School starts for some in the Austin area this week

Set for School

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the week begins, so does the first major group of Austin area K-12 schools kicking off a new school year. Some of these schools will be starting with in-person learning options and others will offer only online learning for the time being.

Thrall ISD

Thrall ISD in eastern Williamson County will begin the school year on August 10. Students will have the option to either attend school virtually or in-person through a “hybrid model.” These options will be in place until Friday, September 18, at which time students may switch out their choices for the instructional style they prefer. The district says it will reassess on August 28 to see if it needs more time to ease into in-person classes.

IDEA Austin Public Schools

School will start for IDEA campuses in Austin on August 11. The plan is to have students attend class entirely online for the first three weeks. Teachers have the option to teach from their homes or from the classroom on campus, but if they decide to go to campus they must participate in measures to protect against COVID-19 such as temperature checks and a mandatory training. Kindergarten students at IDEA are given tablets, 1st grade students up through middle school students are given Chromebook laptops, and high school students are given Dell Laptops. Students who may have difficulty accessing internet at home can also request to be provided with a WiFi hotspot to use.

Leander ISD

School will start for Leander ISD on August 13 and the first three weeks of class will be entirely online. After that point, students can choose between in-person or online learning.

Pflugerville ISD

Pflugerville ISD will also begin the school year on August 13 with the first three weeks of instruction held virtually for the district’s 26,000 students.

After that point, students can either attend school in person or stick to the fully online model.

PfISD says the decision parents make will remain in effect until the end of the quarter. If parents do decide to send their child to school after first selecting online learning, there’s no guarantee they will have the same teacher as they did in online learning the quarter prior.

Lago Vista ISD

Lago Vista ISD also plans to begin the school year with online learning on August 13. Then on September 9, those who requested face-to-face instruction in classrooms can receive it and those students who prefer to continue with online learning can do so. Families that do not have internet access can submit a request form for a WiFi hotspot loaned by the district. Prior to the first day of school, all students will be issued a district-owned iPad, a district planning document states.

It is up to each individual school district to decide when to start the school year. Austin ISD, for example, will not start until September 8. When AISD does start, it plans to offer online classes for at least the first four weeks.

‘We’re at the mercy of multiple things’

The IDEA Montopolis campus in Austin. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

Cristopher Rubio, the Early College Prep Principal for IDEA Montopolis (the principal for grades 6-12) spoke with KXAN Sunday about the transition into the start of the school year this fall.

“The last two months, really June and July, were unlike anything I’ve ever had to do as a principal,” Rubio explained, noting that earlier on in the summer he and his colleagues were preparing to have a school year where some students could access learning virtually and others could learn in the classroom.

But a few weeks ago, Rubio learned his school would go 100% virtual for the first three weeks, taking advantage of a grace period offered by the Texas Education Agency (in light of recent updated guidance from the Texas Attorney General which indicated that moving education entirely online based on a local health authority order was unlawful).

Now, Rubio explained, the focus is on preparing for virtual instruction.

“We always had to prepare for virtual instruction, but at least right now we can solely focus on that and not have to worry about getting the building ready, which honestly would have been a whole other bucket of to do lists,” he said.

Rubio is excited to be able to provide tablets and laptops to each student (there are more than 800 students at his school in grades 6-12) noting that’s something he and other colleagues have wanted to do for a long time.

Virtual classes will be hosted on Microsoft Teams, Rubio explained. The platform for Microsoft Teams allows students to directly message teachers and Rubio — he is hoping all the students don’t message him at once.

One challenge with virtual learning, he said, is that not every student has the same access to internet.

“That’s a tough one because ultimately you can provide the devices, but ultimately if someone does not have connectivity, that does, add an extra dimension and it makes it a little bit tougher,” Rubio said. “I think this is where ideally as a state and as a country we go to providing connectivity to everyone.”

To address this, IDEA Montopolis is providing WiFi hotspots to students who demonstrate need for them. But Rubio explained that even these hotspots may not work well for students who live in more rural parts of Del Valle or Bastrop County.

The IDEA Montopolis campus in Austin. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

He said that this past week, IDEA Montopolis teachers have been calling families of students and asking them what devices they have, what internet access they have, and whether their internet will allow them to do what they need to do for school.

While teachers at IDEA Montopolis have been given the choice to teach classes from their homes or from their classrooms, Rubio said that only 10-15% have elected to teach virtually from their classrooms on campus.

It still is unclear when classes might transition to in-person instruction at IDEA Montopolis, though the plan is to have online instruction for the next three weeks.

Rubio uses the words “fuzzy” and “flexible” to describe the school’s plans for the next few weeks.

“Three weeks ago, this conversation would have looked very different,” he said. “When we say we’re starting August 11, which is Tuesday, that’s what we know right now. We’ve always added the caveat here at IDEA Austin, we’re at the mercy of multiple things. We can’t control what happens with COVID-19, we can obviously do our part [to] influence the Texas Education Agency and our state legislators, at the end of the day we have to remain flexible.”

Rubio said that his school is making plans for several possible future scenarios.

“I’ve stopped trying to make predictions and I’m just trying to do the best I can to make sure we have what we need for the immediate, while still planning ahead for when things change, and inevitably they will,” he said.

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