AUSTIN (KXAN) — Leaders of the Austin Independent School District answered tough questions from parents about the district’s COVID-19 safety protocols for the upcoming school year.

AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde was joined by a few other district leaders to address parents’ concerns in a town hall Wednesday night.

“I think it’s really important that when we do follow the science, we follow all of the science,” Elizalde said of their decision to have most students return to school in the fall.

She stood by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance that says it’s best to have students learn in a face-to-face setting. Virtual learning will however be offered to K-6 students, who can’t get vaccinated just yet because of their age.

The district is hoping by the spring semester, vaccines will be authorized for children younger than 12 years old.

What will virtual learning look like?

Elizalde said they learned a lot from last year on how to operate virtual learning. She said they will not have teachers teaching both virtual and in person classes concurrently.

“So it will be a separate teacher that will be working with students whose parents have elected the virtual option,” she explained.

The instructional hours will be the same as in person, and there will be a mixture of synchronous (working with the teacher) and asynchronous (working independently) learning, according to Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth Casas. Music, art and physical education will also be provided throughout the day.

Class sizes will depend on the demand for virtual learning, the number of students that opt in for virtual learning for each grade and the number of teachers available.

The leaders said at this point, they’re able to accommodate the amount of applications for virtual learning that have been submitted.

“We feel very confident that we can serve all of the students,” Elizalde said.

Will virtual learning be expanded?

“Why can’t you offer remote learning for other students?” asked Staci White via Zoom.

Elizalde fielded the question, asking White to email her.

Susan Nerenberg says Tex is still recovering from his third open-heart surgery, which occurred six weeks ago, and doctors said anyone living in the home should opt for virtual learning. (Photo courtesy Susan Nerenberg)
Susan Nerenberg says Tex is still recovering from his third open-heart surgery, which occurred six weeks ago, and doctors said anyone living in the home should opt for virtual learning. (Photo courtesy Susan Nerenberg)

It was one echoed by many in the chat Wednesday night.

“For my youngest daughter, who… did pre-K virtually last year, it was just a smashing success from the start to the finish of the year,” said Susan Nerenberg, parent of four AISD students.

She’s requesting for the now-kindergartner to be virtual, because her younger brother is immunocompromised.

“Essentially, he has half a heart,” Nerenberg explained. “Anything, I mean, even the flu can put us in the hospital, it can be deadly for us, so we don’t really want to mess around with COVID,” she said.

Tex will be getting homebound learning from the district, but thinks virtual options should be expanded.

“Really, really disappointed in the district in that sense, that they would choose to not offer virtual for pre-K, because I feel like… they could have for one more year, and it would have been okay,” Nerenberg said.

Can we opt in for remote learning later in the year if cases go up?

Elizalde said this question depends on a lot of factors.

“The reality is, it’s going to depend on the conditions that do change, it’s going to depend on staffing, it’s going to depend on what percentage of students are reporting in person, what percentage are in virtual,” she said.

Elizalde said while they don’t have a strong answer right now, they’re going to continue to monitor the situation as they’ve been doing.

How will you encourage mask wearing among students?

While district leaders cannot enforce mask mandates on campuses due to Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, they said they will be requiring them on buses.

“Transportation is one area in which we can require those masks,” Elizalde said. She said this is one of the best ways to protect the children from infection.

“We did not have outbreaks in our schools last year, even with 65% of in-person attendance at our elementary campuses, and what did we do that was so different? We had masks everywhere,” she said.

Later on in the discussion, the district leaders said masks will be available at entrances, and signage will be in place encouraging students to mask up.

What other safety protocols will accompany in-person learning?

AISD said classrooms will have seating charts, and they are discussing assigned seating in the cafeterias, too, to help with contact tracing. Rapid COVID-19 testing will also be available on site.

Laura Ethridge helped her four grandchildren with virtual learning last year and decided with her family that wouldn’t be the case this year.

“They’ve spent a year and a half learning how to live safely with COVID, and I think we owe it to them to let them try to be a part of the in-person learning,” Ethridge said.

Ethridge says her family is willing to try in person, "but the extra measures need to be taken, we can't cut corners now." (Photo courtesy Laura Ethridge)
Ethridge says her family is willing to try in person, “but the extra measures need to be taken, we can’t cut corners now.” (Photo courtesy Laura Ethridge)

But she thinks the district should reinstate temperature checks. AISD cited CDC guidance indicating those are not completely effective. The same CDC page also says temperature checks can be used.

The district also said outside temperatures mess with the thermometer and is instead encouraging families to self-screen before coming to campus.

“I could see the hustle and bustle in the morning of trying to get kids ready for school, get lunches, get them out the door, get yourself ready for work and get on the road and be at the school and go, ‘oh, I didn’t check temperatures this morning,’ so I think it needs to be at point of entry,” Ethridge said.

Ethridge believes temperature checks, along with masks, helped the district slow the spread of COVID-19 last year.

“And now, neither of those things are going to happen, and so it does make me very nervous, I’m getting a lot more anxiety as… the school date is approaching, and I just really want them to reconsider,” she said.

Will classrooms be split up into masks and no masks?

One parent asked if students will be split up into different classrooms based on if they will wear a mask or not. Elizalde said that “really creates an environment that puts children in a very difficult situation.”

She said they will work to provide information and survey results to parents on the percentage of families that will require their student(s) to wear a mask in each school in a timely manner, as that could sway parents’ decision to sign up for virtual learning or not.

Will the district fight Gov. Abbott’s order in court?

A parent asked if Austin ISD has taken legal action to stop Abbott’s order, which bars local officials, including school districts, from mandating masks and requiring vaccinations.

Elizalde said in talking with other school districts and consulting with outside council, “there are a lot of different consequences that can ultimately occur to our district.” She explained under new regulations, the commissioner of education has the authority to take over school districts, which could mean replacement of all elected officials.

The parent who asked the question pushed back on Austin ISD leadership, asking why a lawsuit has not been filed.

“I think our legal team has a different take on that,” Elizalde responded.

KXAN education reporter Alex Caprariello moderated the town hall Wednesday night. A second town hall will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in Spanish.