Campus closures start trending in Central Texas

Surge in coronavirus cases prompts schools to opt for online-only model, district to roll out rapid COVID-19 testing

Attendance+at+McCallum+since+the+school+opened+for+in-person+instruction+on+Oct.+5+has+been+light.+Classes+have+routinely+had+fewer+than+10+students%3B+most+like+Ms.+Cerame%27s+biology+class+shown+here%2C+have+three+or+fewer.

Attendance at McCallum since the school opened for in-person instruction on Oct. 5 has been light. Classes have routinely had fewer than 10 students; most like Ms. Cerame’s biology class shown here, have three or fewer.

As coronavirus cases in the state of Texas continue to rise and Austin enters Stage 4 in case counts, schools in Austin ISD and in neighboring Texas towns are temporarily shutting down in an effort to get cases under control. Schools in Fredericksburg, Round Rock, Llano and even Austin are shutting down campuses.

Due to rising COVID cases in Austin and the transition to Stage 4, AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde informed the community in a letter to AISD families on Friday that the district is considering going 100% remote for the week following Thanksgiving break, Nov. 30-Dec. 4. Elizalde said that more information will come soon, but that students should make sure to bring their devices and supplies home in case they don’t return to campus the week of Nov. 30.

 

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As cases rise in Austin schools, many schools are implementing COVID testing on campus. McCallum administrator Andy Baxa explained that McCallum currently offers limited rapid COVID testing but that the administration is considering offering comprehensive testing in the near future.

“We have started rapid testing,” Baxa said. “Right now it’s on a limited basis, and it’s only for symptomatic individuals. And it’s only for symptomatic people who are attending school on campus… We are looking to possibly expand to asymptomatic testing after the Thanksgiving break.”

Baxa explained that although McCallum has not reached a threshold for positive cases that would warrant a shutdown, the school did take actions regarding athletics following Austin reaching stage 4 in case counts. McCallum coaches and administrators came to the decision that fans will not be allowed to attend indoor McCallum sporting events like basketball games.

On the afternoon of Nov. 10, assistant principal Andy Baxa hangs educational signs intended to teach in-person students how to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus. “There is a little bit more exposure risk when you’re in a school setting,” Baxa said. “Luckily, I feel like we’re following the protocols, and I feel like we are doing everything we can possibly do to maintain the safety of our staff and students while on campus.” (Dave Winter)

“We don’t control the football stadiums, so we don’t have any control over attendance to those events,” Baxa said. “But we felt like we had some control over our indoor events on our campus, so we wanted to take that step.”

Baxa does feel some safety concerns when coming to campus, but he is confident in the protocols being followed by the McCallum community.

“There’s always a concern and a risk factor in the back of your mind every time you leave your house, but there is a little bit more exposure risk when you’re in a school setting,” Baxa said. “Luckily, I still feel like we’re following the protocols, and I feel like we are doing everything we can possibly do to maintain the safety of our staff and students while on campus.”

There’s always a concern and a risk factor in the back of your mind every time you leave your house, but there is a little bit more exposure risk when you’re in a school setting.”

— McCallum administrator Andy Baxa

Austin High School Principal Amy Taylor and AISD Director of Health Services Alexandra Copeland announced in a letter to the Austin High community that the campus would be shut down from Nov. 16-18 to conduct COVID rapid-testing. Drive-through rapid testing was offered from noon to 3 p.m. on Monday, and the results drove the school to reopen for on-campus learning on Thursday and Friday this week.

In another letter to the Austin High community, Taylor and Copeland explained that out of almost 300 rapid tests, only four came back positive.

Austin High junior Elizabeth Hyde is attending school online, but says she has friends who were deterred from attending in-person due to the spiking cases in Austin.

“Most kids that I’m friends with actually quit going on campus right before that was happening because the cases were going up, and they were basically terrified to go back to school for no reason since they didn’t have Wi-Fi or lunch struggles,” Hyde said. “But the shutdown really freaked everyone out.”

Hyde thinks that the decision to return to campus for two days right before break was the wrong call, but understands why Austin High officials chose to do it.

Texas ranks No. 1 in the nation in COVID-19 cases with 1.15 million cases, just ahead of California’s 1.11 million. Source: DOMO.

“I think they should have stayed shut down, but since everything is like, for money for AISD, it doesn’t surprise me that they didn’t shut down for that long,” Hyde said.

West of Austin, Fredericksburg Elementary School, Middle School and High School all shut down on-campus learning for the week of Nov. 16-20 followed by the Thanksgiving break, which will allow for the 14-day incubation period for coronavirus as explained by the CDC to take place and confirm if any students and staff test positive without any exposures at school.

