AUSTIN, Texas - Texas teachers lined up outside the Texas State Capitol grounds Wednesday morning, keeping six feet apart and advocating for safer working conditions.
Many districts have constructed rough draft reopening plans that continue to change amid rising COVID-19 case numbers. Teachers don’t want to head back to the classrooms until Travis County re-enters Stage 2.
Austin Public Health ordered school districts, both private and public, to delay in-person classes till September. Multiple districts have followed suit.
Leander ISD teacher Darcy Vogt Williams said with the current health crisis, teachers need more support and more time. “We want to be able to be in the classrooms but we want to do it safely. We want to do it when the infection rates are not the staggering numbers that they are right now. We want to wait until we know how to do this the right way," she said.
Leander ISD sent a letter to state offices requesting changes to TEA guidelines and support from the state:
- suspension of in-person school and allowance for 100% virtual learning until the seven-day hospitalization average is five or less, the threshold set by the Austin-Travis County public health agency for a stage 2 response
- flexibility to realistically minimize classroom ratios and provide social distancing
- the suspension of STAAR and the state accountability A-F system for the 2020-21 school year
- additional funding to supplement costs incurred by districts to provide safe and effective learning
- a commitment to allocate current or future federal money specified for schools as a supplement to existing funding commitments by the state
Parents feel left in limbo with changes to reopening plans. Austin ISD support specialist Gloria Vera-Bedolla said she doesn’t feel ready for her child to go back to school just yet but understands some parents don’t have resources.
“There is a lot of anxiety all the way around,” Vera-Bedolla said. “My main concern is I think about the things that are exasperated by this situation for families that don’t have access to resources like we do.”
For Victor Medina and his wife who are essential workers, having their children stay home for the full fall semester may mean one of them will have to quit their job.
“If one of us has to quit our jobs to stay home and make sure the kids are attending their online classes that is going to hurt,” said Medina. “We have to consider the working force, the people who have jobs. The people who are not able to quit their jobs to stay home and watch the kids and make sure that these kids are attending their classes like they should be.”
Each teacher at the protest said they want to be back in the classrooms, especially instructors whose subjects require hands-on education. Rachel Spencer, a band director for Hays CISD, said being apart from her students is painful because music is a form of expression and is how her kids bond.
“For some kids it’s the only reason they come to school, to go to band, to go to art, to go to football,” said Spencer. “My job teaching beginning band is literally kids are blowing hot spit on me every day and blowing hot spit on each other and at this point, I don’t think we can do that safely. I have faith that we will figure it out but I don’t think we are there yet.”
Advocates want to see contingencies set in place for teachers. Jackie Totton has taught kindergarten for 16 years and she never considered retiring till the pandemic hit. She is her mother’s caregiver and her husband is at high risk, so she does not want to bring the life-threatening virus home with her.
“Don’t treat us like we are expendable because we are not,” said Totton. “All the staff, the custodians, the bus drivers, the principal everybody. You can’t just say well they are gone, let’s replace them with someone else.”
Tuesday, Interim Austin Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott presented sobering data to Travis County Commissioners. Escott said without a vaccine his office estimates about 70 percent of students could contract COVID-19.
“Right now at stage four and certainly at stage five it would be very dangerous for us to open up schools,” said Dr. Escott. “In that 0.03 percent to 1.02 percent for Travis County could equate to between 40 and 1,370 deaths in that age group.
The Texas Education Agency said they plan to announce additional guidance Thursday afternoon.
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