AISD families deliver questions outside district headquarters during Education Austin’s Sept. 26 community car caravan (Photos by John Anderson)
As thousands of Austin ISD students prepare to return to their campuses on Monday, almost all AISD teachers will be doing the same – even those with immunocompromised family members or young children – and many of them still lack a clear idea of what the return will look like. That’s unless they refuse to come back, as the teacher union suggests might happen.
Texas schools are required to return in person at some point in the fall semester or face a loss of state funding. AISD has received permission from the state to return to campus in phases, and will be operating at up to 25% capacity in the first week of in-person instruction, beginning Monday, Oct. 5. The district is prioritizing specific groups of students to be part of this first phase, and many are eager to be going back to school. Campus access means a better learning environment for many students, especially those with little or no broadband internet access at home. Other priority groups include Austin’s youngest students, recent immigrants, and special education students.
But for many teachers, the return to campus has been plagued with miscommunications and shifting plans. Teachers interviewed by the Chronicle said they had not been consulted or contacted about returning to campus since the spring, when a survey was distributed asking about their comfort level with in-person teaching; none ever heard any results or followup. Many teachers, and even some principals, say they first learned of the district’s plans from news reports, less than three weeks before reopening. Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde opened the board of trustees‘ Sept. 28 meeting by promising to assemble and consult with a 40-member teacher advisory committee about reopening plans. She did not mention any teacher input she’d gathered prior to this week.
In an emailed statement to the Chronicle, a district spokesperson said an early reopening advisory group, which met in late spring, included teachers, and that staff could attend three “conversation circles” used to gather input in early June. In addition, teachers received “further surveys” through the summer that, according to the statement, have been considered in return-to-campus plans. The district’s reopening task force, which includes no teachers, has “been invited to share information and receive feedback” with the District Advisory Council, which several teachers serve on.
Hundreds of teachers and supporters with Education Austin gathered for a car caravan on Saturday, driving by the district’s headquarters at I-35 and Ben White to cover the building’s windows with signs and questions about the return to campus. Teachers at the event posted questions about how to handle students’ technical issues, how to manage their in-person pods while teaching virtually, how social distancing would be possible at crowded school entrance doors, and how air filtration would be boosted. A dozen teachers interviewed by the Chronicle last week said that they had not received detailed information about their return to school, or any training on how to manage in-person and virtual learners simultaneously.
In addition to these logistics, many teachers have fought back against being required to return to campus at all. Currently, teachers are only permitted to continue remote instruction if they are personally at high risk for COVID-19 – pregnant, over 65, or immunocompromised – and if their campus can spare them. Elizalde said at the Sept. 28 board meeting that even the immunocompromised may be required to return physically if, say, they are the only calculus teacher at a certain campus.
Those with higher-risk children, partners, or other adults in the home must still come back to campus. Even those whose own children need to continue virtual school must either return to their classrooms, take leave, or resign. “The district does not have a Work from Home policy,” states one email from AISD Human Resources to a teacher who requested accommodations. In another email shared with the Chronicle, another HR staffer writes, “I am required to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act in providing workplace accommodations to employees, and unfortunately, the law does not allow me to provide a reasonable accommodation to a third party, including family members of the individual with the disability.” EA President Ken Zarifis told the Chronicle on Wednesday, Sept. 30, that hundreds of teachers have committed to “teaching from home” come next week, regardless of what the district says. “We are not refusing to work. The teachers are committing … to ensure the safety and well-being of all kids, teachers and families.” The action – Zarifis declines to term it a “strike” – is, he says, consistent with the district’s code of ethics for teachers, which says they should not knowingly lead their students into harm’s way. “And we believe the district requiring us to come back, requiring kids in the classroom, forces us to break our code of ethics. And we are against that.” More talks between the district and union are slated before Monday.
As of Sept. 28, the district had approved 905 of the 1553 requests for accommodations (from all employees, not just teachers) it has received, although Elizalde said at the Sept. 28 board meeting that the district reserved the right to revoke any accommodations if campus needs arose, as neighboring school districts such as Eanes ISD have done. As of last week, 23 teachers had resigned, up from 10 at this time last year. The district has more than 5,500 classroom teachers; others may have chosen to take leave. (Elizalde said she knew of one instance where someone who wasn’t immunocompromised was granted accommodations due to special circumstances, but that the district would not make it a policy.)
AISD currently has over 460 open positions listed on a job search website (not including substitutes), including 81 for classroom teachers and 118 for teachers’ assistants. If more teachers take leave or resign because of the policy, Elizalde said she would have central administration staff return to campuses to support teachers in person there.
Although the return to in-person school is mandated by the state, the physical presence of all teachers is not. The Texas Education Agency‘s updated COVID guidelines, released Sept. 24, state: “School systems should work with teachers and other staff to ensure the safety of students, teachers, and staff. This could include allowing those staff, including teachers, who may fulfill their work duties remotely to do so.”
The strict policy has been devastating for many teachers, many of whom feel forced to choose between their jobs and their families’ health. Several teachers told us they considered leaving the profession, and that teacher morale was low. “This is the first time where I’ve really just felt like, ‘Wow, they just don’t care,'” one veteran AISD teacher said. “It makes me sad and it makes me angry, because I’ve given my teaching career to this district, and I love it, and I don’t want to leave.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 2, 2020 with the headline: For Many AISD Teachers, It’s Career vs. Family