Social distancing at school: How Austin ISD is preparing for more students on-campus

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District is making preparations to allow even more students back on campus on Nov. 2, following TEA guidelines.

With the possibility of more kids in the classrooms, come more concerns about how schools will enforce social distancing and other safety protocols.

“I already cannot space my students farther than 4 or 5 feet apart in my classroom.”

One letter sent to parents at Kealing Middle School stated, “Starting November 2, there are no capacity limits for the number of students allowed to come to school for classes. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has stated that social distancing is a recommendation. Therefore, depending on the number of families selecting in-person, during any given class period there may be more than the previously communicated threshold of 9 students per classroom that was set when practicing 6 feet of social distancing. Additionally, consistent enforcement of social distancing during class changes and during lunch poses many challenges, but we are working on ways to stagger release times for classes to limit congestion in the hallways during passing periods.

However, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told KXAN the phrase “no capacity limits” was misleading.

“This is not a free-for-all where we are opening the doors, and kids are going to be running in, and there are no masks,” she said.

Dr. Elizalde said the district feels confident it can facilitate proper social distancing for students, implementing one-way directions for children to walk in the hallways and more plexiglass barriers.

She said they are relying on responses from their most recent survey sent to parents to get an estimate of how many families plan to return to campus.

She said she understands the concern from parents, but said, “That is why we’re doing the survey for our secondary schools again, so we can provide them more information about what the actual classroom is going to look like. We can get a sense of how many students are actually coming back, physically.”

She noted that most large Texas school districts, plus other Central Texas districts nearby, are seeing about 40% of families opting for in-person learning. She expects their numbers to be “in that neighborhood,” which would allow for social distancing practices in AISD classrooms.

Right now, Dr. Elizalde estimated only 35% of AISD elementary students are back on campus. The estimate was 13% for middle school students and 5 to 10% for high school students, considering their block schedule.

“The whole purpose of the survey is to ensure that we don’t have a percentage of students that we would be concerned with, and if that is in fact what the numbers come back — which would be different than every other school district in the state — but if it were to happen, then I would absolutely make adjustments,” she said.

One AISD elementary teacher reached out to KXAN, concerned that her classroom already has so many students, she can’t keep them physically distanced. She said the videos showing students seated a full six feet apart are misleading.

She wrote, “I already cannot space my students farther than four or five feet apart in my classroom.”

Now, she’s been told to expect three to four more students on November 2.   

“After that, more students means students will get closer and closer,” she explained.

“We also utilize the Austin Public Health guidelines. We also utilize the CDC, and also reference the Academy of Pediatrics and they have all talked about what social distancing in an ideal world looks like,” she said. “So you’ll see the CDC guidelines are ‘six feet.’ If you look at the Academy of Pediatrics it says ‘three to six feet.’ All of them expect masking because masking still has been continuously found to be the most successful in a gating factor we can utilize.”

She said there’s a “whole different strategy” for protection in situations where students or teachers might be closer than three to six feet — like the use of plexiglass at the reception desk.

She said the district will be putting up signage to enforce the one-way hallways, and they are relying on the short five-minute passing periods to keep kids moving.

“Because we are masking, because we are staying as far apart as possible, because we are using hand hygiene, because we’re following all of those things — and our staff have just done a marvelous job — I’m cautiously able to report, still today, we are not seeing clusters in schools. We’re not seeing internal transmission of cases,” she said.

Dr. Elizalde said cases among students and teachers are more likely to be attributed to after-school activities or from families and friends gathering, without masks.

Still, she has committed to offering online learning all year for parents and students who choose that route.

For instance, Paul Weiner and his son at Bowie high school said they will stick with virtual learning.

“He has free time, and instead of being in a classroom wearing a mask with maybe a couple other kids. It seems very institutional and confining and limiting,” Weiner said.

He knows at-home learning doesn’t work for every family or every student, but he’s found his freshman is thriving. He’s also choosing to keep his son home out of concern for the Bowie High School teachers.

“Safety does come first,” Weiner said. “They are no different right now than a firefighter running into a burning house, and we are not treating them like that.”

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