Abby Burnham, an art teacher at Austin High, wanted to see her elderly parents one last time before she returned to campus and give them a chance to see their grandchildren for the last time until the school year ends. She had received written permission from administrators to work from home on that first day of school and not risk exposing herself – and possibly her parents – to COVID-19 on campus.
Then, at 4pm, Burnham got the email: She had been reported to HR as a no-show, and thus would be docked a sick day. In furious tears, Burnham said, she emailed Austin High Principal Amy Taylor and asked why, since she'd taught online the entire day. The reply: It was required by Austin ISD's central administration, per an email sent well into the school day. Teacher absences that Monday numbered 175; many across the district received the same message.
Now, the district may face legal action. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said the union's legal team would be filing a letter with AISD demanding that the district refund the sick days docked from employees who worked from home that Monday. It is one of the union's many coronavirus-related grievances with the district over accommodations, communications, safety protocols, and social media monitoring.
Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde noted at the Monday, Oct. 12, trustees meeting that she must walk a fine line between union pressures and state requirements. AISD has given 736 accommodations to its 5,500-plus teachers, a rate nearly 20 times higher than that in Dallas or Houston ISDs. In addition, Elizalde said, she'd been told by the Texas Education Agency that the pod model used at most AISD middle and high schools, in which students are monitored by one in-person teacher while taking their classes virtually, would not be funded past November. Thus, after only six positive COVID-19 tests in AISD's first week back on campus, students may have to begin changing classrooms at every AISD school and learning face-to-face with all their teachers in November. This comes with no capacity limits, meaning any student who wishes to come back likely will be able to do so, celebrated as a resounding success by pro-return groups such as AISD Kids First.
A group of parents and students planned a "student sick out" for Wednesday, Oct. 14, where students will not log in to virtual school in a protest and show of solidarity with the teachers. Amy Leigh Shatila, a mother of two AISD students who helped organize the action, said more than 100 had signed up, although Elizalde and Trustee Arati Singh urged parents to reconsider. AISD loses $58 for every absence, Singh noted.
Education Austin had planned a work-from-home action in early October involving nearly 850 teachers, but called it off before the first day back on campus, citing promising discussions with Elizalde. But Zarifis said subsequent negotiations have been "really wildly disappoint[ing]," as the district is still only granting accommodations to teachers who are personally immunocompromised, and not to those with high-risk family members or with child care concerns.
Elizalde told trustees she would look for "some additional creative ways" for principals to adapt, without including specifics. Thus far, although many schools have hit their current maximum 25% capacity, several have seen fewer students return than teachers. On the Monday Burnham spent coaching her jewelry and ceramics students from home, only 47 students showed up at Austin High – along with over 100 teachers, meaning over half of teachers on campus had no students in their rooms. Creative solutions may be coming, but Burnham said she didn't see them Monday.
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