Austin’s top doctor recommends sending younger students back to school first


AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Tuesday, Austin-Travis County’s top doctor recommended that education leaders prioritize getting younger kids back to school first.

In his weekly briefing with Travis County Commissioners Tuesday, Dr. Mark Escott was clear that there is danger in sending anyone back to school.

He says while data is changing weekly and even daily on the rate at which children contract and spread the virus, the risks to faculty and staff is much, much higher.

“The risk of death in our population in March and April was about 2% for those ages 50 to 59, which is much higher than for students. The risk of hospitalizations is much higher, and we can’t exclude the teachers and the staff, the custodians, the other support staff, administrators when we’re making our decisions about schools. They’re the ones at risk. The parents of those students are at risk. We’ve got to weigh all those things in making a decision.”

Escott says recommendations from the National Academy of Sciencing, Engineering and Medicine suggest first bringing back students in kindergarten through third grade, who most need teacher interaction to develop reading skills, and students in special education classes, who require extra help.

“If we’re going to take risks, those risks have to be very small,” Escott said of returning children to schools. “I think it’s important that we consider a staged rollout of in person schooling, that we take the advice from the National Academies and focus on those students who really must be in a classroom in September and then dial it up from there as the situation allows.”

But Austin ISD’s Union President, Ken Zarifis says even that isn’t a risk most educators are willing to take.

“We understand that the challenges are mighty with families, with the district, and everybody else,” Zarifis said. “But we will not sacrifice our kids, our kindergartners, our six-year-olds, our seven-year-olds, just to see if it’s going to work.”

Zarifis doesn’t deny that at-home learning will create some gaps in education, saying, “This is an extraordinary time. Let’s admit the shortcomings that this COVID-19 presents to education and how we will not meet the typical year’s demands for education.”

However, he says educators can do a better job filling in those gaps and catching students up in the long run if they hone in on executing online learning for now and shift their focus to making sure parents of young and special education students have all the resources they need by the fall.

“Let’s spend our time doing that instead of figuring out how to get kids back into a classroom,” Zarifis said.

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