Local K-12 Educators Look at Ways to Start the School Year as COVID-19 Looms
Put on your thinking cap
Every summer, Geoffrey Carlisle plans hands-on lessons for his newest class of eighth-grade emerging scientists. Usually, the KIPP Austin College Prep teacher plans lessons where his students stand in a circle – to analyze and manipulate 3D fabric models or to learn about gravity while handling bowling balls and marbles. They stand close to each other, discussing what they’re learning.
This summer, planning for such interactive, kinesthetic science lessons in the new school year is nearly impossible. As a pandemic makes the safest places to be those that are inside and isolated from those we're close to, Carlisle explained, "What I'm having to do now is think about how I can give my kids some of those same experiences that are really valuable, but without actually being there personally."
He also has to think about how to build relationships with kids, trying to figure out who they are and what they care about. He's always excited about giving his students the space, vocabulary, and framework for having those discussions about what's important. To help students who are having a rough time this year, Carlisle plans to sit there with them through the screen, listen to them one-on-one, and figure out what they need.
"Building in time for that is important because it used to happen organically at school," Carlisle said. "A kid walks in the room and you could feel the energy on them. Or you'd be in the hall and there'd be some sort of interaction, then you could pull a kid aside or take them to lunch or a planning period to chat with them. That doesn't exist in a virtual learning space." He added that he needs "to be really intentional about planning the time and space for that, so that kids don't fall through the cracks without feeling the support that they have a right to."
School district leaders all over Texas are scrambling to figure out how to plan for virtual learning, and for how long. Elected officials and public health experts are going head-to-head over the safest, most conducive plans for bringing learning back, Meanwhile, on-the-ground educators are left at nearly a standstill. With many school districts all across the nation starting virtually, including in Central Texas, teachers are thinking up ways to start the year as strongly as they can for their students living through an unprecedented crisis.
Big Changes at AISD
Austin school communities have been processing some huge changes that precede the COVID-19 pandemic. There was the lingering pain from the Austin ISD board of trustees' controversial November vote to close four elementary campuses – three serving historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods, and one that was the longest-lived elementary school in Texas. Brooke and Pease closed their school doors permanently at the end of the school year in May; Sims and Metz are being consolidated with other nearby schools, Norman and Sanchez.
Less than three months later, in February, AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz announced his resignation after six years in the top spot (14 years total with the district) to join the UT-Austin College of Education as a part of its Cooperative Superintendency Program in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy (the same program from which he earned a doctorate). Then, before the district and Cruz had even worked out his exit date, COVID-19 hit.
Trustees gave Cruz and the AISD executive team authority to continue to pay employees and to make emergency decisions about such things as online instruction and meal services. Food service employees delivered thousands of meals to students; tech specialists tried to provide devices like Chromebooks to all middle school students and internet access through wi-fi-equipped buses. From March to May, educators tried their hand at educating AISD's 80,000 students virtually, while trustees searched for – and found – Cruz's successor in a largely confidential process that left many calling for greater transparency.
In late July, the board named Stephanie Elizalde, Dallas ISD's chief of school leadership, as the sole finalist (as state law requires) to be AISD's new superintendent; trustees are scheduled to vote Aug. 17 – the day before school starts – to formally hire her. They did not consider Nicole Conley, the district's influential finance and business chief, for the position, which prompted her to announce her departure last weekend (see "AISD’s High-Profile CFO Takes Her Leave").
What the State Says
As all of this was happening internally, AISD, like other Texas districts, has had to negotiate often-changing state mandates about how and when to reopen come fall. At first, the state took a hands-off approach, deferring to local officials. In June, Texas Education Agency officials required the state's public schools to hold in-person classes come fall, but delayed issuing health and safety guidelines for doing so, with Gov. Greg Abbott again saying he'd leave decisions to local leaders.
In mid-July, TEA issued further requirements that schools offer in-person instruction five days per week. Districts were granted a three-week transition period of virtual learning while they strategized on safety but were warned they could lose state funding if they failed to return students to the classroom beyond that. Just days later, after extensive pushback, TEA extended that transition to a minimum of four weeks.
State guidelines (applied after Hurricane Harvey and other pre-COVID disasters) establish an eight-week maximum for virtual learning, after which districts need to apply for a waiver to keep campuses closed. Districts were also given the option of delaying their start dates; AISD trustees are holding a special called meeting today (Thursday, Aug. 6) to consider doing just that, pushing the first day of school until Sept. 8.
While TEA and Abbott both asserted that local district leaders still had control over their plans and schedules, the state has not granted the same deference to the cities, counties, and public health authorities that have emergency powers during the pandemic. Just this past week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance that local health authorities can't mandate indefinite school closures before a COVID-19 case actually occurs on a campus.
