Inside the Facebook Wars Dividing Thousands of AISD Parents
Who comes first in Austin schools?
"That lazy teacher needs to get back to work. Report them!"
At school campuses throughout the city, students and teachers grappled with the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, switching multiple times a day between virtual and face-to-face instruction, trying to focus on education while holding concerns about their own health. Meanwhile, on Facebook, thousands of Austin ISD parents were watching, and in the AISD Kids First group – oriented toward bringing kids back to campus as soon as possible – they were not happy.
Another member chimed in to support the call to report to the Texas Education Agency those teachers who chose to keep working from home. "Normally that would go against my morals to even think like that, let alone say it," she wrote. "That said – I see NO other way out of this." When screenshots and emails from AISD Kids First were cross-posted to its rival Facebook group, AISD Collaborates, the reaction was fierce and immediate. "It is the MOST 'Karen' email series I have EVER read," one commenter wrote. "What sniveling little brats," another said. "The sense of entitlement is nauseating."
Social networks can be like this, and Facebook has been a venue for Austin's civic dialogue about its schools for years. Before now, those conversations were only part of the story, tempered by in-person public meetings and real-life consultations among different campus communities. Now, that sort of input is unsafe, and AISD's bumpy road to reopening for in-person instruction during the fall semester has largely been hashed out within a small number of large Facebook groups.
The level of conflict has ratcheted up to threats of lost jobs and lawsuits. "Nobody's being swayed, right? Everybody's got their mind made up," Candace Hunter, a mother of two and co-host of the Austin ISD X podcast, said. "These only serve to gather support to pressure the district one way or the other."
Who Wouldn't Put Kids First?
The AISD Kids First and AISD Collaborates groups have each gained thousands of members since their founding early this fall. Despite the increasing level of vitriol they've attained as they argue with each other and with the district, it's notable how much they agree upon.
Both groups, for instance, publicly say that virtual learning should continue to be a fully supported option, while in-person learning is necessary for some students. Both claim to be devoted to supporting students and teachers and want to be spaces for positive discussion and advocacy. But their distinct differences have cast their thousands of members into rival camps that have made their views felt in the current trustee elections, although no formal endorsements have been made by either AISD Kids First or AISD Collaborates.
AISD Kids First was created on Sept. 17, 2020, weeks before the first Austin students returned to in-person classes in October. Groups with similar missions existed at school districts across the country, including other "Kids Firsts" in Central Texas. Within two weeks, the locked group had gained over a thousand members who agreed to advocate for a return to in-person instruction.
Although increasing evidence seems to suggest that kids are at much lower risk for serious COVID infections than adults, children can still spread the disease. That risk of spread is being weighed against the risks to learning; virtual classes appear clearly to be less effective than in-person instruction. The potential educational losses are higher for younger students, English language learners, special education students, and students who lack stable internet access at home.
AISD Kids First moderator Martha Small Dyess, a real estate agent with two children in district schools, said the group began "literally on the back of a napkin" on a Friday night, during a discussion of the struggles of working moms overseeing kids learning from home. However, multiple AKF moderators have no students in the district; Dyess said they are parents who wanted to enroll their children in AISD schools before it became clear that the school year would instead begin at home.
Members of AKF describe it as a grassroots organization, growing solely through word of mouth and through existing Austin social networks. Not everyone believes this, including members of AISD Collaborates, who point to the professions and connections of the group's founders, mostly white West Austinites. Of AKF's six official moderators, two are marketing professionals and one is a lobbyist.
The "Kids First" label also creates confusion; it's a popular advocacy tagline, because who doesn't want to put kids first? But not all "Kids First" groups and campaigns are aligned. Texas' Kids First PAC, which has Dallas and Austin branches, is a prominent example; Amber Walsh, the executive director of Austin Kids First, said her group and the AKF Facebook group are "in no way connected." In late August, President Trump's campaign and the U.S. Department of Education hosted an event entitled "Kids First: Getting America's Children Safely Back to School," but AISD Kids First vehemently denies any kind of national connection.
"There were several Democrats among our founders who were super upset at that allegation, because we have zero political leaning," Shannon Meroney, a lobbyist and group moderator, said. "I didn't even know those groups existed, until somebody said, 'Oh yeah, they're all a bunch of white supremacists that Trump started,' and we're like, what?"
Keeping a Close Watch
Dyess and other moderators say AKF's activism relies more on a well-organized messaging infrastructure than on partisan ties. In order to join, prospective members must promise to "work (write letters, emails, recruit others, and actively engage in efforts) to help this group." Moderators helped members by posting email lists, sample email formats, and "roll calls" compiling experiences with in-person learning at various schools. With 1,300 members, the group has enough of a presence to be influential even without special connections.
But those don't hurt. Meroney wrote in one comment on the AKF page that she'd "briefed" Governor Greg Abbott about the group's mission, and said she'd talked with Cecilia Abbott, whom she knows professionally, about the group's mission. Meroney's website advertises her as a specialist in "developing strategic grassroots campaigns," although she said she had never managed a campaign before this, and she considered her time moderating AKF similar to other pro bono volunteer work.
