AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District will suspend in-person education, opting for virtual learning for the first three weeks of the 2020-21 school year, Superintendent Paul Cruz announced in a message on Tuesday.

In the message, Cruz says the decision was made due to current public health conditions in Travis County amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The health and safety of our students and staff are at the forefront of all of our decisions. Even though the first day of school is August 18, we know that our teachers and staff need to report to school weeks before that date,” Cruz’s message reads.

In step with decisions announced by AISD and several other school districts this week, the local health authority for Austin-Travis County issued emergency rules and orders on Tuesday, requiring public and private schools in the area to delay the re-opening of on-campus instruction until after Sept. 7.

Extracurricular sports and activities are also not permitted to take place until school systems re-open for on-campus instruction, the order states.

The order also requires schools or districts to develop and submit a plan for on-campus activities to the Austin/Travis County Health Authority at least two weeks prior to re-opening.

The order is in effect starting Tuesday, July 14 and expires Nov. 12.

It’s good news for Courtney Perry, a physical education teacher at Austin ISD’s Barton Hills Elementary.

“I wrote a letter to my school community today telling them that if we are forced to go back in person that I will quit,” said Perry. “But that I’m not quitting on the kids or on the community, that I’m going to fight.

She felt compelled to make her voice heard due to the rise in COVID-19 cases in Central Texas, and the top local health authority’s warning Tuesday that opening up schools now would be dangerous and could lead to more deaths.

Perry would like to see the Texas Education Agency give districts the option to put off in-person learning as long as needed, based on what happening in their own communities with the pandemic.

“I want it to be based on science, and what the local health authorities are saying about our backyard,” said Perry. “I don’t think that teachers and families should be lab rats.”

Tuesday night, Governor Greg Abbott told Houston television station KTRK: changes are coming from the TEA.

“I think Mike Morath, the commissioner of education, is expected to announce a longer period of time for online learning at the beginning of the school year, up to the flexibility at the local level,” said Governor Abbott.

On Monday, Round Rock Independent School District Superintendent Steve Flores announced plans for the district, going with an all-virtual learning environment for the first three weeks of the upcoming school year.

The Leander Independent School District told KXAN Tuesday it is considering the same thing. LISD Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing said his team of administrators met and will be recommending the move to the school board at their meeting this Thursday night. If the board agrees, he said the district will inform parents Friday.

“I think for families that may pose some challenges, and we are very conscious of that,” said Gearing. “But at this point I cannot in good conscience open school in person without being sure that I can guarantee safety of our students and our staff.”

He believes teachers will be grateful for the opportunity to have more time to plan more carefully, and to be prepared to do in-person learning safely for both staff and students if that’s what the Texas Education Agency still requires districts to do after the first three weeks of school.

The Pflugerville Independent School District has also decided to go 100% virtual for the first three weeks of school. The district sent a letter to parents Tuesday night sharing the news, and sent a letter to the education commissioner and the governor asking for the following:

  • suspension of in-person school and allowance for 100% virtual learning until the seven-day hospitalization average is five or less, the threshold set by the Austin-Travis County public health agency for a stage 2 response
  • flexibility to realistically minimize classroom ratios and provide social distancing;
  • the suspension of STAAR and the A-F state accountability system for the 2020-21 school year
  • additional funding to supplement costs incurred by districts to provide safe and effective learning
  • a commitment to allocate current or future federal money specified for schools as a supplement to existing funding commitments by the state.

“This is a joint effort with other area school districts, to ask TEA to provide the same amount of flexibility to districts as we are providing to our students and families,” superintendent Dr. Doug Killian wrote to parents. “Texas is a big state, and what may work for one area of the state may not in others.” 

Guidance issued on July 7 by the TEA allows districts to begin the school year fully online, but beyond those three weeks requires that districts provide students the option of receiving instruction in-person, on-campus. Many teachers and parents have voiced concerns about being required to return to campus.