Lake Travis teachers with vulnerable family members to choose between resigning or going back to school

Education

LAKE TRAVIS, Texas (KXAN) — As more students return to campuses for in-person learning, a handful of teachers at one local school district are on the fence about returning at all. 

Teachers, students and parents at Lake Travis Independent School District have reached out to KXAN. They say the district denied their request to continue with remote learning, because of their own or family member’s health conditions.

Larry Schmidt has been a teacher for 15 years. His five-year tenure as a Lake Travis High School physics teacher has been nothing but great.

“I was very nervous to go to a large district. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life, as far as education is concerned,” said Schmidt.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

Larry Schmidt, Lake Travis High Teacher

“I’m not worried about me; I’m worried about killing my dad,” said Schmidt.

Outside of the school, he is a caretaker for his elderly father, who has severe health conditions.

“My wife just finished cancer treatment this summer, so that’s another thing,” he said.

Schmidt says he put in a request to only teach remotely due to his family members’ underlying health conditions. That request was denied by district officials in August.

At Lake Travis High School, teachers were required to return to campus Sept. 8, even though students don’t return until Sept. 21—that included Schmidt. Inside, he says he’s been using up his personal days ever since.

“When those days are gone, I’ll either have to resign, go back in-person or my contract will be terminated by the district,” he explained.

Lindy McGee is a former student of Schmidt. She’s one of the nearly 2,000 people who signed a petition to support Schmidt’s choice.

Another Lake Travis teacher reached out to KXAN expressing her concerns.

“I am agonizing over whether I’ve made the right decision to stay. For context, teaching is my heart and soul. I’ve taught 13 years, won teacher of the year, am nationally certified but have never done another job. In addition, secondary teachers in Lake Travis are being asked to do a totally new job—one that elementary does not have to do—which is to teach in-person and online learners at the same time. My largest class will have 20 in person and 12 online. My colleague has up to 24 in person in multiple classes. Social distancing desks is not possible, although kids are required to wear masks. I do not fault my school admin, who have worked tirelessly to try to make this work. I fault Texas Education Agency for putting us in this situation. I just think many do not understand the safety risks teachers are facing, the significant health risks that were not accommodated.

Lake Travis ISD teacher

According to district officials, on July 13 a survey was sent out to classroom teachers gauging what their interest was in doing in-person vs. remote teaching. Teachers could request to teach remotely, but a lot of it came down to student enrollment.

“We followed the CDC guidelines, which outlined the medical conditions for which people are considered at risk. We evaluated those as student enrollment came in. We made decisions on the number of staff we would need on-campus. It was solely based on the recommendations from parents on where they wanted their students,” said Paul Norton, Lake Travis superintendent.

Nearly 60% of Lake Travis parents chose to send their students back in-person.

“Is keeping parents quiet worth potentially killing a staff member or a staff members family?” said McGee. “Is that worth it to them to ease parents’ minds or get rid of the angry emails? In the essence it’s brutal, but that’s what they’re promoting.”

KXAN’s Kaitlyn Karmout asked Superintendent Norton about Schmidt’s case.

“Unfortunately, we can’t talk about individual people, but I can tell you the CDC has different guidelines of ‘at-risk’ vs. ‘might be at risk.’ Obviously our number one focus is to take care of our staff that are at-risk,” said Norton. “We’ve accommodated over 70 staff members based on them being at-risk.”

Norton says the district has made a number of accommodations for teachers who are worried about their family members at home. That includes moving those teachers to a larger classroom, supplying extra PPE like gowns, providing a classroom with a window and also giving teachers the opportunity to shower before leaving the building.

“These aren’t things we are required to do. These are things that we have chosen to take on. We have turned over every rock that we can find to find a way to accommodate out staff,” said Norton. “I can tell you we have not terminated anybody, we have not gotten rid of anybody. That is not our role that is not our place.”

Norton says three Lake Travis ISD teachers have resigned due to COVID-19.

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