Texas teachers call on state leaders to delay school reopenings

By Lara Korte Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas – More than 100 teachers gathered outside the Texas Capitol on Wednesday to urge state education leaders to rethink plans to put teachers and students back in the classroom next month, saying that opening while coronavirus infections remain high will put lives at risk.

Educators lined the sidewalk in front of the Capitol, many wearing school T-shirts and holding signs calling for health and safety to be put first.

Since the Texas Education Agency announced its guidelines to reopen last week, educators across the state have expressed frustration and dismay. The agency will let parents choose between remote or in-person instruction for their students, but teachers were not given the same option.

Also Wednesday, an agency spokesperson confirmed that districts will not lose state funding if local public health officials order schools closed to in-person instruction, as long as schools continue to educate students remotely. That could allow districts to be completely online for the entire semester.

Since the agency announced its original plan, many districts have criticized the guidelines, calling for more local control and flexibility when it comes to reopening.

Earlier this week, Leander district officials sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and state agency officials requesting to offer online-only classes until counties show five or fewer hospitalizations in a seven-day period.

Darcy Vogt Williams, who teaches middle school band in Leander and who organized Wednesday’s sit-in, said she understands the desire to return to the classroom but wants to wait until it’s safe.

“We went into education because we love kids. We love watching the light bulbs turn on, and we miss that,” Vogt Williams said. “But we also don’t want to know that we are putting ourselves at risk and our families at risk, and our extended relationships at risk.”

“Learning should be safe, and teaching should be safe,” she added.

In its original guidance, the state agency said school districts would be able to take the first three weeks of the school year to phase in teachers and students.

The Round Rock school district plans to take those three weeks to teach virtually, saying Monday that it will delay in-person classes to September. On Tuesday, Austin school district leaders said they would do the same, and Austin city officials announced an updated public health order stating that school systems and private schools in Travis County cannot reopen schools for in-person classes until after Sept. 7. The Eanes school district also committed to total online learning for the first three weeks of classes.

At the Capitol on Wednesday, teachers said they’re not convinced that they can keep students or themselves safe from the virus. They raised concerns about social distancing in classrooms, sanitizing common supplies between use, and simply keeping students from interacting or playing with each other.

“To put our kids at risk like this, I think is incredibly irresponsible,” said Liz Love, a middle school band director in the Round Rock district. “It would break my heart into a million pieces if I ever found out that I got a kid sick.”

Eanes district Superintendent Tom Leonard also demonstrated with teachers at the Capitol. Earlier this week, Leonard and other district leaders sent a letter to the state asking for more local control. Without it, he’s not sure he can teach students safely.

“I don’t know how, with our facilities, we can abide by the CDC guidelines.

Mathematically, it just doesn’t work. I can’t triple the number of buildings, and I can’t triple the number of staff,” he said. “I’m not that good.”

The Texas Education Agency did not immediately respond to questions from the American-Statesman about districts’ concerns, but earlier this week, in an interview with Houston’s KTRK-TV, Abbott said he expected TEA Commissioner Mike Morath to give schools more time to conduct classes online during the beginning of the school year.