for capitalism and I won’t do it,” she said. “It feels like no one cares about our well-being. Frankly, if people want to experiment with children and use them as political pawns, this also feels like child abuse. It feels like the state is abusing children.”
Jessica Mondragon, a teacher at Vista Ridge High School in Leander Independent School District, said she also doesn’t have detailed guidance. One of her sons has asthma, so she is nervous about going back to school and potentially bringing home the virus to him.
“It’s just disheartening that society is forcing teachers to be martyrs. I think that’s the hard part,” she said. “I think people need to open their eyes and realize what is going to happen when schools open. If we open, things will just get worse.”
Emily Shirey, a fifth-grade teacher at Bryker Woods Elementary School in Austin ISD, is facing a different sacrifice. She’s worried she might have to quit her job or take a leave of absence. Shirey has a 2-year-old daughter who normally attends an AISD daycare, which is still closed. Her husband is still working full-time, and she said if they don’t find child care, she won’t be able to teach in-person or online classes.
“I don’t think the district is doing much to help teachers who have children,” she said. “That’s really where I'm feeling the whole, ‘You can have a kid or you can have a job, but you can’t have both.’”
TEA’s guidance said that being out of the classroom hinders children’s education, prompting the American Pediatric Association to say schools should open, a statement it later walked back, saying schools should open only if health authorities think it’s safe.
Most teachers agree being with their students in the classroom is ideal. But some question whether going back will be worth it with all the precautions that COVID-19 forces.
Shivani Parmar, a fifth-grade teacher in Round Rock Independent School District, says teaching elementary students rarely involves students sitting at a desk for an extended period of time. So many of the lessons focus on hands-on activities. She, and many other teachers, are worried they’ll end up taking time away from instruction to enforce the new safety rules.
“Now we’re going to be trying to basically make them sit and not move and kind of be drill sergeants in a way,” Parmar said. “‘You have to stay at your desk, you can’t borrow so-and-so’s marker.”
Krista Bolton, a first-grade teacher in Leander ISD, is also struggling to imagine how she will conduct her lessons with the restrictions the coronavirus will make necessary.
“The thought of my first-graders sitting in rows of desks 6 feet apart is just so wild to me,” she said. “They’re just social by nature. That’s what they do. They talk to each other, they want to be near each other, they want to hold hands.”
Bolton said she doesn’t feel comfortable going back to the classroom to teach when the safety protocols are still vague. TEA has said it will send personal protective equipment, like masks and hand sanitizer, to schools, but she said it’s not clear if the agency will provide it for the entire year or if teachers will have to pick up the cost eventually. Because of that, she thinks schools should at least start the year online.
“Online learning isn’t going to be great. It’s not going to be the best education we can give our students, but neither is in-person,” Bolton said. “The way that we have to do it, that’s not a good system either. And then that has the added layer of spread of this virus.”
Kyle Olson says COVID-19 has exacerbated the inequities that exist in Austin ISD schools. When schools abruptly shut down in March and classes were switched online, not every student had adequate technology or internet access. Olson is an advanced placement government teacher at Northeast Early College High School, where 90% of students come from a low-income home. He said in the spring he saw firsthand how virtual learning was a challenge for many of his students.
“Virtual learning does work and it is OK, but it works for a certain group,” Olson said. “If you have highly educated parents who can set up learning environments in their homes with high-speed internet and multiple devices. But it does not work for everyone.”
He says he feels that the state and school districts are forcing in-person instruction because they think that will provide the best education. But, he says, they should have spent the summer making online learning more available for all families, rather than focusing on a plan to return to school buildings while infections are so high.
With Austin’s current COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continuing to rise, he prefers the imperfect virtual learning, because, he says, safety should be the main concern.
Teachers at Perez Elementary are also worried the state and district aren’t prioritizing safety. The Southeast Austin school is 87% Latino, a population that’s been particularly hard-hit by the virus. Latinos make up the majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Austin area.
Gracie Hopkins, a second-grade teacher at Perez, said the ZIP code that her school is in has the highest infection rate in the city.
“When you talk to other teachers, sometimes coronavirus feels like a distant thing, but to us, our children are getting sick,” she said. “I had two families who are getting sick. It’s very overwhelming to not make that literally the only factor we’re taking in mind.”
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