To thwart COVID-19, AISD extends spring break as it plans to transition to distance learning

Dr. Cruz buys time by having students out of school through April 3; Gov. Abbott waives STAAR requirement

It+may+be+hard+to+believe%2C+but+this+was+Ms.+Baughmans+forensics+classroom+before+the+custodians+gave+the+room+the+deep+clean.++The+rooms+will+stay+like+this+for+a+while+longer+than+usual+after+Austin+ISD+superintendent+Dr.+Paul+Cruz+announced+today+that+he+was+extending+spring+break+for+students+through+April+3+to+minimize+the+risk+of+exposure+to+the+coronavirus+and+to+comply+with+Mayor+Steve+Adlers+order+to+prohibit+gatherings+of+250+or+more+through+May+1.+Photo+by+Elise+Baughman.

Elise Baughman

It may be hard to believe, but this was Ms. Baughman’s forensics classroom before the custodians gave the room the deep clean. The rooms will stay like this for a while longer than usual after Austin ISD superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz announced today that he was extending spring break for students through April 3 to minimize the risk of exposure to the coronavirus and to comply with Mayor Steve Adler’s order to prohibit gatherings of 250 or more through May 1. Photo by Elise Baughman.

Samantha Powers, staff reporter

If it weren’t for a global pandemic that caused today’s school news, it might have seemed like a utopia for McCallum students.

In a three-hour span today, students learned that the governor was waiving the requirement that students take the dreaded State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests for the 2019-2020 school year only to find out soon afterward that Austin ISD school superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz was extending the students’ spring break two more weeks until April 3 while teachers prepare to conduct classes in a distance learning environment.

I have faith that people can find ways to have fun and be happy while social distancing.”

— junior Jay Mathias

“This would be fun if everything else wasn’t closed too,” junior Nick Lowe replied to the news on the MacJournalism Instagram account.

His witty cynicism was followed by comments from many students anxious about the months that lie ahead, what the quality and nature of instruction will be and whether or not the school year will have to be extended in order to account for the two weeks of time that will be lost this month. All of these concerns are shared by the greater district community, but one thing is for sure: we have three weeks to figure it out.

In order to minimize the risk of student and staff exposure to COVID-19, Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz announced today in an email to the district that Austin ISD classes are canceled for students only from March 23 through April 3. During that time, Austin ISD faculty and staff will operate a modified workweek. Cruz said that this break should provide adequate planning time to transition to distance learning for students and telework for staff. 

McCallum principal Brandi Hosack anticipated this development last Thursday and told MacJournalism she was confident that McCallum could manage the tranisition to distance learning now that it has to do so.

I think as a campus we are very capable [of transitioning to distance learning], but it will require all hands on deck. Both teachers and students will have to be open to asking for help, giving each other feedback, and prepared for things to not always work as planned.”

— Elise Baughman, forensics teacher and Campus Innovation Connector

“I think high schools are well-suited for [a transition to online school] because we already have laptops, and we already have Blend,” Hosack said. “We’re set up for it, but it wouldn’t have as near the impact that coming to school with real instruction has.”

Reached today via Twitter, Elise Baughman, the Campus Innovation Connector at McCallum as well as the 2020 McCallum teacher of the year, said the road ahead will be tough but that the McCallum community can overcome the challenge together.

“It will definitely be a challenge,” Baughman said. “Not just for the technical aspects, but because it will be a shift in how we teach and how students learn. As far as capability, I think as a campus we are very capable, but it will require all hands on deck. Both teachers and students will have to be open to asking for help, giving each other feedback, and prepared for things to not always work as planned.”

In an email to the McCallum faculty after the Cruz announcement today, McCallum principal Brandi Hosack said she did not have any information beyond the Cruz announcement but that she would find out more during a Thursday conference call to discuss next steps. 

She urged that faculty not to stress about the remainder of the school year but rather to relax and enjoy their spring break. 

“You are currently on spring break,” Hosack told the faculty in the email. “I expect you to relax as much as possible and enjoy your time AWAY from work. …  Please try your best to not stress about the next phase. … Take care of yourself and your family. … We will get through this together.”

Hosack told MacJournalism that it had not been determined yet how the extension would affect the end of the school year.  

We contacted the AISD Communication Office via Twitter to ask if the end of the school year would be affected but they have yet to respond to our request for comment.

[Seniors] are so close [to graduation] and should be thinking about finishing the year strong and having fun with our friends, but everyone is just fearful of the unknown right now.”

— senior class president Amelia Paul

Cruz said the City of Austin’s order to prohibit the gathering of 250 people or more makes the traditional education model infeasible. This is why the district will transition to a distance learning environment, for which staff can expect further instructions from their immediate supervisor. 

“Austin ISD is known for innovation and our coordinated response to provide for the continuity of education in the midst of this pandemic is no exception,” Cruz wrote in his letter to AISD personnel.

