‘Will you pay for me to be cremated?’ More than 100 teachers sound off about AISD reopening plan

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than 100 Austin teachers participated in a more than two and a half hour Zoom event Thursday night to sound off about the Austin Independent School District reopening plan. The plan calls for the majority of its 5,500 teachers to return to campus Monday during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How dare you ask us to risk everything?” said AISD teacher Sarah Quigley.

Another Austin teacher, David Cornwell, said he had a question for the superintendent and the Texas Education Agency:

“Will you pay for me to be cremated?” asked Cornwell.

The Zoom call was organized by Education Austin, the union that represents hundreds of AISD teachers and will be shared with AISD leaders. The group has been urging the district for months to slow the plan for teachers to come back to their classrooms.

Betsy, a teacher at Murchison Middle School, explained why she thinks it’s not safe for educators and students to show up to school in-person.

“How many pages should we keep open in the yearbook for memorial pages?” she asked.

Education Austin president Ken Zarifis said the event was planned after the district did not include an opportunity for public comments at its board meeting Monday night.

Zarifis had an emergency meeting with the new AISD superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde Thursday morning to discuss teacher concerns with the reopening plan.

KXAN spoke with him right after the meeting, and Zarifis said for the first time he feels “encouraged” by the conversation. Prior to the meeting, Zarifis indicated there were about 850 teachers who were pledging to not show up for in-person teaching Monday. He said now those plans are on hold.

“We feel encouraged that the district is hearing us, and that we’re moving in a very positive direction,” said Zarifis. “We applaud her efforts to stay engaged with us to listen and to move forward in a way that we feel that would be productive for everybody, particularly for our students.”

As of Thursday morning, Elizalde said the district has granted about 600 accommodations for AISD teachers requesting to continue teaching virtually. Another 200 requests are still pending, mostly due to the district waiting on medical documentation.

Elizalde said in addition to the accommodations, campus principals have been given flexibility to work with teachers and not force them to return if they’re not comfortable.

She met with 40 teachers Wednesday to get honest feedback about their thoughts on the reopening plan and has also been meeting with school principals. Elizalde applauded the principals at Govalle Elementary and Allison Elementary for “coloring outside the lines” and doing what they can to meet the individual needs of teachers who have concerns about in-person teaching.

“It’s not about forcing anyone to come back,” said Elizalde. “It’s about us working together so that we can again meet the needs of our students, and any time anyone is backed into a corner it doesn’t bring out the best in any of those individuals—so we’re working very hard to stay away from that.”

Elizalde is asking teachers who are planning to not show up Monday to notify their campus principals, so they can work with them and better prepare. She said there is a plan in place to fill any gaps with central office staff, many who were former teachers, and substitute teachers.

If a teacher who has requested an accommodation doesn’t get one, and they don’t show up to school Monday, Elizalde said those will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“I have to recognize we’re in a pandemic, and there is nothing normal about anything we’re going through,” said Elizalde. “So I’m not going to stick to ‘well it’s insubordination, and this is what we’re going to do.’ No one is trying to do that right now. Everyone’s trying to keep themselves safe. They’re trying to do their jobs as best they can.”

At the end of the Education Austin Zoom call Thursday night, Zarifis told teachers he will continue to update them on his talks with the superintendent. He has another call with her scheduled Friday morning.

“We will continue to fight,” Zarifis told teachers. “Solidarity forever—we are not going to back down.”

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