AISD Tells Parents, Teachers: Keep Calm and Omicr-On

Amidst classroom outbreaks, in-person learning continues

AISD Headquarters (Photo by Jana Birchum)

It wasn't long after children returned home from the first day of the spring 2022 semester that Austin ISD parents started getting emails from the principals of their kids' schools, confirming the fears of parents who'd hesitated to send their kids back to classrooms amid the Omicron variant surge: Principals confirmed anywhere from a handful to dozens of exposures on their campuses. This shouldn't be shocking: In the last week of winter break, Austin's positivity rate stood above 30%. The district's own testing facilities – which had problems with lines, location closures, and shortages – produced a similar proportion of positive results.

Through the first half-week of school, the district remained committed to updating daily its public COVID-19 dashboard, including case counts and exposures on its campuses, but on Monday, Jan. 10, the district suspended that effort in favor of weekly updates. As of Wednesday, new cases had been reported for 302 students and 95 employees.

Although the Delta variant had threatened back-to-school plans in August and September, AISD's mask policy appeared to be effective, and the district's average daily attendance, the figure used by the Texas Education Agency to determine state funding, hovered in the low 90% range. Gearing up for the return from winter break, AISD touted its low transmission rates to reassure staff and parents that policy had worked, but Omicron threw a wrench in the plan; the spring semester's ADA rates have hovered barely above 80% through the end of last week. However, district spokesperson Christina Peña Nguyen said the district does not feel pressured by TEA to continue offering in-person classes. "We continue to offer vaccinations and require masks," she wrote. "If [Austin Public Health or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] advises school closures, we would consider that option, as we have in the past."

Kealing Middle School science teacher Tania Tasneem knows the district is more or less handcuffed by TEA funding requirements and state and local actions, but she's frustrated by how AISD has managed some issues – mainly the lack of substitutes for already exhausted and burnt-out educators who are now falling ill with the virus at unprecedented rates. In the past week, she said, more than six classes were in the Kealing cafeteria at any given time working on self-paced assignments uploaded online by out-sick teachers. The district has asked parents and other noncertified individuals to step in to help due to a shortage of substitutes.

Tasneem hasn't yet tested positive for the virus, but she's doing what she can to prepare in case she does. Her assignments are already uploaded online, and she's tried to prepare her students for what seems like inevitable absences in the near future. "The bottom line is every kid doesn't have a certified teacher in all of their classes," she said. "Unless we get that under control, learning outcomes are the last of our priorities."

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Austin Independent School District, Austin ISD, COVID-19, Christina Peña Nguyen, Kealing Middle School, Tania Tasneem

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