Austin families who opted for distance learning last year will have to return to classrooms in person when school starts on August 17.
The Austin School District on Friday announced plans to send all students back to campus and not offer a distance learning option for the 2021-22 school year.
The District of Austin cited the low number of COVID-19 cases as well as the failure of the legislature to pass Bill 1468, which would have allowed local public schools to count students in apprenticeship programs to distance as part of their registration. School districts are funded based on their daily enrollment count.
Bill became a victim of the walkout by House Democrats to kill a Republican vote bill before the midnight deadline last month.
Austin and 29 other school districts across the state sent a letter to Abbott on Wednesday asking the governor to review the legislation in the special session he has promised to convene this summer to focus on revising the election laws of the ‘State.
“Over the past year, many students have discovered that virtual learning gives them the opportunity to learn and grow in their own way,” the letter said. “To be clear, the vast majority of students are better suited to an in-person environment, but there are thousands of students across the state of Texas who thrive in a virtual environment and we have an obligation to ensure that they receive the best possible education by giving them the choice to receive their learning virtually.
Looking at the COVID-19 numbers
In the letter to Austin families, district officials tried to reassure families that their children would be safe inside schools.
“By following guidelines from Austin Public Health, the CDC and more, we are confident that we can safely reopen to all of our students,” said Chief of Schools Anthony Mays.
Austin and Travis County have moved to stage 2 of five for COVID-19 risk. As of Thursday, there were 41 new cases in Travis County. During the winter wave, Travis County saw more than 1,000 new cases per day.
Currently, 70 people are hospitalized in the Austin metropolitan area with COVID-19 after seven new admissions on Thursday. In January, more than 90 new patients on average were hospitalized each day with COVID-19.
Much of this decline in cases and hospitalizations can be attributed to vaccinations. In Travis County, 51% of people are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Adolescents aged 16 and over can be vaccinated since mid-March. Adolescents aged 12 to 15 can be vaccinated since mid-May.
But all children under 12 will start next school year without being vaccinated against COVID-19. Currently, Pfizer is undergoing clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines for children aged 6 months to 11 years. The results of these clinical trials are not expected to be released until the fall, which could then allow Pfizer to seek emergency use authorization for the vaccine in children.
This fall, when students return to campus, wearing a mask will be optional. Governor Abbott issued an executive order on May 18 prohibiting school districts and other government institutions from requiring a mask.
For this reason, as of summer school, the Austin District has not required, but still strongly encourages, its students to wear masks.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that unvaccinated people wear a mask indoors in public places.
Bring students back to campus
Austin finished the school year with 63.5% of elementary students, 34.5% of middle school students and 9.16% of high school students attending the school on campus.
Returning to campus, Mays said, “will be a big change for our students.… We are committed to doing everything possible to help them in this regard. We are preparing our counselors, school mental health centers, teachers and more to make sure our students feel safe from the opening bell until leaving for school at the end of the day.
Some virtual learning will continue. The District of Austin is using virtual classes to collect credit for high school students. Some juniors and seniors at risk of dropping out finish school thanks to its virtual school program.