AUSTIN, Texas — Health leaders said it's OK to put kids back in classrooms this fall, but possibly dangerous for teachers and parents. Many educators demand that classes remain 100% online and buildings remain empty at the start of the school year.
"We have the opportunity to do this right. So, why are we trying to do this fast?" said Karen Reyes, an Austin ISD early childhood special education teacher. "Let's think about safety first. If it's not safe for us to have in-person meetings right now then why is it safe for us to go to school and open up schools?"
These are some of the questions that flood the minds of teachers in Austin. Following the Texas Education Agency guidelines, Austin, Leander and Georgetown ISDs will be giving families a choice – keep kids learning from home full-time or put them back in classrooms.
"We believe that they do not have the interests of workers, of students and their families in mind as they make the decisions that seem to be more guided by fiscal realities than human realities," said Ken Zarifis, Education Austin president.
Zarifis said in a petition the organization is asking Austin ISD teachers to stay home, even if they're asked to go back to class. It's also asking for nine weeks of online learning at the start of the school year. He said the organization wants weekly COVID-19 updates and wants to see trends of a decrease before the school district considers coming back to the buildings.
The petition has more than 1,200 signatures.
"We want to have the information readily available. We want the best judgments decided by science and medicine, not by a governor and a TEA commissioner that know little about either," said Zarifis.
"Are we, as a community, willing to gamble with people's lives? Are we willing to gamble with the lives of an educator of a child?" said Reyes. "Let's start the school year online first then nine weeks online. We can reassess, focus on how to provide quality education for kids, not how fast we can get into a building."
Reyes said she's lost a loved one to COVID-19 and doesn't want to deal with that heartbreak again.
"I don't want to go through this again and again, losing friends, coworkers, students. I also don't want to get sick myself, and that's not being selfish and that shouldn't be a controversial statement. I want us all to be safe," said Reyes.
There have been rumors about the TEA staying out of the office until January 2021. When KVUE asked the TEA about the issue, a spokesman sent this statement:
"Commissioner Morath and other Texas Education Agency staff whose job duties require them to be in the office have been working from the William B. Travis Building since March – just as they did before the pandemic hit. As has been planned for many weeks, all TEA staff have the ability to return to the building on a voluntary basis this month. Based on local public health conditions, the individual and family needs of our team and the agency’s organizational needs, we are currently determining additional next steps for our staff for later this summer and beyond."
Austin Public Health's Dr. Mark Escott said data shows kids are at a lower risk for contracting the virus and supports sending kids back to school with masks required. He said the statistics support the idea that school-aged kids are less severely impacted, but Escott said there are some concerns.
"There are going to be some children and there are going to be some households that are going to be higher risk. We're going to have faculty and staff who are going to be at higher risk for complications, including hospitalization and death," said Escott. "I know it's going to be a changing culture for students, but it's a culture that they will adapt to. I'm hopeful that the school districts will enforce that and that we can all work together to open schools and keep them open."
Escott mentioned APH has been in regular contact with Central Texas superintendents for more than a month regarding plans for reopening.
An Austin ISD spokesperson said their school district has to offer in-person classes, as it is a requirement from TEA at this moment. They said in a statement:
"We’ve heard from our families and understand that they want the ability to choose which educational model will work best for their unique situation. As we prepare for the new school year we're planning for both on-campus and at-home learning. In doing this, we'll keep developing and implementing efforts to keep our staff and students safe. We will continue to look to federal, state and local authorities for guidance and directives. Health authorities include the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of State Health Services, Travis County Health & Human Services and Austin Public Health."
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