Whether its influence is organic or a product of powerful connections, AKF's ability to shape debate brings into focus what it actually wants to achieve. The mission statement on Facebook declares: "Safe, in person, face to face instruction led by an in-person teacher in a loving, nurturing classroom environment for all those who want it, NOW." AKF's organizers are tight-lipped about what that demand might mean for teachers who choose to teach from home because of their own health status or that of their families. "That's for bigger minds to figure out," Dyess said.
The group also has a controversial reputation for pointing out perceived violations of TEA's directives at AISD campuses: administrators pushing to keep instruction at their school virtual, teachers asking students not to return in person, or educators teaching over Zoom from within the school building. As AKF has posted chilly emails from teachers or pictures of too-distanced classrooms, it has drawn ire from both other Facebook parent groups and other AISD stakeholders such as Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, who called AISD Kids First "ugly" and its demands "ludicrous" and "selfish."
"There was no consideration for science, no consideration for a worldwide pandemic, no consideration of anybody's feelings, but these privileged folks that just felt it was their right to demand [in-person education]," Zarifis said. "To have their children home was more of an inconvenience to them than the idea of keeping people safe."
The Conflicts at Casis
The friction spilled over from Facebook into real life this fall semester when Sam Tinnon, the beloved principal of West Austin's Casis Elementary, was abruptly and mysteriously placed on administrative leave, and then just as abruptly returned to duty. The district has kept the details of this six-day stretch close to its chest, but the Texas Education Agency wrote in an email (obtained by the Chronicle) that two complaints had been filed "related to on-campus instruction."
AISD Collaborates members suspected AKF involvement, leading to threads that attracted hundreds of comments. The talk got so heated that AISD Trustee Yasmin Wagner, who represents Southwest Austin (not Casis), intervened with a post stating Tinnon's leave was unrelated to the social media discourse.
Weeks later, an AISD Collaborates member obtained through an open records request, and then published, dozens of emails from AKF organizers. Moderator Christina Hayes Allen, who has no connection to Casis, had emailed TEA Commissioner Mike Morath and AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde to request a state investigation into Tinnon's "questionable leadership," and asked for "someone from [district] leadership to step in" at Casis.
Commenters responded by calling for Allen to be fired from her own job; she later posted in AKF that she had a file of people who were "offering to, suggesting people should, or liking/loving a comment where someone suggested violence or vandalism of property belonging to members of this FB group." That drama reached a breaking point for Casis parent Christine Napierkowski. "Casis is a pretty tight-knit community with a lot of really involved parents," she said, "so it is kind of startling when you see people who you're used to walking past in the hallways and joining committees with, having ideas that don't necessarily line up with what you would expect." Napierkowski had been a member of both AISD Kids First and AISD Collaborates; she was removed from AKF shortly after Tinnon was placed on leave.
Napierkowski hesitates to say that AKF members had diverse opinions, "because certainly it's not a diverse community in that group, or even in our area." But earlier in the semester, "when there were people there that had different opinions, I felt like there was discussion there happening, instead of just an echo chamber," she said. "Toward the end of my stay there, differing opinions were not really tolerated."
AISD Kids First organizers responded to the drama by trying to foster an ethos of positivity in the group, and they barred discussion of Principal Tinnon or the situation at Casis. "We hold ourselves to a very high standard of keeping a positive conversation going on," Dyess said. The AKF admins have criticized the AISD Collaborates page for its more lax approach to moderation and management, and Marie LeAnn, the founder of AISD Collaborates, said AKF admins had sent cease-and-desist letters to her and other members.
All told, a lot of energy has been invested in a group that says it doesn't plan to be around permanently. AKF has no plans to start a website or make endorsements in the two trustee run-off elections to be decided Dec. 15 (members informally vouch for Jennifer Littlefield and Leticia Caballero in those races) or become a nonprofit advocacy group. Meroney said, "Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job and not have to do this again in six months."
While the current COVID-19 circumstances are very recent and, hopefully, temporary, the challenges AISD faces now simply exacerbate its existing inequities. Virtual learning is difficult to do well, and it's especially hard for students with special needs, or who are learning English, or who have limited resources. Many of those students are in the same Latinx and Eastern Crescent communities that have been especially devastated by the pandemic.
Yet those families, who simply cannot rely on virtual instruction because of Austin's enduring digital divides, have not been the face of this debate. Candace Hunter, who is Black, said the homogeneity of AKF felt like a red flag to her when it came to advocacy. "Is it really AISD Kids First, knowing ... how our urban school district is made up? Or are we saying, in so many words, AISD White Kids First?"
The fact that this discourse has mostly been happening on the internet already excludes tens of thousands of Austinites, although again that largely mirrors divides that exist in real life. "It is not that we do not care for our children as much as white parents care for their children. We have just been lied to, had our trust broken, and been misled so much by this school district that we have just found other ways," Hunter said. "[Yet] 100% [of] this conversation is not involving Black or brown parents or even poor white parents who don't use social media."
This will make the overheated, extremely online debate – mass calls for teachers' jobs, for administrators' jobs, for all-or-nothing learning – all that much harder to handle when AISD's campus communities re-engage face to face. "One day life will be back to our new normal, and a lot of us will probably have forgotten how contentious things were, but I don't know how everyone will," Napierkowski said. "It's just really going to change the fabric of all of our schools."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article identified Shannon Meroney as a Republican lobbyist and consultant. She in fact identifies as nonpartisan. The Chronicle regrets the error.