Cruz said that the return to school will depend on updates on restrictions as well as the success of the transition to remote learning. It is unclear yet how this will affect AP testing and graduation, but Cruz advises that families stay tuned for updates to come.

During the extended spring break, Austin ISD will continue to provide free meals for students Monday through Friday at a 14 sites throughout the city. The list of sites can be viewed here. In addition, Austin ISD employees will continue to be paid during the closure.

As if all this news wasn’t enough, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced at 9 a.m. today he was waiving State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness testing requirements for the 2019-2020 school year and further that he was requesting that the U.S. Department of Education waive federal testing requirements for 2019-2020. He also said he is working with the Texas Education Agency to deliver instruction to all students while schools are closed across the state. 

Abbott said the STAAR decision was based on putting a priority on public health over other issues at this time.

“It actually makes me very happy,” said freshman Camie Brown, who would have taken the English 1 and biology STAAR tests this school year. “We now get a chance to relax a little bit as we move into the end of the school year. It gives us and our teachers a chance to really review what we never understood and to be taught not just what the test might ask us.” 

“I am very happy because I feel like most of us were unprepared for the history STAAR,” said junior Nick Lowe, who added that in his On-Ramps U.S. History course, the lost two weeks are particularly vexing because students have to read several chapters ahead and keep up with assigned in-class questions.

If we do not slow the spread [of the coronavirus], we will overwhelm the health-care system (in the same way we are overwhelming grocery stores), and people won’t be able to get help for regular emergencies.”

— junior Eli Turner

Fellow junior Jay Mathias said he also felt good about Gov. Abbott’s announcement, offering a more blanket statement regarding the waived STAAR requirement: “STAAR tests shouldn’t exist in the first place.”

Sophomore Marios Petropoulos, who now won’t have to worry about the English 2 STAAR test, agreed with Mathias’ admonition against the STAAR. 

“I feel great because I’m not the best at essays and the whole comprehension stuff,” Petropoulos said.

Senior Lucy Smith wasn’t even scheduled to take a STAAR test but she still had a strong opinion about Abbott’s decision.

“I’m honestly not surprised. It seems like the right thing to do,” said Smith, who has several junior friends who were due to take the U.S. History STAAR. “I feel like since we aren’t even having school for the next two weeks, we wouldn’t have enough time to prepare for STAAR in the first place.”

Math teacher Daniel Vega said the loss of the STAAR exam was no big deal.

“It doesn’t really affect what I’m teaching,” said Vega, who prepares students for the algebra STAAR test in his strategic learning for high school math class. “I don’t think [not having the STAAR exam] matters that much. We have finals that cover the same material.”

Sophomore Lewis Baker wondered if the STAAR cancellation would have any bearing on College Board testing policies. So far, the College Board is sticking to its AP testing schedule.

The College Board did, however, cancel the administration of the SAT on May 2. The College Board promised refunds for any testers facing cancellation on the College Board website. There is another SAT that is still scheduled for June 6. The board also promised that more information will be announced on March 20. 

College Board is exploring the possibility of at-home AP testing. Sophomore Bobby Currie expressed his concerns for the procedure of at-home testing like this.

“I just feel there are a lot more opportunities for academic dishonesty,” Currie said.

While many students thought about the validity of the standardized tests, their shortened preparation time and their altered administration process, junior Eli Turner thought only of the rationale behind their being waived.

“It’s necessary,” she said. “If we do not slow the spread [of the coronavirus], we will overwhelm the health-care system (in the same way we are overwhelming grocery stores), and people won’t be able to get help for regular emergencies.”

Sophomore John Hamlet agrees that if the proper precautions aren’t taken now, the future effects could be catastrophic. 

“We would be in a total lockdown,” Hamlet said. “The economy would plummet, hospitals would be overrun, and the uninsured and poor would be the most vulnerable since they live in poor conditions and can not afford medical care. That’s why it’s so important to take these precautions now and avoid mass panic.”

If they make [the school cancellation] too long, it could hurt the students. … For some students, school is a way to escape possible rough situations at home, so feeling trapped in a hostile environment isn’t the best.”

— senior Sam Buford

Other McCallum students are concerned about future ramifications of the quarantine closer to home. School events like prom are up in the air as the students await a decision from district officials. In addition, students have three weeks of time to kill at home.

As senior Sam Buford points out, three weeks stuck at home could be potentially harmful to the mental health of some students.

“If they make [the school cancellation] too long, it could hurt the students,” Buford said. “Some concerns are, for some students, school is a way to escape possible rough situations at home, so feeling trapped in a hostile environment isn’t the best.”

Currie agrees with Buford’s sentiment, saying that he’s already facing some of that pressure from being stuck at home.

“I’m just concerned for the mental health of us students,” Currie said. “Because being trapped inside for three weeks is killing me.”

Mathias, although disappointed by the changes to his lifestyle, sees a bright side to the situation.