The Least Lousy Option
Ken Zarifis, the president of the Education Austin teachers' union, has for months been demanding that AISD delay the start of the school year, but he wants to see more – another nine weeks of online instruction (presumably requiring a TEA waiver), with weekly check-ins to review metrics and trends to determine whether to reopen campuses for in-person learning. Education Austin also wants to make sure employees are paid in full wherever they work, and that classified and hourly employees working in person are paid time-and-a-half.
The union's demands also include offering teachers the choice to stay at home and work virtually, making more use of outdoor campus spaces, and refitting schools' ventilation systems. "We don't have any reason to think that in the next three months, things are going to be great. We are trying to look at how we get through the first semester," Zarifis told the Chronicle.
"You get a natural break of two weeks at the winter break and then integrate back to the school in January. ... There is no good answer, educationally, for our kids right now – not one good answer," Zarifis said. "They're all lousy solutions. So we've estimated [what is] the least lousy of the options, [that] we are not starting for three or four weeks. Teachers will be trained. We would [then] be online for nine weeks."
Zarifis believes threats to withhold funding from districts that want to be more cautious in reopening is racist. "We know for a fact the virus impacts communities of color more," he said. "So why are we going to increase the risk of contraction of the virus [and] force people back into buildings where it's very likely they will contract it? It is a racist demand."
Stephanie Hawley, who has just recently completed her first year as AISD's first equity officer, is having several meetings this week with associate superintendents to discuss how they're implementing her recommendations for serving vulnerable students with the highest needs. She wants to make sure that all students are being taught in a culturally responsive way, especially as more teachers talk about racism with their students amid the ongoing national uprising prompted by the state-sanctioned murders of Black people like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
After the pandemic began, "I recommended that they find the students who did not have access to technology and were relying on paper packets," Hawley said. "Between March and May, toward the end of school, we invest their efforts into finding those students. And I have also recommended that we make sure we provide great support to our teachers to prepare for online learning [that] demonstrates cultural proficiency and inclusiveness, and making sure that we don't retraumatize students. ... [A] lot of teachers are going to do work around social justice."
"You Can't Plan Ahead"
Elementary school literacy instructional coach Hannah Friedman said she wants to get that anti-racism and social justice work right, as a co-founder of Central Texas' Educators in Solidarity group*. She says the group exists both to expand its members' capacity as anti-racist educators and to support Black and brown organizations that have done work around racial equity for a long time.
"It is our nature as teachers to plan ahead," Friedman said. "We think ahead; we like to feel like we have a sense of control over things. Even with the inevitable tasks that come with being a classroom teacher, it's usually chaos that you can predict, especially once you've had a couple years under your belt. You know October is a rough month, because there's no breaks and you're balancing parent conferences. You know what are going to be the more challenging units and projects once you get to know kids."
But in the world of teaching with COVID-19, "all of that has gone out the window," Friedman said. "You can't plan ahead. A lot of teachers work in the summer to get a lot of lesson plans done. We can't do that because we don't know what's happening."
Friedman supports teachers at a predominately Latinx campus in East Austin. She said one positive thing to come out of the crisis is that her campus is even more ready to shift to a positive framework when thinking of students grappling with learning English and Spanish at the same time. Friedman said they want to embrace the idea that bilingual language development – even if a student is having a hard time with English in one area – is an asset the school should tap into. "It's helping teachers feel more empowered to try something new, that they don't have to stick to the same systems that they've always done. We're not [just] looking at Spanish as something that we need to get rid of as fast as possible."
Friedman taught summer school students in June, which helped her try out new approaches. She plans to use Zoom to host several teachers at the same time and to do breakout sessions with kids who need a lesson to be taught to them again differently. One other thing she's thinking about before the school year begins? Making sure teachers understand how COVID-19 is affecting people of different racial groups in different ways.
"Especially [for] white teachers, like myself, being quarantined and staying home ... there are some commonalities with my kids and their families, but we're not experiencing this national pandemic the same way and we have to be prepared for that," Friedman said. "We really have to sharpen our toolkit to be responsive to kids' social-emotional needs, to give kids the space and time to talk about all the things that are important to them or affecting them, not shying away from that or saying, 'Okay, we need to wrap it up and do a lesson on fractions.'
"And that's what I think the beauty of online learning is – that we have a little bit more flexibility. There's going to be 'live' parts of the day that are in synchronous time, and then there's going to be self-paced learning opportunities."
Editor's note: This story has been edited since publication to clarify that Educators in Solidarity is a regional group, not limited to AISD.