About That AISD Waiver

Following backlash, confusion, district will seek TEA waiver to extend virtual learning, phase in classroom instruction after Oct. 5

AISD released an example video depicting what students can expect when campuses reopen for in-person learning. (Image via Austin ISD Facebook)

Last week, a certain four-week waiver – which seemed to have the potential to keep school entirely online until November – was the talk of the Austin Independent School District. The only problem? That waiver didn't exist. At least not in the way some believed it to work.

The confusion can be traced to Sept. 14's AISD Board of Trustees meeting, where District 4 Trustee Kristin Ashy, citing parents' interest, asked Superintendent Steph­anie Elizalde for an update on whether she would apply for a Texas Education Agency waiver that, if granted, would extend virtual learning for four weeks after October 5.

"We would actually have to turn in a waiver, I think, this week" replied Elizalde, "and I have no intention of turning in that waiver right now." Elizalde was "very comfortable," she explained, that if Austin's COVID-19 cases stayed flat, AISD would be ready to return to face-to-face instruction on Oct. 5 with schools capped at 25% capacity. "I have no intention of us not being able to start October 5, and to continue that ramping up as we phase our students in," said Elizalde. (She even cited Austin's current risk-based COVID-19 stage, Stage 3, which technically allows schools to operate at 50% capacity.)

It didn't take long for the backlash (and resulting miscommunication) to ensue. The day after the board meeting, teachers' union Education Austin organized an email-­writing campaign imploring the board to apply for that "Request to Extend the Start of the 2020-2021 School Year Transi­tion Beyond the Four-Week Limit" waiver to protect "the safety of our students, their families, the employees, and our community." More than 1,600 people emailed trustees via the campaign within 36 hours. Ken Zar­i­fis, president of Education Austin, called a press conference on Wednes-day, Sept. 16, where he urged the district to keep most students off campuses and apply for the waiver "to allow for just online instruction" after Oct. 5. In an echo of the board meeting, the application deadline, said Education Austin, was that Friday, Sept. 18.

“Please keep in mind that on October 5, the decision for students to return to face-to-face instruction will remain with parents. We will continue to pro­vide instruction virtually for students who remain at home.”–Superintendent Steph­anie Elizalde

Then, as the Chronicle went to press on Sept. 16, Elizalde announced she would in fact be applying for the waiver. In a message to the AISD community, Elizalde said that while the waiver is (as it turns out) "necessary for our district to implement a phased-in approach as recommended by Austin Public Health," it doesn't permit the continuation of 100% virtual instruction – as some believed to be the case. "Please keep in mind that on October 5, the decision for students to return to face-to-face instruction will remain with parents," she said. "We will continue to provide instruction virtually for students who remain at home."

It's difficult to pinpoint the source of the mix-ups. As the Chronicle previously reported, the board voted in August to seek the TEA waiver that, if granted, would allow for an additional four weeks of remote instruction after the first four weeks of classes. In the wake of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's legal opinion saying local health authorities couldn't preemptively close schools because of the pandemic, the TEA quickly revised its back-to-school guidance: Districts could conduct remote learning for the first four weeks of the school year, but after that, they had to offer some form of in-person instruction; if they wished to extend remote learning beyond those first four weeks, they had to seek a waiver from the TEA or they could risk losing state funding. (According to the waiver, it must be submitted before the end of the first four weeks of school, which would be Oct. 2, not Sept. 18, and must be approved by the board before the superintendent may move forward with the application process.)

For those who didn't follow that riveting drama, AISD's actual back-to-school plan hasn't changed significantly. The district will begin returning to in-person learning on Oct. 5 at up to 25% capacity for two weeks, prioritizing special education students, children of staff, recent immigrants, and the youngest students on each campus. Capacity will then be bumped to up to 50% for the next two weeks. Full back-to-school priorities are available here.

Though parents can choose to keep their students in a completely virtual setting throughout this semester, it's teachers and staff who will have to be back in person on day one of on-campus learning, unless they have approved accommodations – and having a high-risk spouse, children, or family members doesn't necessarily count. In the end, they may be those who suffer most from the waiver that never was.

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