Austin ISD parents hold discussion on what they want to see in return to school plans
Parents and community leaders at Saturday's roundtable discussion are pleading with Austin ISD to provide more communication on their return to in-person classes plans. (Photo: CBS Austin)

Less than two days after the Austin ISD Board of Trustees voted to push the first day of school from August 18 to September 8, parents and community groups gathered over a Zoom meeting for a roundtable discussion on what plans they want to see from the district when it comes to returning to the classroom.

The meeting was organized by community groups MEASURE, Community Resilience Trust, Austin Latino Coalition, and the City of Austin Equity Office.

"We are here today to address a serious concern about our children's education during this global pandemic," said MEASURE President Meme Styles, one of the event hosts.

During the meeting, which comes exactly one month before the new school start date, parents praised the district for delaying the school year, but said they needed to see concrete plans for the rest of the year.

Under guidelines from the Texas Education Agency - or TEA - the district is allowed to have online classes for up to 8 weeks, as long as it provides an option for students without the necessary technology to take in-person classes. AISD has applied for the waiver to provide online classes for the full 8 weeks.

After these 8 weeks, districts need to provide some form of in-person instruction in order to get fully funded.

Parents and community leaders worry this will cause districts to prematurely bring students back to school, which could disproportionately affect students of color in the same way the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color.

"Today our hope is we support the children on the margin. We don't want them to be further marginalized if we don't get schools right," said Excellence & Advancement Foundation Founder Dr. Courtney Robinson, another host of Saturday's meeting.

Community leaders in the meeting pointed to stats that show people of color are three times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from the virus than white people.

Because of these statistics, teachers said they have been pushing the district to make equity a top priority alongside safety.

"I've been trying to educate them on how reopening would negatively impact people of color and people without needs," said Courtney Perry, a teacher with AISD.

AISD Superintendent finalist Dr. Stephanie Elizalde and district staff listened in on this meeting.

Students and parents let them know the lack of communication on plans has been frustrating.

"My school has been making a bunch of decisions, but not letting the students know or asking us what we need. I think that's something we can help find solutions for," said Francesca Abbruzzese, a student in AISD.

Abbruzzese's mother, Diana Haggerty, said she had to actively reach out to district leaders to get any answers on plans.

"I just started asking people who has these answers. Is it the administrators? Is it our city officials? Is it our trustees? Is it our superintendent? I just started asking the questions and just showing up. I think that has yielded some amazing results," Haggerty said.

Another parent pointed to a recent community meeting with the principal of her child's school, where she was not able to get any specific plans.

"What's hard is there was little content. It was nice to have an opportunity to share our needs, but it's very clear to me our principal does not feel she has the space. She was anticipating getting directives from the vote," said Nikkie Shubitz, a parent of a student in AISD.

One school board member echoed these frustrations of parents and students.

It's something I'm excruciatingly aware of and have been intensely frustrated by the communications that have been coming out. It's something I have been hammering and hammering on, to the point where we, as trustees, have been drafting our own communications the past few weeks," said AISD board member Yasmin Wagner.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden participated in this event. She said her department has been in communication with superintendents in the area, and has been helping build return to school guidance.

"We are putting together a guidance. That document is with all of the superintendents. Our plan is to get that guidance to the community and be a help," said Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden.

AISD leaders also said they would continue working on these plans and improving communications.

"Our plan includes connecting our families to the city and county resources that are needed, and continue our partnership," said AISD Supervisor of Parent Programs Leonor Vargas.

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