Math teacher and cross-country coach Susan Ashton walks from her classroom to the gym in order to keep the scorebook at the boys basketball game between Mac and Austin High on Friday night. Ashton is carrying a plexiglass shield to minimize contact with players, coaches and referees while she is at at the game. In the varsity game, the visiting Maroons defeated the host Knights, 62-52. (Dave Winter)

Fredericksburg ISD Superintendent Jeffrey Brasher sent out a letter to FISD parents and families on Nov. 13 detailing the transition to remote learning for the three designated schools. Brasher explained that FHS and FMS hit the 2% threshold of positive cases needed to warrant a shutdown, and FES had approximately 21% of faculty and staff in quarantine, leaving the school with a staff shortage. Brasher explained that the district as a whole is experiencing staff shortages as well.

“A number of our substitute teachers have also tested positive or have been quarantined due to having direct contact of an infected individual,” Brasher said. “Campuses have been forced to utilize any and all available staff to cover classes and finding coverage has become more difficult each day.”

Mike Myers is a teacher at Fredericksburg High School and his daughter is a senior there as well. Myers has growing concerns about the safety of his community as cases continue to rise across the nation.

“It’s frightening that we see it across the nation, and as much as I worry about my students, I worry about my coworkers,” Myers said. “And I worry even more about elderly populations like my parents and people like that.”

The United States is suffering more new cases daily in November than in any previous month of the pandemic. Source: DOMO. 

It’s frightening that we see it across the nation, and as much as I worry about my students, I worry about my coworkers.”

— Fredericksburg High School teacher Mike Myers

In addition to being worried about his coworkers’ safety, Myers also worries that teachers and administrators are being overworked by balancing their normal duties with tracking contact and cases and keeping their students safe. 

Myers said that earlier in the year, any student who was within six feet of an infected students for an extended period of time had to be quarantined for a few weeks, but the low infection rates for that group caused the school board to change that policy so that if students were wearing masks, they didn’t have to quarantine after coming into contact with an infected student.

“I see [administrators] go into the classrooms constantly, especially when we were doing the early quarantining where a lot of our students were leaving,” Myers said. “And it would be a constant process of seeing the administrators come into my classroom and other classrooms, pulling students, talking to teachers, saying, ‘I need your seating chart for third period,’ to know exactly where that one student was and who was sitting in proximity to them.”

Myers explained that this aspect of administration during COVID times adds extra stress to the administrators’ jobs and takes up a large amount of their time.

“The administrators, they work tirelessly on this,” Myers said. “I mean, at times I see them and I feel like that is almost the sole thing, I know it’s not, but that’s all I see is them working on quarantining. It was almost like a constant, just the tracing aspect of this within the classroom, which to me was like a logistics nightmare, but it was all-consuming to our administrators.”

 

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On Wednesday, the administration announced it was cancelling the Dec. 4 homecoming parade due to rising numbers of COVID cases and hospitalizations in Travis County. 

Myers said that during this last week, his workload has increased as every student has been working remotely and letting more assignments slip through the cracks.

Friday after school, AV teacher Ken Rogers brought out cart after cart of AV equipment to check out to his film students to use over the break. The checkout is normal procedure, but if the superintendent does decide to shut down the campus for a week, Rogers’ students will have the equipment a bit longer than he originally anticipated. (Dave Winter)

“Now, when everyone’s remote, then it really adds a lot of grade tracking and contact,” Myers said. “I don’t see my kids during the day, so I have to email them, I have to call them, I have to call their parents if they’re falling behind. … I have kids emailing me until 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock at night, and I don’t always answer after about 10 o’clock, but occasionally I might if they’re in a bind. So your workday almost never ends.”

He explained that although his workday is longer with the 100% virtual format, he is glad that the district is being proactive in protecting its students and staff.

“It’s a relief to know that we’re trying to do something,” Myers said. “I think every time we shut down, it’s with the intent of getting back to school as quickly as we can. So it was a little relief to know, ‘Hey, this thing was about to take off, we’re seeing this rise in positive cases,’ and then we’re being proactive about it.”

Also outside the city of Austin, Stony Point High School in Round Rock was temporarily shut down on Tuesday Nov. 17 after nine positive cases on campus on Monday and will remain closed for the rest of the week followed by a deep-clean during Thanksgiving break, according to the Statesman.

In addition, all Llano ISD schools shifted to remote learning from Nov. 17-20 and are scheduled to resume on Monday Nov. 30, according to the LISD website.