By Scott Thomas
Next school year will “absolutely” look more like a typical year, Austin ISD’s superintendent said at a community meeting Thursday.
“There is no substitution for the majority of our students, they need to be in a face-to-face type environment,” Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde said. “Especially now that so many of our staff have received the vaccine. We will continue to use the CDC guidelines as we move forward, whatever those are at that time.”
The statement came at a session of Conversations with the District, during which families and staff can talk to district administrators and ask tough, pertinent questions about their school communities.
Elizalde also confirmed that a previously announced hybrid option is still up in the air, mostly dependent on if the Texas legislature passes bills allowing school districts to offer remote learning options outside the pandemic.
“Initially TEA said you should plan to offer some virtual options,” Elizalde said. “That’s been reversed, and some legislation is required with very few exceptions[...] If we did offer [a hybrid option], it’d likely be for a very limited number of students.”
Elizalde said the district is closely following two bills in the Texas legislature, one in the House and one in the Senate, that would allow some form of hybrid or remote learning.
She also confirmed that if there is a hybrid option, the district’s goal is to make sure teachers only teach in person or online, and not both at the same time, a practice called concurrent teaching.
“What teachers told us from the beginning, we should have believed them from the beginning, is that was going to be an impossible delivery method,” she said. “I want to be very clear, we will not be asking our teachers to do concurrent teaching.”
Chief of Schools Anthony Mays said if students are required to quarantine after coming into contact with an individual with COVID-19, then the district will offer some form of remote or virtual learning for those students.
“We’re not going to let a student go unserved,” he said.
Student support and social-emotional learning
When asked what resources the district is looking at for the start of the school year, Elizalde emphasized mental-health supports and social-emotional learning.
“We’re looking at dedicated time inside the classroom to provide a conversational environment for our students,” she said. “We’re looking to embed resources through the whole school day so [social-emotional learning is] not something that’s separate.”
Elizalde said there will be specific professional development around these areas as well to further train staff to provide support.
She said there will also be changes to the curriculum that will help students catch up after a year of disruptions, as academics and mental health go hand-in-hand.
“The key to most of this is giving our teachers enough time and giving our leaders enough time to build their plans to respond to those specific needs at individual campuses,” she said. “There are some plans that will be districtwide, but we want to make sure that our campus leaders have the ability to respond to the localized challenges at each campus.”
In the later portions of the evening, questions around how the district is looking to address equity arose.
One area Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley discussed was the newly-formed Equity Advisory Council, which has held its first two monthly meetings.
Hawley said the committee will consist of subcommittees that will focus on community building, financial stewardship, a culture of respect and customer service, teacher and employee wellbeing, student wellbeing, and an equity assessment.
She invited community members, students and families to join these subcommittees to help the district.
“We want to build relations and connections with this committee,” she said. “We don’t want to just come together and complain and look for problems. We want to solve problems.”
Hawley said she is also helping to coordinate equity training for senior administrators and the Board of Trustees.
“Many of you probably know that equity doesn’t work unless there’s transformation in leadership,” she said. “Dr. Elizalde and the board are committed to some of the toughest training there is out there in terms of undoing racism and beyond diversity.”
Hawley said for a year, leadership will participate in training every other month learning about internalized racial oppression, white supremacy, and how they show up in schools.
“The hope is this will translate to the way we lead and communicate and support,” she said.