AUSTIN, Texas — Austin ISD says hundreds of employees are being asked to quarantine due to confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff members.
The district says that less that 15 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported among AISD employees, but that as a result 578 staff members have been asked to quarantine. These staff members include custodians, transportation, and food services staff.
Ken Zarifis is the president of Education Austin, the union for AISD employees. He said an outbreak like this is proof the state needs to pump the breaks on allowing students and staff back into classrooms in the fall.
"Staff, faculty, and parents that contact us, they're scared," Zarifis said. "School is not even in session. It's not even going right now, and we have these spikes and these closures. What happens when we start bringing even 25 percent of our kids back. It's not a big leap in logic. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out we are definitely going to expose them to risk, illness, and potential death, and we as a union simply won't have it. What we're demanding is you stay home, stay safe, and stay online."
Originally, the district said 28 school sites have been forced to close as well, but later clarified those sites are where the affected staff members typically worked, but didn't necessarily work in the summer. So far, AISD closed down 11 campuses, but only three are still closed.
The concern Zarifis voiced has expanded beyond AISD. Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said he's hearing from parents and teachers from across the state.
"It started before AISD. We saw what happened in Bastrop, with the students. We've seen what happened in other districts the last few weeks, where they brought students in to do summer workouts for athletics, and immediately had to shut everything down. That's the fear we have right now," Candelaria said. "We're hearing it from all corners. Even teachers we've talked to from small town rural Texas who haven't seen much of an outbreak, their fear is because Texas is very mobile. People are crisscrossing the state all the time to get from one place to another."
AISD's outbreak comes exactly a week after Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference he felt it would be safe for students to return to schools in the fall.
On Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency was scheduled to provide an update on back-to-school plans, but delayed the announcement, as the state saw its biggest single day jump in new COVID-19 cases with 5,489 cases. That number has been eclipsed each of the last two days, 5,551 new cases Wednesday, and 5,996 new cases Thursday.
"Right now, with the information we know, we know the only smart thing to do is stay home, stay safe, and stay online," Zarifis said. "What our commissioner and governor have said thus far really is protecting their budgets. It's not protecting their people. It's protecting their budgets. We care for people. They care for budgets. I have no faith in their direction. I have no faith in their decision-making because, so far, it's been about budgets, and not people."
Candelaria worries schools won't be able to participate in the social distancing measures necessary to keep students and staff safe, should schools be reopened in the fall.
"You would need three classrooms to socially distance a classroom of 30 students. How are we going to do that, and who's going to monitor the students in other classrooms? Plus, when students are moving from the classroom to the restroom, who's going to monitor, make sure after students come out there's proper sanitation of all surfaces, and who's going to monitor how many students are there at any one time," Candelaria said. "The worst thing you can do is bring kids in prematurely, as the commissioner and governor are saying we can do, and we have another huge outbreak, and this is not about sending people home. This is people's lives. We are gambling with students' lives. We are gambling with educators' lives, and we shouldn't be in a position to gamble anybody's life away for the sake of trying to reopen a state that's obviously not ready to reopen because of the spikes we're seeing right now."
AISD officials say custodians are attempting to deep clean all campuses in order to open for the fall.
Those teams work together for up to three weeks per campus, and AISD closes buildings if a custodian working on-site exhibits symptoms of COVID-19.
That leads to the entire custodial team quarantining for 14 days, and the closure of the building for 3 days, AISD says.
On the fourth day, another crew then deep cleans the building and the next day, a housekeeping supervisor conducts an inspection.
The district says all team members are asked to quarantine when a staff member on a team tests positive for coronavirus.
Even with advanced sanitation and social distancing measures in place, Zarifis worries students' learning experience will suffer by trying to rush them back into the classroom.
"This is real, when our schools aren't even reopened with kids and large numbers of people, they're being shut down. So, what happens when we get to the school and get 25 percent of our kids? We'll be a rolling shut down all year long, creating complete and utter disruption to the educational process, and jeopardizing the health of our kids, teachers, and staff. It's unacceptable," Zarifis said.
The first day of classes for AISD is August 18.