AISD Will Resume Classes in August, but What Will They Look Like?

District mulls “blended approach” to reopening schools, schedules virtual conversations with parents, students, and staff

Photo by Jana Birchum

The Austin Independent School District is staying the course for starting a new school year on Aug. 18 – but it's unclear what that will look like amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The district is considering a "blended approach" for the 2020-21 school year, among other options, according to a presentation before the AISD board of trustees earlier this week. Outgoing Superintendent Paul Cruz said if the district were to resume in-person classes, then it would need to consider how social distancing and safety guidelines might limit capacity. For example, the district's regular 22-1 student-to-­teacher ratio might be reduced to 6-8 students due to social distancing and available classroom space. And the district's school buses – which normally transport 23,000 students a day – could be reduced from 60 per bus to 12-14 students.

The "blended approach" is one of several options that the district's "re-entry task force" assessed in possible scenarios for reopening schools; others included a delayed start on Sept. 22. The district's Lisa Bush said the task force deemed a blended calendar the "most viable option" for school reopenings, with "wide agreement" that the school year should start on time with virtual learning options. The approach, according to Bush, would include more intersessional breaks throughout the year – as recommended by the Texas Education Agency to account for increased instruction time or a possible case surge in the fall – as well as the ability for the district to pivot to virtual learning. The district will facilitate virtual "Conversation Circles" June 8-14 for families and teachers to express their thoughts and concerns about school reopenings. "Again, we're collaborating with equity and community engagement parent support specialist teams to ensure we're hearing from all voices," said Bush.

Still, some trustees raised questions about how the district plans to meet the needs of the most vulnerable students. "Are we prioritizing our special ed populations as we do our planning in terms of returning our students to school, to a physical location? Because many of our special ed students require a lot of one-on-one attention," said District 3 Trustee Ann Teich. According to Cruz, the district's in the process of reviewing the Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that guide services for each student with special needs; when the district can't meet a student's IEP due to social distancing situations, said Cruz, then it's documented with the intention to address it further on – exactly how and when, however, is open-ended. "It's not going to be one-size-fits-all; it's going to be very much defined by the individual needs of the students, but we're quite honestly still working through how we're going to work with all special education students," said Cruz.

Also in the works is AISD's 2020-25 Strategic Plan. Trus­tees debated possible revisions to the exact language in the plan's framework, including its "Educational Equity" value. District 7 Trustee Yasmin Wagner wondered if the language needed to be more explicit in its definition of equity. Arati Singh, on the other hand, wondered if "it might be actually more effective if maybe as a separate exercise [we] think about how we could apply an equity lens to our scorecard" – the metrics and performance indicators for measuring the plan's progress.

"I feel like this is a good starting point for us to support the mission and the vision, and I feel like it is going to go even deeper than we can possibly imagine," said District 4 Trustee Kristin Ashy. "As we continue to implement, it will be better defined and [give] the opportunity for all representatives, all trustees, to make sure as we are making decisions that we are applying the value of equity."

Conversation Circles Schedule

AISD will host a series of virtual Conversation Circles to discuss and get feedback on school reopenings. Each session will include a short presentation followed by one-hour conversations in small groups. The meeting will conclude with a 15-minute facilitated question and answer session with academic leadership. Multiple languages available upon request.

Participants can log in to the meeting via Zoom (meeting ID: 928 4720 8844, password: AISD) or join by phone: 346/248-7799.

Mon., June 8, noon-1:30pm: Intended Audience – Teachers & Staff (English language)

Tue., June 9, noon-1:30pm: Intended Audience – Parents & Families (English language)

Tue., June 9, 6-7:30pm: Intended Audience – Parents & Families (Spanish language)

Wed., June 10, 10-11:30am: Intended Audience – Parents & Families (Spanish language)

Wed., June 10, 6-7:30pm: Intended Audience – Teachers & Staff (Spanish language)

Thu., June 11, 2-3:30pm: Intended Audience – Students (English, with Spanish interpretation)

Thu., June 11, 6-7:30pm: Intended Audience – Parents & Families; special education focus (English, with Spanish interpretation)

Sat., June 13, 11:30am-1pm: Intended Audience – Parents & Families (Spanish, with English interpretation; multiple languages available upon request)

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Austin ISD, COVID-19, AISD board of trustees, blended approach, Texas Education Agency, Lisa Bush, Yasmin Wagner, Arati Singh, Ann Teich, Kristin Ashy, Paul Cruz

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