“Corona stinks because my band can’t practice, and I can’t spend spring break how I want to, but I’m not very worried about it,” Mathias said. “I have faith that people can find ways to have fun and be happy while social distancing. I’ll just put on music or play video games or write songs all day, and I’ll be just fine.”

He said social isolation doesn’t necessarily have to be indoors.

“It’s not like you have to stay inside,” Mathias said. “There are tons for parks and trails you can go to and not be in close proximity with others.”

Although the three-week quarantine happening at the moment is at the forefront of some students’ minds, there are other things to consider going further into the future. Many seniors expressed concerns about the prom potentially being canceled.

Senior Amelia Paul, the senior class president, is on the planning committee for prom. She expressed empathy for her fellow seniors and their disappointment about such an important era for them being disrupted.

“For prom, we are just playing it by ear and waiting to hear a final decision from the administration,” Paul said. “I think this really stinks for the seniors because we are so close [to graduation] and should be thinking about finishing the year strong and having fun with our friends, but everyone is just fearful of the unknown right now.”

Senior and student body president Mira MacLaurin, also on the planning committee, understands the cancellations but is disappointed by the disruption they make to her senior year.

“It’s frustrating that we were planning [prom] just the other week and now it’s pretty much completely out of our hands,” MacLaurin said. “But I also know that this is a serious situation we underestimated earlier, and all these cancellations, no matter how last-minute, are necessary for the safety of everyone at our school. … The timing of this is pretty rough. We are so close to so many milestones that every student associates with their senior year. We’ve all been working towards it for four years, and it’s heartbreaking to potentially lose that.”

 

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BREAKING NEWS: The @macyouthdanceco directors announced the cancellation of their spring concert in an email sent today to McCallum dance families. The email reads, “Out of love and concern for our McCallum community, and the community-at-large, and at the recommendation of principal Brandi Hosack to cancel or postpone large student gatherings, we are cancelling our spring concert, “2020: A Space Odyssey,” with the hope of rescheduling. All other dance program related events are also on hold as we await further decisions from our school and community leaders.” The directors also said they were committed to sharing the work of the dancers, guest choreographers and parent volunteers at an undetermined date in the future. “We are actively working in collaboration with the McCallum administration on solutions and strategies to manage the threat of COVID-19 within our school program,” the directors wrote. #MACdance #MACfinearts @macfinearts

A post shared by McCallum Journalism (@macjournalism) on

Another event that was exciting to many of the seniors has already been canceled: the McCallum Youth Dance Company spring show, “2020: A Space Odyssey.” The dance directors announced the cancellation in an email to McCallum dance families on Sunday.

“Out of love and concern for our McCallum community, and the community-at-large, and at the recommendation of principal Brandi Hosack to cancel or postpone large student gatherings, we are canceling our spring concert, ‘2020: A Space Odyssey,’ with the hope of rescheduling,” the directors said in the email. “All other dance program related events are also on hold as we await further decisions from our school and community leaders.”

Other dance program-related activities include the student-directed show, which is directed by seniors Paul, Lilly Brown and Mary Roe. Now that “2020: A Space Odyssey” has been canceled, the student-directed show is up in the air. 

The timing of this is pretty rough. We are so close to so many milestones that every student associates with their senior year. We’ve all been working towards it for four years, and it’s heartbreaking to potentially lose that.”

— student body president Mira MacLaurin

Paul is disappointed by the cancellation, and she fears the results of more cancellations. She sympathizes with other seniors who were hoping to close out four years of hard work with this show.

“I am heartbroken over the fact that the dance show has been canceled,” Paul said. “Everyone in the dance program has put so much time into this show… but now it’s all up in the air. Right now, I have no idea how this affects the other shows like the Blue Brigade [spring show] and [the] student-directed show, but it just stinks that the hard work that a lot of people have put into their majors will not be put on display this year, especially the seniors who have put their all into it for four years now.”

Brown is also disappointed by the news, but she feels optimistic about continuing to create in the future.

“I am very disappointed [the dance show] has been postponed because we have put a lot of time and effort in preparing for the show. … Being my senior year and having looked forward to this show throughout high school, it’s hard to accept that it is being postponed. However, it gives us all more time to enjoy, create and honor what will be a great dance spring show in the near future!”

The dance directors also expressed hope that the dance show is not canceled entirely; they intend to put on the show sometime in the future. 

“It is important to us that everyone know that we are committed to honoring the excellent work of our youth dancers, guest choreographers, and parent volunteers,” the directors told families in the email. “We have every intention to present ‘2020: A Space Odyssey’ in some capacity in the future.”

And so, McCallum Youth Dance Company patrons, standardized testing opponents, introverts and others, stay tuned for updates about how the coronavirus is affecting the McCallum community. Until then, continue to stay healthy and safe.

— with reporting by Grace Nugent, Elisha Scott, Mia Terminella and Dave Winter