AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a press conference Wednesday, Education Austin, the union for teachers and employees within Austin Independent School District, directed teachers to refuse to go back to campus and teach in-person, even if the district directs them to do so this fall.
On Monday, outgoing AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz announced families could choose whether their students would attend classes 100% online or 100% in person for the upcoming semester.
On Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency announced students across Texas would be given that same option, however teachers have not been given a choice to decide whether they want to return to in-person classes.
Several teachers and other employees within the district expressed their concerns about the safety of physically going back to school in the press conference. Some also said they doubted their ability to provide quality education if in-person classes resume, because they’d be spending too much time trying to enforce mask and social distancing policies.
“This would not be providing a quality education. This would be the majority of your day enforcing unrealistic guidelines that will not be met,” said Emily Sharon, a teaching assistant at Patton Elementary School.
“A lot of us are quite frankly terrified. We’ve seen the guidelines that TEA put out recently and while they’re good in theory, our schools are not equipped to follow a lot of these,” said Eric Ramos, a teacher at Martin Middle School. “Physically, the buildings cannot space out students enough. We do not have the staffing even if we had enough space to separate the kids to where they could be put in separate rooms. These are not things that can be done.”
Ramos continued, “I don’t know how much any of you have tried to get a 6th, 7th or 8th grader to do something for almost eight hours a day, but good luck trying to get them to keep their masks on and stay away from people for eight hours a day.”
Education Austin is asking district leaders to start the school year out with nine weeks of virtual learning. In that scenario, the union would ask the district to assess where the community is at with the outbreak week by week, then decide on whether to continue with all virtual classes or move to some in-person learning at the end of those nine weeks.
“We want the best judgements decided by science and medicine, not by a governor and a TEA commissioner that know little about either,” said Education Austin President Ken Zarifis.
In the press conference, Zarifis questioned whether the state’s education commissioner can really withhold funding from schools that don’t offer on-campus learning after the Texas Education Agency announced Tuesday all schools have to offer class online and in-person.
“This is blackmail. He is forcing us to go in, go into risky places and challenging our funding,” Zarifis said. “That money is not Mike Morath’s. That money is our taxpayers’ That money is our community’s. We give enough money, 40% of our tax base to the state for public funding of education that we don’t even keep through recapture. That 60% is ours, and we’ll be damned if he takes it from us.”
Zarifis says technically, if teachers follow the union’s advice to refuse to teach on-campus, it would not be a “strike,” because they’d still report to work virtually.
AISD responded in a statement, telling KXAN the TEA is requiring that the district offer in-person learning.
“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,” the district’s statement said.
KXAN reached out to the TEA and Education Commissioner Mike Morath for comment. This story will be updated if a response is received.